When Hoi Yee and I decided to look into the history and impact of domestic help as part of the research for our book, we came across some riveting facts about domestic help here in Asia and in some nations of the West.
In Hong Kong, about 90% of households with young children or elderly relatives employ a maid or an amah. The hiring of domestic helpers is common not only in this city but also in other cities in Southeast Asia.
I know that for many people, having a maid is an absolute luxury reserved for the very rich. For others, the hiring of a maid comes with the guilt that someone else is doing the hard day-to-day – scrubbing bathroom tiles, wiping dust, mopping floors, shopping for groceries, chopping vegetables and preparing meals. These daily tasks are unrewarding and time-consuming, but more importantly, they eat into quality time with a partner and family.
As a student in Spain and France, I worked as an au-pair, so did many of those tasks. I saw first hand the value of paid help to take care of some of the day-to-day dross, thus freeing up my employers from the grind of housework. Fortunately, my would-be husband agreed with me, and shortly after we were married, we engaged a cleaning lady. This left me free for the challenges of starting my business and, my husband free to focus on his profession. This also allowed us lots of time for each other.
Richard and I have now been in Asia over 25 years, and have had home help, since we arrived. We have had some lovely people work for us. It is a very common practice in Hong Kong to have one’s domestic helpers “live-in”. That means employers provide accommodation within their home for their helpers. Although our relationship with our helpers has always been relatively formal (as in a boss-employee), some really funny amah dramas have occurred.
A young helper from the Philippines put my gorgeous new blue silk curtains through a high temperature wash. They came out shrunken and wrinkled like handkerchiefs. Then, just a few days later, she was serving one of our dinner guests a drink, when she whispered to him that she could give him a better time than his wife! She moved on to a family that didn’t entertain at home and who had blinds at the windows.
When our first three children were quite young, we had two helpers living in our home. One morning, they unexpectedly announced that they had to leave us. Their bags were packed, they bid my children and me a sad farewell – and departed! My husband and I could not understand what had happened – they had seemed so happy working with us. The very next morning, my husband called me from the office. The large photo adorning the front page of the major English newspaper was of our two helpers – at Hong Kong airport. They had previously been found “moonlighting” – and took a job with us as a means of “hiding out” till their court appeal.
Another helper, a delightful Indian lady, who is now a dear friend, prepared deep green curry paste sandwiches for our first breakfast – not quite the same as cornflakes and coffee! She has since become a citizen of Hong Kong herself, and now as a working mum, she has a helper. I have to smile when she tells me, “training these young girls takes so much effort.”
Hiring domestic help is not always easy. But, the rewards are, in my opinion, very worthwhile. I have more energy to focus on quality parenting and don’t argue with my husband about whose turn it is to take out the garbage or to pick up the dog food!
Having been an au-pair twice in the 70s, I have experienced the life of a domestic helper. Like my employers, I treat my helpers with great respect, for they contribute so valuably to the smooth-running of our home, and to the work-life balance that Richard and I have chosen.