Please scroll down for the English translation
Soyi ngo cau haito cui ..
Hi og jun. Hi ngo ko ka
Cau hai yannei
"I have almost spent half of my life in Hong Kong." Story of a daughter, bread winner and activist
In the early 2000s, more and more Indonesian people came to Hong Kong for a job. Kristin was one of them.
When I first met her, her fashion style was similar to that of Hong Kong people.She wore canvas shoes, slim-fit pants, long-fitting T-shirts, cowboy hats, with a slightly side-swept fringe. It was a very common dress code but bold for an Indonesian. I was shocked when I heard fluent Cantonese spoken by her.
Perhaps it should not be too surprising. After all, she spent almost half of her life in Hong Kong.
During the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Indonesian Rupiah devalued sharply. In order to gain foreign exchange, the Indonesian government has been more actively exporting labor, and Hong Kong has begun to import large numbers of Indonesian domestic workers. Because of the sudden increase in demand, Indonesian employment companies sent agents to look for girls who were willing to work abroad. Poor rural areas were their targeted areas.
At that time, Kristin was still a teen girl who had not yet finished secondary school. Her family’s most precious property was a house made of bamboo sticks. They couldn't even afford to buy a proper clock. Around four o'clock in the morning, prayer broadcast of mosque in the village were their alarm clock. During rainy days, the wind blew in and the rain dribbled through holes. As time goes by, some bamboo shoots were soggy and rotten. "Some places worn out, so I fell out of the house while sleeping. I was so scared that my mother immediately pulled me in. Haha. It was funny, maybe I was dreaming!" Years later, Kristin paid for a solid house for her family all by herself. The past became a unique memory.
Kristin has a family of six. Her dad rent a field for farming; her mother tried to do various small business to make ends meet. The agent learned about her family's situation and came to persuade her to work overseas. As she was too young, her parents were not willing to let her go. Kristin was entangled and thinking to herself - "Why do I have to continue studying? My sister was lucky to have been looking after by her aunt, but I still have a brother and sister who are only one and two years old. My mother suffered from arthritis, diabetes, and stroke. My father took care of her and made an honest living. His life was difficult ."
The agent kept persuading her parents. Kristin decided not to go to school anymore. Considering that she had to leave her family no matter where she go, she begged her parents to sign the consent form, so she could go working in Hong Kong.
15 years for 7 bosses, Only the last one was reasonable
Kristin had 7 contracts during her 15 years in Hong Kong. She could tell us stories of every employer. It was only until the last contract that she met a more reasonable employer.
The minimum wage was $3,670 (unless otherwise specified, the following amount of money are all in Hong Kong dollars) in her first year in Hong Kong. The first employer took away half of her wages. Kristin only got $1,800 a month.
When Indonesia began exporting workers to Hong Kong, employment agencies not only promoted the image of Indonesian migrant workers as "submissive and simple," but also encouraged lower wages. Hong Kong government had already stipulated the minimum wage for foreign domestic helpers in 1973. It should be illegal to pay below the prescribed amount of wages. However, the strength of regulation on the employment agencies and employers was not enough. The agencies advised employers to make use of the loophole. Employers first deposited the salaries in local bank accounts; they then asked the migrant workers to withdraw it and took away a part of their cash. Some would even request a receipt from the workers to confirm the latter had received their full wages. These tricks with documents and files never failed in Hong Kong. We visited more than a dozen of returning migrant workers, most of them experienced underpayment. This has become the unspoken rules that Indonesian workers were silently enduring. A worker described it as "Buy one get one free."
In recent years, situation have been greatly improved with the efforts of migrant worker organizations. Now Indonesian migrant workers were seldom underpaid. However, such exploitation still exists in other communities. According to a survey conducted by the Union of Nepalese Domestic Workers in Hong Kong in 2016, almost half of the Nepalese domestic workers did not receive legal wages. The lowest salary was only $1,700, while statutory minimum wage at that time was $ 4,310.
