How migrant Filipinos make their voice heard in Hong Kong's civic affairs

Jan Yumul, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 10 2019 11:20 PM | Updated as of Dec 10 2019 11:38 PM

HONG KONG - When long-time Hong Kong resident Bishop Gerry Vallo of Jesus the Living God Church cast his ballot on November 24, he did it, not for himself.

"Kasi yung mga anak namin dito ipinanganak or born in Hong Kong," Bishop Vallo told ABS-CBN News. "It's our suffrage right na talagang dapat mong bigyan ng pansin sapagkat bukas ng kabataan ang nakasalalay dito."

(Because our kids were born in Hong Kong. It's our right that we really have to give attention to as the future of our children are at stake here.)

The religious leader, a father of five, is an active voter both in the Philippine and the Hong Kong elections. 

He makes sure he fulfills his civic duty by exercising his right to vote, especially as an ethnic minority in a predominantly ethnic Han Chinese community. 

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He was visibly ecstatic to share that his District Councilor of choice, Fong Lung-fei from political group Power for Democracy, had won in Yat Tung, Tung Chung. 

A large part of Bishop Vallo's active involvement in the Philippine-Hong Kong affairs that intertwine can be attributed to the concerns stemming mostly from the JLGHK congregation, a church reliant on its largely overseas Filipino workers who are mostly domestic helpers in Hong Kong. 

Bishop Vallo has been active in assisting OFWs with court cases, as well as immigration and labor issues, helping them, in his words, "to fight according to their enshrined rights of the law of the land".

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There are 18 districts in Hong Kong and all 452 seats were contested for the first time. Unlike the Chief Executive election where a Beijing-backed leader is elected via an election committee of 1,194 members, the post-1997 handover "one country, two systems" government allows Hong Kong citizens to directly vote for their district councilors. 

This recently concluded district elections, which saw voter registration surge to 4.13 million and had a record turnout of more than 2.7 million people, was also widely seen as a referendum or barometer of the anti-government demonstrations, which has spurred to one of the most violent political crisis that has rocked the city in recent years. 

When the final election results came through at lunch time on November 25, 347 pan-democrats, which included mostly pro-democracy independent candidates, won in 17 out 18 districts in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the sweeping defeat of pro-establishment camps was left with 60 seats.

So what is the Filipino's stake in the Hong Kong affairs?

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For Jan Gube, a post-doctoral Fellow of the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at The Education University of Hong Kong, the issue has something to do with identity.

"But whether it's only about identity is still debatable. And I say this because when we talk about identity, it involves to what extent you feel connected to Hong Kong and whether you feel strongly as a Hong Konger or whether you see yourself more of an outsider," said Gube.

When the protests began, he says, it seemed to have given people an impression that it's just about or for Hong Kong Chinese people, leaving the ethnic minorities 'kind of outside', but they're part of the movement. Especially those who feel strongly connected to Hong Kong.

"They know they're part of that but their voices aren't heard that much when the protests began until after the Jimmy Sham incident happened," said Gube.

Sham is the convener of the Civil Human Rights Front whose group has been responsible for some of the biggest rallies in Hong Kong in recent years. Though much of the protests movements have been without a specific leader. Local media reported Sham was attacked with hammers by at least four non-ethnic Chinese suspects in Mong Kok in October. 

Various sectors of society, including Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, condemned the attack on Sham with anti-racism advocates appealing to public not use race to sow further division and fueling anger in Hong Kong society. Sham also released a statement saying the attack had nothing to do with ethnicity, race or skin color. Sham could not also identify the ethnicity of his assailants. 

In the course of almost six months, only one Filipino has been arrested and charged with taking part in an unlawful assembly in August. But the government withdrew its case against Jethro Pioquinto, a dancer in Hong Kong Disneyland, earlier this week. No reasons were given. 

For Filipino domestic workers who may have been living in Hong Kong for as long as a permanent resident has, particularly those with no fewer than seven years' stay here - a status that is not granted to them by law in their condition of stay - the issues extend beyond how they identify themselves, too. 

