Hello, Love, Goodbye: Filipino stories amid Hong Kong protests
“Hello, nakasakay na ako sa eroplano. Miss ko na kayo agad.”
My seatmate, Jackielyn, was sobbing all throughout the two-hour flight from NAIA to Hong Kong. This was the last text she sent to her family before switching her phone on airplane mode. I caught a glimpse of another Filipino worker by the airplane window, making the sign of the cross as soon as the plane ascended from the Philippines and when it landed on Hong Kong’s runway.
This, I was told, was a common scene in a plane full of Filipino workers bound for Hong Kong. Filipinos make up the majority of the passengers, but everyone seems to feel alone. I flew to the city on short notice to cover the series of protests in Hong Kong without the usual cameraman or driver. What made the coverage memorable was how I was never alone in my quest to cover the story of Hong Kong protests.
This is not a story centered on the protests but on Filipinos. Amid the chaos, they chose to stay and stay together.
This was the constant reminder of the fellow Filipinos on the flight as we alighted the plane. They went on their separate ways, rushing to find transportation to their employers’ houses.
I barely recognized the Hong Kong International Airport. The glamour, color, and life of the terminal were replaced by dark and struggling spirits. It is one of the busiest airports in the world, launching over 1,000 flights a day to 500 destinations. The airport full of passengers was converted to a sea of black.
Seated on the hallway were the protesters wearing black shirts and masks, welcoming the travelers with mock boarding passes where their demands were written. This was their way of getting the attention of the international community of their plight. I started to film, asking them the usual press questions and they answered in fluent English. They are young, part of the millennial generation who maximizes their creativity to tell the world what is happening in the city.
“We are on strike today because we are fighting for freedom and democracy.”
I told them I am a Filipino. They shook my hand, and most of them expressed how they love Filipinos. Some of them grew up in households where Filipino domestic helpers raised them.
Around 240,000 Filipinos work in the city, according to the latest count of the Philippine Consulate in Hong Kong. More than 80% are household workers. They make up almost 10% of the workers in the financial hub. They can apply for residency after three years of working in Hong Kong and maintaining a contract with an employer. This status allows them to find another employment. But many of them remain as household workers, jumping from one employer to another, earning around $5,000 Hong Kong dollars or P32,000 pesos a month.
THE STORY OF “MARIA”
“They treat you as part of their family. Yes, they are the protesters.”
“Maria,” not her real name, has been working for a family in Hong Kong for three years. She told me she is lucky to find kind employers who treat her as part of the family. She takes care of the couple who both work as young professionals in the city and their two children who are under 5 years old. In the morning, the couple goes to work, but in the afternoon, they change their working clothes to black shirts to join the protest in the city. She says she worries a lot whenever her “alagas” go out to march with other protesters.
The lively city becomes bleak and violent as the sun sets in areas where the demonstrators and the police officers clash. Tear gas explosions, projectiles thrown at both camps; some protesters arrested, others were beaten up. The scenario is unsettling for “Maria” as she feels as if she sent her own children to an unpredictable situation.
“Opo naman, sobrang nag-aalala ako, baka kasi madisgrasya sila.”
(ano po sinasagot nila sa inyo?)
“Once in a while nagcha-chat km how r d kids den sabi ko they r ok ask din ako f ok lang din ba sila.”
The couple went home one Sunday evening drenched in rainwater and sweat. They told her it was a big protest. Earlier that day, the couple reminded her to stay away from that area where they planned to hold their assembly.
“Naglalaba na ako together with their (black shirts) clothes.”
"Maria" may not fully understand why her "alagas" are against the extradition bill. What she knows is Filipinos in the city will also benefit from the freedom the protesters are demanding from their government.
"Opo, pinaliwanag nya kung ano mangyayari kapag napirmahan ang bill na yan. Minsan nga noong election sa atin bumuto ako rito ngpaalam ako na maaga aalis she ask me y tapos sabi ko boboto ako aba nagulat si maam sabi nya i really like ur country coz u have freedom to vote unlike us iilan lang piede bumuto kaya isa yan sa pinaglalaban nila maam na sna puro hongkongers ang mamumuno sa bansa nila."
"Alam naman nating lahat kung ano or paano mamuno ang china dpo ba so affected lahat dto sa HK just n case batas ng China ang susundin, no more facebook at mesenger yan sabi n maam"
IN TIME OF PROTEST
“Nothing happened. Just here in the house just now I come back. I didn’t call you. Okay, bye love you“
Tess was assuring her husband via a phone call that she is okay. They communicate several times a day. Her husband, a Hongkonger, wanted to join the protest but Tess, a Filipina, did not allow him after seeing in the news how the demonstrations can quickly turn violent. Her husband now fills a job for a fellow Hongkonger so that the latter can participate in the protest.