Kristin's salary was deducted by more than $40,000 in her first two-year contract in 2000-2002. Ironically, by the time she came back to Indonesia in 2015, her savings was also $40,000. What she finally got was what being deprived at the beginning. Wasn't this a pointless game of revenge? There was no other words to describe this cruel satire. Hongkongers as the avengers against the innocent outsiders. The motive was unknown but the victims were badly scarred. What did her hard working life for more than a decades mean? Did the society realise how long does she take to save that much? If she was not underpaid by the unscrupulous employer, could she return to her hometown years earlier? How will her fate be rewritten? Could her mother get better medical treatment? Or can she get back early enough and stand by her dying mother's bed?
Kristin’s mother died of illness in 2007, her seventh year working in Hong Kong. She began to plan when the journey should end.
Statistically, people worked overseas for two to four years. Kristin counted her tasks: family expenses, siblings' tuition, father's business costs, house building costs and her own savings... She decided to spent 15 years in Hong Kong to wind them all down.
She had good and bad times in these fifteen years.
In 2003, after the first contract was completed, Kristin paid $6,000 to the agency. She fled from the bloodsucker and received a new contract. Finally she had a day off once a month, so her friends took her to Victoria Park. They had fun and party hard at this rare occasion to overcome their homesickness. The park had no shelter, but it didn't matter if it's sunny, rainy or freezing, Kristin enjoyed the time with her friends. Humid subtropical climate were particularly unbearable, but where else could they go? One had to spend a fortune to get in a low spirited private space. When the raining didn’t seem to stop, they would rather dance on the grassland than waiting in a gloomy corner. Everywhere could be their playground. Hongkongers were alienated from nature thus accused them for occupying parks and streets.
Also in Victoria Park, Kristin met an old friend from the same hometown, who later introduced her to join the Indonesian Migrant Workers Association in Hong Kong (Asosiasi Buruh Migran Indonesia di Hong Kong, ATKI). Being raised in a poor family, she easily empathizes with others who are in difficulties. She gradually became the core organizer and actively involved in campaigns for migrant workers’ working condition. However, these did not guarantee her a safe working environment. She was overcharged by employment agencies. She was misunderstood as a smuggler and trapped in a police station when waiting for a new passport. She had to wait half a day before being release. She was fired because she refused to do job not mentioned in the contract. Her next employer was mean with everything - even counting on the amount of cooking oil used. Kristin tried to escape from illegal work but her employer accused her of theft...Only until her last employer, Kristin finally had a stable working environment. She was given stable salary, holidays, and nourishment. However, these were all over four years later.
In 2015, Kristin was in her thirties. It was considered getting old in Indonesia. Her father urged her to go home and get married. It is a popular custom for a migrant worker to have a farewell feast with their friends before getting back. We were invited at a yunnan rice noodle restaurant. She showed us the menu, "Let's order anything you want." When I was eating, I asked if she miss Hong Kong. She hesitated for a moment, gave me a smile and repeated her mantra, “Of course, I have almost spent half of my life here.” I didn't know what the smile meant then. Two years later, I went to Indonesia to visit her. She broke into tears when she recalled the scenes of gatherings, protests, and chatting with friends from ATKI. This took me back to the farewell feast, under the hesitated smile, what did she tried to hide from my silly question?
Kristin’s most important stage of development was not in her hometown. In the past fifteen years, she has become accustomed to Hong Kong culture. Her gesture was no different from typical Hongkongers. She had established confidence and independence from long-term activist movement movement and mutual help from the community. In old Chinese sayings, " She walked on the wild side." How can she adapt after returning to Indonesia?
Language is just the first obstacle
Her original plan was to take care of her aging father, but her marriage also meant she has to go elsewhere. Even if she returned to Indonesia, she could not go back to her home. She was an outsider to her husband’s village which was half an hour away from her home.
