“Is a maid’s bed different from any other kind of bed?” asks a respondent to a forum thread on asiaxpat.com. This question came as a response to an initial post by someone urgently seeking such a bed in Hong Kong. The string of messages that follow include a heated debate on a “maid’s” right to space, many of whom assert that:
“Space is limited in Hong Kong. That is the fact.”
“Maids [with beds] should consider themselves lucky.”
“A maid’s bed needs to be smaller.”
“Even the smallest IKEA beds (apart from the child ones) would not fit in most maid’s rooms. For example the smallest IKEA mattress is… 7cm too wide for our maid’s room, and that room is large compared to many we have seen.”
There are nearly 350,000 Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs) in Hong Kong, largely women from the Philippines, Indonesia, and other countries in South and Southeast Asia. Though they only comprise 4.7% of the population, they make up 17% of the female workforce. MDWs in Hong Kong emerged in the 1970s, coinciding with the city’s economic boom, an increase of two-income families, women entering the workforce, and the rise of labor export programs in the neighboring Southeast Asian countries. After four decades, with a sharp growth in the 1990s, now one in every eight households — one in three for those with children — employs a domestic worker. These hundreds of thousands of women are the unacknowledged workers who raise the young, care for the elderly, and maintain domestic life. Displaced by global capitalism, they have been separated from their homelands, their families, and their communities. Upon arriving in Hong Kong they are displaced once again through the denial of space to live their lives with dignity.
Hong Kong has one of the world’s most treacherous housing markets — where the average dwelling size for a family is less than 600 square feet and the average 1-bedroom apartment in the city center rents for HK$16,575 (US$2,128). Here, the denial of space is ubiquitously felt by most working and middle class people. In a place of such constructed scarcity, a common sentiment is that any person should feel “lucky” to have access to any space at all.
The minimum household income of a family or individual to hire a MDW is HK$15,000 (US$1,934). This number has not increased with inflation for decades, and since 2013 has been surpassed by the poverty line for a 4-person household. Though the minimum wage for hiring a MDW is far from a “livable” wage — HK$4,310 (US$556) in addition to the provision of free food or an allowance of at least HK$1,037 (US$134) — this payment amounts to a third of the household income for employers whose earnings are just at the threshold. Subsequently, more and more poor and working-class families may be eligible to hire MDWs to care for their children and aging parents yet increasingly feel the burden of spatial and financial constraints. While the cost of living continues to rise in Hong Kong, the social and state responsibility for caring for the society’s young and old is increasingly downloaded to individuals and families.
Evidently, the Hong Kong citizen’s struggle to deal with skyrocketing real estate prices, unaffordable housing, and inadequate access to child and elderly care is inextricably linked to the domestic workers’ search for decent housing, a “live-out” option, dignity and respect. Although capital will continue to pit “native” workers against “foreign” workers, the struggle for the space to live and conduct one’s work in a dignified way is a common one. However, the definition of decent and dignified housing, and to whom that definition applies, remains a site of struggle.
The Schedule of Accommodation and Domestic Duties, which is part of every employment contract for MDWs in Hong Kong, states:
While the average flat size in Hong Kong is relatively small and the availability of a separate servant room is not common, the Employer should provide the Helper suitable accommodation and with reasonable privacy. Examples of unsuitable accommodation are: the helper having to sleep on made-do beds in the corridor with little privacy and sharing a room with an adult/teenager of the opposite sex.
Despite these vague terms, one third of MDWs do not have a room of their own and are made to sleep with family members, sometimes even of the opposite gender. Many sleep in living rooms, corridors, kitchens, washrooms, and storage rooms on makeshift beds above washing machines and cupboards. Furthermore, the mandatory “live-in” policy specified in all employment contracts means that domestic workers must accept these conditions.
So what is “suitable accommodation”?