I met Tess in a restaurant. Seeing the area was already full, I offered her the just-emptied seat beside me while I was delivering a report in Filipino for DZMM. I thought she couldn't understand me because she doesn't look like a Filipina at all. She is fairer than most of the Filipinas I see in the city, and she carries herself like a local. Nonetheless, having no plans of where to stay or go, I introduced myself like any other new Filipino in the city.
We smiled at each other and instantly became friends. I told her how I got myself in Hong Kong. She told me how she became a resident in less than three years because she found love.
A year ago, she was on her way to fetch her "alaga." Distracted and distraught with what is happening to her family in the Philippines, she crossed the road without looking sideways. She was almost hit by a car.
The driver of the car was cursing at her and telling her to move away.
She was not hurt, but she felt immobile. The driver approached her to ask what is wrong. She tells him the whole story and her problem with the visa. One day he asks him to marry her.
"Sabi niya, what if you marry me? Sabi ko yes agad," she giggles.
She never regretted that day. They married a few months after the encounter. Her husband asked her to resign as a house helper. She said it was not easy for her to let go of the family who treated her as one of them. They went to different countries together. The children were so used to her that they couldn't sleep without her.
The day I met her was her first scheduled interview as a waitress in Mong Kok. She noticed I was wearing a dark blue shirt. She told me it might get mistaken as a black shirt at night.
Days before I arrived in Hong Kong, a Filipino worker was arrested for wearing a black shirt in a protest area. That Filipino is still under investigation by the Hong Kong government along with many other protesters. That is why the Philippine Consulate in Hong Kong stressed the importance of not wearing black or white shirts and staying away from areas of protest.
Tess accompanied me to a nearby stall to purchase a bright yellow shirt. I gave her my dark blue ABS-CBN shirt in return.
I did not have that many clothes because I was not prepared at all to cover the protest. It was an ordinary day for me at the NAIA, covering the cancellations of flights in Hong Kong when my bosses deployed me in short notice and without a team. It was a mixed feeling of excitement and fear. I only had my mobile journalism equipment and a pair of clothes to last me a few days.
Tess also invited me to her house after picking up the bright yellow shirt. She also offered her DSLR camera, powerbank, and some food without expecting anything in return. In the few hours that I was in Hong Kong, some of the protesters almost confiscated my smartphone. They said they were wary of people taking videos of them through the smartphone, fearing facial recognition. I told them I was a Filipino journalist working for ABS-CBN, a reputable Philippine news company and they should not be worried.
"Oh, a Filipino. We love Filipinos. They're very hardworking."
They shook my hand and let me pass. I told Tess about the encounter. She said to me that if I wanted to meet more Filipinos, she could assist me. She opened up her messaging app and started calling her group - The Budots group. They dance during their days-off in parties and other celebrations.
Filipinos in Hong Kong rely heavily on social media messaging apps since internet speed in Hong Kong is fast and most of the time free. This is where they post areas of scheduled protests to warn fellow Filipinos. This is also where they share job openings, ask for help or assistance, even organize a gathering.
Most of their gatherings happen in Chater Road in Central Hong Kong. Tess said Central Hong Kong is the place to be.
FINDING "JOY" IN CENTRAL
Tess and "Maria" frequent Central along with other Filipino workers in Hong Kong every Sunday. This is where they usually spend the "day-off" or their holiday.
The first time I stepped outside Gate A of Central Station, it felt like I was back in Manila. A radio station, turned up in its highest volume, enveloping the already-noisy area with its Filipino announcements.
"Sa mga Pinoy na nakikinig ngayon. Kaway-kaway."
Simcards and phones sold in Filipino language and advertisements. Banks, remittance centers, food stalls, all in Filipino. Even the HongKongers in the area can speak Filipino.
It was my first time in the area, but I did not get lost. Everywhere I turned, there was a Filipino nearby with a big bag or a piece of luggage. What is inside their luggage? Nail-cleaning services paraphernalia, Filipino home-cooked meals, bottled water, junk food from the Philippines, powerbanks, or just about anything they can sell in the Chater Road in Central for their sideline.
Some of the Filipinos recognized me and took selfies right away. I indulged. Being with fellow Filipinos after some days of being in a foreign land covering protests made me feel safe and not alone.
I posted our little meet-up through Facebook live. Everyone in the area wanted to send a short message to their family back home. They told me they were grateful that ABS-CBN visited them and gave them a venue to appease their families back home.
"Safe po kami. Huwag po kayong mag-alala."
Some of them volunteered to show me around their rendezvous.
"Kaniya-kaniyang bitbit ng karton. Kaniya-kaniya ring dala ng pagkain. Pero lahat magkakasama yan. 'Pag Pilipino unite agad."