Language turned out to be a big problem for her integration into the community. Indonesia was a vast, multicultural country. Indonesians working in Hong Kong came from different parts of the country. Therefore, they adopted a more general Indonesian language, Bahasa Indonesia, instead of the languages of their hometowns. For more than a decade, Kristin had accustomed to Bahasa Indonesian. The Javanese language of her village became so unfamiliar to her that even after going back home, she had to think twice before she speak. Even her husband Danang, who loves her and respects her, would make fun of her. "Aren't you an Indonesian? How come you don't understand Javanese?" People in the village questioned her, "How long have you been to Hong Kong? How could you forget Javanese?” They believed Kristin tried to act posh by pretending to forgot the local language.
There were events required joint labor from the village. Women from the whole village gathered in a house to cook and prepare for the religious ceremonies of funeral and childbirth. Kristin spent ten days a month for these ceremonies in which she tried hard to blend in. "You do not belong to our village. You simply know nothing" She would be criticised everytime she had an opinion.
Fortunately, there were high tides and low tides. Kristin was an experienced organizer, she and her husband transformed the tuck shop in front of their house into a nice place to stay. The roof of the tuck shop was connected to the house and extends into a large open space with roof coverings. The previous year a typhoon struck down a lot of branches. Kristin and her husband built tables and chairs with broken branches and placed them between the tuck shop and their house. That was quite a pleasant scenario.They painted the wall black and turned it into a graffiti-ready blackboard. Her husband, Danang, treated the youngster coffee when he saw them drinking beers. Their tuck shop slowly became a place for teens to use WIFI and have a cup of tea. It also becomes a job consultation office, homeschooling kids as well. The villagers turned up, ordered a cup of tea and sat for an hour or two. Kristin shared laughters with her neighbours. The store was transformed into an organic community center.
The sun also rises, tension always exists.
We stayed in Kristin's house for a few days. She had some unexpected questions from time to time. One day, she took us to visit a friend who worked in Taiwan before. The valley was filled with fragrant trees used to make oil for medical use. On the return journey she asked, "Isn't that a Suetlam (means snow forest in Cantonese)? Syut...Syut Lam...Syulam? Is it a shuelam?" I didn't understand. The fragrant flower trees were pale white, but they certainly didn't look like snow. "How should I pronounce? Syu...Lam...Syu...Lam...or Syutlam?" I realised that she was asking me how to pronounce “forest” in Cantonese.
"Why do you have to remember Cantonese? You have already come back to Indonesia!" I couldn't find a better way to ask. "I still have friends in Hong Kong." She began to count the names of people we both knew. She also prepared several dishes of Cantonese cuisine for us during our stay. "When I miss Hong Kong, I will make Tong Sui (a Cantonese desert)."
I asked her if she had ever thought of staying in Hong Kong and not coming back to Indonesia. She said never.
This conversation was indeed meaningless. In 2013, Hongkongers denied the migrant workers' right of abode.
Family house built and siblings sent to school
After visiting Kristin's house, we glimpsed from a different angle of returning migrant worker's life. Building a house was one of Kristin's main goals for working in Hong Kong, and it was also an illusion about returning workers' life in Indonesia shared by Hongkongers, that they can build luxurious houses after working for a few years in Hong Kong. In fact, the so-called "luxurious house" was merely an escape from extreme poverty to a more reasonable living environment.
Strolling around Kristin’s village, we found that every houses were made of brick. The only bamboo house was built by the government for a blind person. Kristin introduced me along the way. “People in this house went to work in Malaysia. This one went to Taiwan. This ...also went to Taiwan. That one went to Hong Kong. That one went to middle East. The people in this house are still working in Taiwan." Every family who built a brick house had a family member working abroad, except for the village chief.
It took us half an hour drive from Kristin's husband’s home to her parent's house. Getting off her motorbike, Kristin got off her bike and was a bit shy, "This is my home, is it just... so-so?"