Responding via email to an inquiry by Thomson Reuters Foundation, Hong Kong’s Labor Department reminded that MDWs could exercise their right to file complaints against employers who fail to provide suitable accommodation. When asked whether sleeping in bathrooms or kitchens was acceptable, the department concluded that it was “not feasible” to define suitable accommodation. The Labor Department’s lack of clarity in defining its own terms unsurprisingly results in hugely varying and commonly substandard living conditions for domestic workers. The lack of a common definition — legally and socially speaking — brings into question: What is a “suitable,” “habitable,” or “reasonable” space for a human being to live in? How does “suitable accommodation” get translated by employers and architects into built form, with its physical, social, and psychological dimensions — into a space where a person lives?
In a 2012 interview, Purple Lee — the “Queen of children’s songs” — showcased her spacious 1,800 square feet home in Tiu Keng Leng. While seeing celebrities flaunting their luxurious lifestyles is common practice in Hong Kong, a photo of the “maid’s room,” however, was included: a narrow bed cleverly hoisted mid-air above a toilet. This image caused a public uproar. Facebook pages, such as “Purple 姐姐: 我唔要係廁所瞓 / A Toilet Is Not a Place to Sleep,” sprung up, quick to denounce the mistreatment of the worker and the inhumanity of this situation. Lee responded by posting a photo of herself and the domestic worker, fingers stretched into V-signs signifying a happy employer-employee relationship, and said, “Because my mother doesn’t want to share the bathroom with the maid, so I have to divide space.” Meanwhile, more photos surfaced in the public eye of ad-hoc spaces used for domestic workers in apartments across Hong Kong — thin foam mattresses laid out next to toilets and dining tables, in closets and utility rooms, above washing machines and under desks.
The outrage to the Lee incident reveals the invisibility of the everyday struggle for dignified work and living space of domestic workers in Hong Kong, and the public will to “unsee” this reality when exposed. In this situation, the upstanding citizen was ready to rail against Lee’s treatment of her employee as an abhorrent exception rather than an example of the rule — as if being appalled could make this unpleasant image disappear.
Walking down most streets in Hong Kong, you inevitably encounter floor-to-ceiling window real estate advertisements selling or renting apartments (always in buildings with aspirational names, such as Parc Palais, Palm Springs, and Blessings Garden). Very rarely among the flattering photos will you catch a glimpse of a “maid’s room.” However, purpose-built “maid’s rooms” are frequently designed into the condominiums and villas of Hong Kong’s wealthy. These rooms are often tiny, poorly-ventilated, and window-less, a modest improvement from the ad-hoc spaces we see in more constrained living situations of working and middle-class households. If spatial constraints are not the determining factor, then resulting substandard “maid’s rooms” suggest another logic guiding their design. Just as one of the respondents on the asiaxpat.com forum stressed — a “maid’s bed needs to be smaller”—the implication is that “suitable accommodation” differs depending on who the accommodation is for. A domestic worker, therefore, unlike any other inhabitant of a household, needs and deserves a lesser, smaller space to live. While this reality calls into question the complicity of architects who design such spaces, we are reminded that this spatial logic has a long history, rooted in colonial attitudes towards living conditions of servants, slaves, and indentured laborers, globally.
I remember touring the Palace of Versailles — the French symbol of absolute monarchy and the seat of political power until the French Revolution — and learning of the network of passageways and service areas hidden behind the walls of the grand courts, suites and galleries. More commonly found is the chambre de bonne — a “maid’s room” found on the top floor of middle class French apartments accessible by a separate service stairway (I lived in such a space, an overpriced 10-square-meter studette, for 6 months). This unseen, or negative space was designed to hide servants, to render invisible the labor that goes into maintaining the space — the visually unpleasant work behind the production of daily life. While driving through the affluent neighborhood of Alto de Pinherios in São Paulo, Brazil, I passed an imposing restaurant called “Senzala.” I wondered to myself: “Could it mean…?” and then quickly dismissed my suspicion based on my poor grasp of Brazilian Portuguese. I learned afterwards that the restaurant’s name, Senzala, did in fact refer to the “slave quarters” where many of the five million African slaves working in the sugar cane plantations lived — a typology that has symbolically survived in the domestic worker rooms of many middle and upper-middle class apartments.