Telephone booths were converted to mini-resting areas. The Filipinos are grouped by how they are seated in deconstructed balikbayan boxes. Some of them brought speakers and microphones for karaoke, posting it live on their Facebook accounts. Others played cards and bingo in a hidden corner of the road. I also chanced upon two groups practicing their Zumba for a contest.
They converted the road into picnic grounds. While I was preparing for a live report, one group offered me a carton box to sit on. Another handed me a plate full of rice cakes and other Filipino desserts. I could not help but smile while delivering my live report on TV Patrol. Being in the presence of Filipinos made me understand why the character Joy in the "Hello, Love, Goodbye" movie enjoyed her moments at the Chater Road Central. In a city where everything seems to be permanently moving, she found her constants in Central Hong Kong.
"Babalik ako" -Joy in Hello, Love, Goodbye
Whenever they were asked if they want to go back to the Philippines amid the protests, they gave me the same answer over and over again.
"Beauty pa rin kami. Safe kami dito. Lumalayo naman kami sa protesta."
But the Filipino crowd in Chater road decreases in volume every Sunday as the protest progresses in the city. For safety reasons, some were asked by their employers not to spend their days-off outside their workplace while others decided to remain indoors or leave the rendezvous early.
ST JOSEPH'S CHURCH
Carton boxes are lined up for miles in Central Hong Kong, almost reaching the church frequented by Filipinos: The St Joseph Church. It is considered as the busiest Catholic church in the city. Mass celebrations delivered in Filipino are held every afternoon. This church is where Filipinos find respite. Some of them join the church's choir. Others prepare food for fellow Filipinos who were terminated from their contract earlier than expected. The church serves as a sanctuary to Pinoy workers who need a temporary home, with nowhere to go while looking for a job. The building smells divine as Filipinos prepare home-cooked meals. The area is filled with chatter and laughter.
A Filipina who was able to watch one of my Facebook live posts invited me to her birthday celebration. She noticed that my cameraman and I had been walking for hours non-stop and we hadn't had our lunch. She said her simple birthday celebration was just a few steps away from the church. The birthday party was under a bridge. Filipino viands and a pot-full of rice were lined up on a make-shift table, steaming and inviting. There were five of them. They told me they do not really know each other well. At the center of the table was a cupcake with a small candle on it. We started singing the birthday song.
The birthday celebrant's wish is still about her family.
“Sana marami pang birthday na dumating. Maraming biyayang dumating. Not just for me but for my family as well”
(Eh ngayong may protesta?) I quipped.
"Okay, lang. Safe pa rin naman kami dito.”
They told me this is how they celebrate birthdays in Hong Kong. A group of Filipino pitches in HKD50 each, someone living in a boarding house cooks, and all of them gather in an area to eat and celebrate.
Filipinos usually fill up the church, but the recent Sundays have been different. Sister Divina Ramirez observed that the number of Filipinos going to the church got smaller right after the protests began.
"Hindi kagaya noon na talagang siksikan ang 1 o'clock at 2 o'clock na Mass. Nagdadasal kami na maging peaceful na ang kalagayan ng Hong Kong."
Filipinos I interviewed after the 2 o'clock Mass told me they prayed for continuous blessings so that they can provide for their families. Despite reassuring their families back home that they are okay and safe, some admit they also have fears.
THEN THERE'S "MARY DALE"
Not everyone finds joy in Central.
I met a "Mary Dale" watching a swarm of protesters clad in black coming out of the Central station. She was by herself. She told me she wanted to go back home in the Philippines after only ten months of working for a family in Hong Kong.
"Mary Dale" is a personification of a character in Hello, Love, Goodbye who cannot withstand the pressures of working in Hong Kong.
"Uuwi na lang ng Pilipinas."
"Masyado nang magulo. Lagi na lang akong na-ttrap. Balak ko nang umuwi sa December. Lipat na lang sa iba."
She admitted her employer doesn’t know her plans yet.
Manilyn and a number of Filipinos had experienced getting exposed to tear gas and the hassle of having to walk for hours because of the protest.
Manilyn was on her way to Wan Chai from spending her day-off in Central. While going down the terminal, she found it odd that there was no one inside the MTR platform. She heard a loud sound at a distance and that was when she realized that a tear gas was thrown inside the confined space of the subway.
She had no gas masks nor any protective gear on her. It was supposed to be an ordinary commute to her employer’s house one station away from where it happened.
“Hindi ako nakahinga agad mga two to three miniutes ang hapdi sa mata.”
She promised herself not to visit Central as long as the protest is still on. She may look for some place to spend her day-off.
Aside from Central, Filipinos can also be found at the Hong Kong International Airport.