Kristin's house wasn't particularly bright when compared to nearby houses. We walked around the house for a better look. It was an elongated house with red tiled roofs. Only the front door and the floor in the house were tiled, while the rest of the house was only covered with red bricks. The ground was covered with pink orange tiles. The front door was affixed with brown pattern ceramic tiles, a red bamboo hanging on its side, blocking the sun and the washed out mottled scratches. In front of the entrance was a roof supported by four strong teakwoods. Kristin told us the woods were the present of great-grandmother. There are three sets of windows taller than a person on the main entrance and the side walls. Cool breeze blew through the opened window.
This house was not built in one go. The building materials were bought every single month by Kristin's savings. Until Kristi went working abroad for the third year, they had enough money to start building the house. At that time, she could only spend $500 each month. The tiles on the floor were bought recently. A few years ago her sister needed urgent money for her wedding, Kristin used the savings which was originally for the tiles to pay the wedding bill for her sister. The purchase of ceramic tiles was delayed.
The wall was painted in green and paired with an aqua-blue glossy curtain. Kristin told us that her father, siblings and she painted the wall after she came back to Indonesia. "It was a concrete wall, It was easily damaged in rains, the paint could make it last longer."
On the wall outside the door of Kristin's room, a photo shot in professional studio was displayed. It was Kristin wearing a wedding dress with a sweet smile, relatively thin caused by malnutrition. It was shot in Shenzhen in 2005 while Kristin was waiting for her passport. The agency arranged for her and more than 40 workers in a hotel room for a night, then had them pay for a studio shooting. Although she was detained for a day by a police officer who thought that she had been an illegal immigrant, Kristin commented on the day in Shenzhen with a look of joy, “I still remember it! East Gate was cheap to buy clothes! I really remember it.”
Kristin's room was not equipped with doors nor lights. We visited her at 7 p.m. she plugged a light bulb on in total darkness, the light was pale. She flashed a triumphant smile, "This light bulb was bought in Hong Kong's two-dollar shop!" She opened a teak wardrobe against the wall with a key, pulled out a flashlight to light up a cupboard which was half-filled with trophies and awards presented to her by ATKI. They all had her name written on. There was a wedding photo hanging on the wall and a glass frame by the window. Her last employer sent her a gift - a framed photo with the employer's family.
We walked through the hall to the kitchen and toilet.The concrete ground had no tiles. Kristin bought some stoves and cutlery after she came back. Now her mother was gone, her siblings went to school, there was only her father living alone in the house and he rarely cooked. Next to the stove was a well popular among cats.Their water diversion facility required electricity, in order to save money they drew water from the well (otherwise they will need an electric pump). The aged door of the bathroom fell out and hanged around the front of stall. There are no lights, they prepared a flashlight on the side of the stove for lighting.
So what kind of situation was it before building this house?
Several decades ago, the villagers purchased the land titles from the government. Kristin’s mother worked as domestic worker in a Chinese family at the age of 11. "My mother used to have two long braids. She was beautiful." Thanks to her mother's work, her grandmother bought the land titles and assigned a larger block to Kristin's mother. Her uncle was dissatisfied. Families arguing over land titles happened from time to time.
In 1982, Kristin's parents got married. Four years later, Kristin's parents and neighbours put together a bamboo house on the land Kristin's mother had been assigned. There were holes in the bamboo house, so the furnitures had to be move away whenever there was a leakage. They didn't have any bulky furniture at home. Before Kristin worked overseas, they had no electricity and had to finish their homework at night by the dim light glowing from a kerosene lamp. The moldy bamboo finally rotted away, Kristin once fell out of the house during sleep. They rebuilt the bamboo house several times before building the brick house.
This was what it meant by "escaping from extreme poverty". It is simply an illusion that returning migrant workers all live in huge country houses. "It's a lie if you say that having a pretty house is privileged." Kristin put aside the embarrassment and said without hesitation.