"I think for a fact we know that at some point, they will leave Hong Kong. No matter how long they've been working in Hong Kong, they'll still leave Hong Kong. So, to many of them, maybe Hong Kong is not necessarily their home in that a sense to what (a) Hong Kong Filipino youth would really look at it. So perhaps the recent protests might not connect with them in a deeper level," said Gube. "Their personal safety is of concern or maybe sense of connectedness is not there."

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Many perceive foreign domestic workers as 'outsiders' in Hong Kong's domestic affairs. Their conditions of stay prevent them from being part of the domestic affairs they are very much wired in, most notably for helping employers keep their homes intact. 

The protests have largely kept helpers out of the picture, but their lives have been equally and gravely impacted by the movement. So how does one work around a more inclusive dialogue if their situation already begrudges them of self-identity and expression, technically living in Hong Kong?

"We need to think in broader terms about who belongs and cannot limit our perspective simply by looking at superficial identities. Instead, we need to look at connection with Hong Kong, the impact that ongoing issues have on them and use that as a metric to determine they should have a voice at the table, too," Puja Kapai, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong, told ABS-CBN News.

Kapai was part of a recently held forum "Ways forward: Let's talk and listen" organized by The Forward Alliance and held in Wanchai.

There are an estimated 7.4 million people in Hong Kong and around half a million or 8 percent are ethnic minorities. The 2016 by-population census reported that a majority of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong were Filipinos, followed by Indonesians. Most of them are foreign domestic workers. Other ethnic groups were South Asians, mixed, and Caucasians.

According to the Philippine Consulate, as of October 2019, there were 238,000 Filipinos in Hong Kong and 219,000 are domestic workers. Almost 20,000 of them are Filipinos with permanent resident status.

For Bishop Vallo, this year's elections was a special experience. He praised the simplicity of the manual process, and because he is active in Philippine elections, a comparison was inevitable.

"Sa atin, too much legalistic...mga abogado, everything. Dito simple lang. Within 5 hours, 3 hours, manual pa yun na bilangan. In front of the public pero nagagawa nilang bilangin nang maayos, lantaran, open yung balota mo, makikita yung picture ng mga kandidato. Talagang makikita mo dun na transparent," said Bishop Vallo. "Talagang tiyak na makikita mo na saka yung kandidato on the spot, nag bo-bow (out) talaga," he added.

(There are too much legalities in the Philippines, with the lawyers and everything. Here, it's simple. Within five hours, three hours, the vote counts are manual. In front of the public, they are able to properly count votes. You will really see transparency. You'll also see candidates bowing out of defeat on the spot.)

He was also pleased with the results, no matter which side of the political spectrum people were on. 

"Talagang nadama natin ngayon, nagising ang mga kasama natin dito sa Hong Kong na lumabas. Yung sinasabing tahimik, yung mga silent majority, lumabas. Pero nakita naman natin yung resulta. Buong mundo, nasaksihan na sinabi nila ang damdamin nila," said Bishop Gerry.

(We really feel now that our fellow Hongkongers have awakened and went out to vote, the ones who were being called silent majority voted. But we've seen the results, the whole world was a witness to what Hong Kong people really feel.)

He also said that in his more than 26 years in Hong Kong, he has never seen "the worst rally", but all in all, he was impressed and amazed with the people's love for Hong Kong. 

"Wow, extreme na pagmamahal sa bayan. Nabagamat meron silang problema, isinantabi muna. Pinakita nila na karapatan nila ngayon na mag-decide para sa kinabukasan ng Hong Kong, no. So amazing, amazing. Amazing ang mga tao dito," he said.

(Wow, an extreme love for the city. That even though they have problems, they've set that aside. They've showed that they have the right to decide for the future of Hong Kong. So it's amazing. People here are amazing.)

JB Julve was among many who trooped to the polling stations on November 24. Julve, who is also active in Philippine elections, made sure his voice was again heard in Hong Kong in the elections.

"Talagang nakakatuwa dahil kinukwestyon na ng current administration yung sentiment ng tao. Hindi sila naniniwala na sabihin natin yung programa nilang inilalabas eh sinasabi nilang sinusuportahan ng silent majority," said Julve. 

"Pero ngayon makikitang with the vote, hindi talaga sang-ayon ang majority ng mga taga-Hong Kong dito," he added.