THE FILIPINA-HONGKONGER PROTESTER
“Don’t be scared. We are just trying to fight for our home and freedom. We are fighting for you as well. For those Filipinos who travel here in HK, actually it is still safe, just don’t go to places where there are protests.”
She was born in the Philippines but raised in Hong Kong. She bears a tattoo of the Philippine sun on her forearm. She disclosed that she works for an airline company and is not afraid to lose her job for fighting for freedom.
Just like the other demonstrators, she covers her face with a black mask. But one could see through the make-up on her eyes and how her hair was tied properly that she just got out of work. She wore a black shirt over a uniform.
I looked around and some of the protesters were dressed the same.
Recently, a big airline in Hong Kong was pressured to name their employees who joined the protest. Those who participated at the sit-in protest would not be allowed to board the airline or worst, they would get fired. I was able to ask her this possibility before it happened.
“I am not afraid to lose my job over fighting my freedom for Hong Kong.”
The sit-in protest continued for days at the terminal. The protesters said they were given more reasons by the government to continue their fight. A first-aid nurse was hit in the eye with a rubber bullet by a police. More arrests were done.
One Friday, the protesters at the terminal had enough. We were told that the protesters would try to take over the terminal. They started pulling out all the trolleys, creating a blockade at the Departure Gate just after the check-in counter.
On our way to the terminal, the train lines were cut. There was no way but to take the cab. But the taxi dropped us more than two kilometers from the terminal. The roads were blocked. We had no choice but to walk to reach the terminal. I had to be there to report the situation live for TV Patrol.
There were Filipinos inside the building. Some were scheduled for departure, others had just arrived.
It was a hot summer day in Hong Kong. As soon as we reached the terminal, the airport looked more desolate compared to what I saw when I first arrived in the city. The blockade of protesters was getting thicker by the hour. They wouldn't let anyone in. Passengers were fuming mad.
“You are angry at your government, not us. Let us pass”
“Where is the airport security?!”
A group of Filipinos approached us and showed where other fellow Filipinos were staying inside the terminal. Everyone was still smiling despite the odds. A Filipina gave me an apple, another gave bottled water. We hadn't had lunch yet, and it was past 5 o'clock.
"Magkakasama tayong mga Filipino," one said.
I started filming and interviewing some of them. Before I aired live for Bandila, the tension in the area was escalating. Police began to arrive, and the protesters were agitated. The stranded passenger I interviewed live for Bandila could not hold back her tears, feeling the tension around us. A protester kept on signaling to move away. Passengers were already running for cover. I had to cut our live report short.
Various heart-pounding incidents were happening at the same time: a policeman pulled out his gun; a journalist was reportedly beaten up by some protestors; a woman almost got trampled by police, among others.
The tension in the area subsided past midnight. The police, outnumbered by the protesters, backed out. The abandoned check-in counters served as a cover and temporary sleeping area of some stranded passengers, including children.
“Please, Mr. President, send us a plane. We are stuck here in Hong Kong,” 7-year old Ivan said.
He was with his family for a Hong Kong vacation trip. The stranded passengers were mostly tourists. They had planned this trip months ago. Some almost ran out of money because their flights were cancelled a number of times.
“I just want to go home,” one cried, while remembering how they survived the past two days with little funds.
The protesters handed face masks and food to the stranded passengers. They were apologetic. The Filipinos beside me smiled back at them and said, “mabait naman sila.”
The protesters left the terminal past midnight and returned the next day to apologize to the passengers. The stranded passengers were able to fly the next day.
I went back to the city later that night. I was welcomed by another protest. The song, “Do you hear the people sing,” from the broadway musical Les Miserables was on repeat on radios, placed strategically on the streets. It became the protest’s anthem.
Lamp posts created a faint guide to the place where I stayed. Every now and then, I could see a Filipino walking on the street. How do I know? They nodded and smiled back. It felt like a discreet conversation between us Filipinos, which means we are both okay.
I woke up extra early the next day. The streets were eerily quiet, except for a number of people crossing the roads on their way to work. Some of them were Filipinos.
My best memories of Hong Kong were the moments when I experienced the generosity of Filipinos. Despite the threats of protests, they managed to maintain their optimism. They continued working. They prayed fervently for their families back home. As much as they wanted to go back to Philippines, they said they would rather stay in Hong Kong.
These are the Filipinos amid protests:
My fellow plane passengers, who felt they had no choice but to leave their family to work in Hong Kong.
Maria, who takes care of others and treating them like her own.
Tess, who found love in Hong Kong and told me she didn't want me to feel alone in a foreign land.
The Filipinos in Central who continue to stay together and find joy in simple ways.
And to those who fervently pray, not for themselves, but for their families back home.
“Ang Hong Kong dinadaanan lang, pero may pangmatagalan” - Joy.