The desire to hide the commodified domestic labor that goes into maintaining a home, raising children, and caring for the elderly manifests itself in physical spaces. Looking at the promotional photographs of a typical luxury apartment, 127 Repulse Bay Road, you can see a spacious sleek kitchen with marble floors and a breakfast area that overlooks a mountainous scenery. What is unseen in the photographs but is visible on the plan is the “maid’s room” tucked away behind the kitchen wall, equipped with a separate entrance — a modern-day Versailles or senzala for the wealthy of Hong Kong.
In 2016, I participated in the How to Make Space exhibition in Oasis Gallery, Hong Kong, which featured Suitable Accommodation, 1:1 scale masking tape drawings of existing domestic worker living spaces and a series of real estate advertisements. The advertisements, which aesthetically borrow from the city’s common-place real estate window-advertisements, explore how the vague notion of “suitable accommodation” translates into living spaces for domestic workers. The advertisements are a fictionalized and anonymized presentation of testimonies from migrant workers of their personal living and working conditions, gathered from surveys and interviews conducted with the support of affiliated organizations (please see below).
“Sleep on the cozy floor of the living room! Share a 3-bedroom apartment in the Mid-Levels with married male and female employers, grandfather, and two children (12 and 17 years old).
These advertisements reveal contradictions inherent in the struggle for decent living (and working) conditions for citizen and migrant Hong Kongers alike, raising key questions: what is a “suitable,” “habitable,” or “reasonable” space for domestic workers, or any human being to live in? How might the struggle for living space in Hong Kong shed light on the struggle for freedom of movement and the right of abode for migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong and globally?
In my interviews with MDWs, workers often spoke about their one day off a week, Sunday, when many leave at the break of dawn and do not return home until the last possible minute of the evening. Instead of resting in the comforts of their own “home”/workplace, thousands upon thousands choose to sit all day on the floors and benches of crowded public areas, frequently exposed to the elements. This common practice reveals fundamental questions about the delineation of space for domestic workers in Hong Kong, between public and private, between workplace and living space: what does it mean to live in a house that is merely a workplace? When adequate space to live one’s life is systematically denied, how do people find or create that space elsewhere? Only by leaving their workplaces can domestic workers ensure that they are not “working,” to avoid that knock on their door from their employers (for those who have access to a bedroom) that can arrive at all hours.
The impressive occupations by domestic workers of public and semi-public spaces on Sunday in Central, Jordan, and Victoria Park, to name a few, are sometimes regarded with disdain because workers “do private things in public spaces.” But when a worker’s house is not her home but her workplace, suitable accommodation is not a matter of maximizing square footage but of creating conditions necessary to live a fuller, more dignified life.
It is a powerful sight on Sundays, at the podium of the HSBC headquarters — a monument to capitalism designed by Lord Norman Foster — to see hundreds of domestic workers gathered around temporary streets marked by cardboard enclosures, choreographing group dances, painting toenails, calling loved ones, napping, organizing, surviving, living. These are acts of resistance, of homemaking, of claiming space by those who have been systematically denied access — materially, politically, economically, and socially.
Sitting down with a comrade from a migrant worker union, he sketched out a map of Central by organizational territory — a temporary map that exists only on Sundays with each street corner of the financial district marked by a different union based on country of origin, or a women’s rights organization, migrant worker coalition, faith-based advocacy group, from the grassroots to the international in scale. Beyond the everyday forms of resistance, the workers are organizing, and they are organized.
The respondent on asiaxpat.com who initially questioned what constitutes a “maid’s bed,” writes a final, conclusive post on the thread: “Now I know, it’s a bed that the people who buy it would refuse to sleep in and that’s made to fit in a room where people that buy it would refuse to live in […] but they do feel bad about it.”
I would like to thank all of the migrant domestic workers who shared their experiences and additional support from:
Open Door: Families for DWs