(The results are overwhelming because the current administration is now questioning the sentiment of the people. They didn't believe that the silent majority would not support their programs and platforms.)

Julve, who is married and has a teenage son, sees Hong Kong as a beautiful place, calling it a "blessed" city. 

He said though it has a negative image wherein all people do is work for money, he hopes fellow Hong Kongers can still see the beauty of it. 

He lucky enough to get a property, through the ballot system, with the Hong Kong government's Home Ownership Scheme wherein flats are sold at affordable rates below market value.

He said owning a house in Hong Kong further cements his connections with the former British colony. He shares a different view from those who do not think Filipinos have a stake in the city.

"Maaaring ganoon nga yung feeling ng iba nating kababayan kasi pwede silang umuwi lang sa Pilipinas kahit kailan. Pero hope ko rin, bigyan nila ng boses din yung Hong Kong kasi kung tutuusin sanay tayo ng pagiging malaya eh. Bumoboto tayo dun. Dito talagang hindi mo sasabi yon..Limited yung kanilang expression eh. Ang hope ko lang talaga, ukulan din nila ng oras na maging involved sa nangyayari sa Hong Kong," said Julve.

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Hong Kong's wheelchair-bound District Councilor Yip Wing of Chung On, Shatin District, also a pro-democracy candidate, happened to pass by during the interview with Julve.

The PWD (people with disabilities) District Councilor shares with ABS-CBN News (with the help of his assistant, Eric, a university student, for English translation) how honored he is to be Hong Kong's first District Councilor with physical disabilities, and is thankful for his recent victory, which began in 2015, his foray into local office.

He was congratulated by Julve who chatted with the councilor as if they had known each other for some time. He said he was also happy to see foreigners living in Hong Kong cast their ballots.

Three Filipinos in Hong Kong, meanwhile, shared why they initially joined the million-people march and protests. They asked their names to be withheld for safety concerns.

"The only thing that bothers me the most is, the Filipinos' comments... or have some things to say like wag tayong makialam or it's none of our business," said RD. "If you live here, it's basically... this is our home. We have more at stake here than whatever is happening in Philippines at the moment because this is our livelihood in Hong Kong."

RD was born in the Philippines, but grew up in Hong Kong and can speak fluent Cantonese. His family is also based in Hong Kong. 

Though RD does not agree with everything the protesters are doing, especially with vandalism and setting things on fire, he said he understands why the protesters are doing it and hopes fellow Filipinos can understand the five demands. But he has taken a step back when things turned rapidly violent.

RD and his friends said they were compelled to join protests, stemming from their active participation in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution.

"We joined the 2 million march because we still had faith in the government. Because we had faith that they would listen and if probably optimistically thinking, if the government saw 2 million people asking for the same thing, we would be heard. But we were ignored," said RD.

He also said they've stopped joining the protests because their voices were falling on deaf ears. 

"And unfortunately, we are Filipinos as living in Hong Kong. We do suffer a little bit of scrutiny because we're not really from here. So we have a lot more to lose like jobs, opportunities that we live in this city. So we can't be too vocal about it and we can't really be in the frontline because there's a lot more to lose for us," he added.

Hong Kong-born ED said he stopped joining protests, not because he had a lot to lose.

"I know I also have future for myself or for my future family. And I wouldn't want to put myself in that situation where I'm going to be on the frontline and risk my own life for being arrested by the police. I feel like that's a selfish act," said ED.

MD, who was born in the Philippines but grew up in Hong Kong and now works in the IT sector, was the last to join the march among them because his wife was scared. 

She also didn't want their son to see his father in jail, should he get caught.

"I had to basically fight my wife to get in the march because it's the least I could do to support the protesters, because I'm a family guy, I do a 9-5 job and seeing these protesters day in, day out, it's hard for me 'cause I feel like I could do more. If I was single though I would really take part in these marches and I do think the 2 guys here with me feel the same way," said MD. 

"I could easily go back to the Philippines. But the thing is (there are) bigger issues like China's encroaching in the Philippines as well. So no matter where I go, I still got a stake in this, like what Carrie Lam says, we all still have a stake in this," MD added.