Going home to do business so the wealth stays in the village
Kristin came back to Indonesia in 2015. Her friends were surprised that she stayed there for more than two years. Many returning migrant workers stayed in Indonesia shortly and work abroad again after a few months. Kristin told me while counting her fingers, "A friend of mine ran a takes-out store. She came back for one year, getting married, having a child, then she left for work again. Some stayed for a few months longer and they can't help but return to Hong Kong. Some ran a salon or motorbike-washing businesses, they couldn't endure it either and flew back to Hong Kong. "The rhythm of life in Indonesia and Hong Kong were distinctively different. Once you were accustomed to living in Hong Kong, you found that Indonesia was mundane. The returning workers worked abroad again shortly after they struggled to survive in Indonesia .
Kristin saved more than $40,000. She spent most of it on her marriage. She wasn't blindly believe in traditions, but she fears that the people in the village gossiped and broke her father's heart. She thus has to follow the expensive wedding custom. The rest of her savings was just enough to start a small business. Kristin was a handy chef, she decided to open a small restaurant selling noodles, rice and drinks in the city center after coming back to Indonesia. A year's rent costed $17,000, therefore she only rented it for three months. Their restaurant was next to the hospital, it was expected that there should be a consistent flow of people, which didn't happen to be the case. They could barely break even so they decided to close the business. They were not one of a kind. There were a lot of dilapidated stores throughout the city center. This Indonesian town doesn’t have a vibrant local consumer market, but competition is fierce. Almost all the returning workers are eager to start their own business, few of them could withstand the increasing rent.
The couple are finding a variety of possibilities to make their living. Abandoning the city center, they stayed in the village and open a tuck shop in front of their house. They get up early and cook for elementary school students every day. They purchase WIFI plan and distribute to villagers. They sell food to overseas workers via internet. During rainy season, they lend their washing machines for people to wash and dry clothes. Both of them had worked abroad and were trying to do their best to make ends meet. Gossip about the couple was flying in the village. “Two years! You could have finish a contract if you were in Hong Kong!” Kristin’s friends laughed and said. The former employer kept in touch with Kristin. She said that after Kristin left, several workers came and they were not able to get along. She asked if Kristin would like to come back and work for her again.
Kristin insisted on staying in Indonesia. It was not only because Indonesia was her country, she had an extraordinary dream.
"I want to be part of the poor people. I want to feel what they feel and live where they live."
Kristin's life track was unremarkable. Working abroad, coming back home, and get married. However, she did not give up her struggle. In Hong Kong, she was an active organizer who fought against the unjust system with her peers. After going back to Indonesia, she was asked to get married. She came across a friend of the opposite sex who had known her for many years and asked him, "If we are married, can we get along with each other peacefully? Can I continue to participate in workers' organization?" This was her term for marriage. In the patriarchal Indonesia's suburban village, this was a very bold request. Fortunately, her partner was a reasonable man. They get along with each other and both became the member of the Family of Indonesian Migrant Workers (Keluarga Besar Buruh Migran Indonesia, KABAR BUMI), a returning workers' organization.
Working overseas should not be the only way out. More and more people came back, but soon are leaving to work again. Only by changing the country’s social conditions such that the Indonesian choose to stay or work abroad, they will be free to decide their fate.
Kristin and Danang stayed in Indonesia and practiced her method of survival. They tried hard to make an honest living. "Even if we were to open a tuck shop, we still want to take care of our neighbours. There are children who want to study so we teach them like a language school, for free. Some used our wifi to do their homework. He frankly told me he had nothing to pay. I said I know, it doesn't matter. Then his mother asked him to give me a piece of cassava."
I asked Kristin the reason for staying in Indonesia. "I want to help and educate people. The Indonesian has been deceived by the government and tradition for far too many years. Indonesia is in fact a large country, there are much more useful lands than we think, but the government continues to steal them from us. Television is not telling the truth.”
"I don't know how far I can go. I wouldn't say that I will never come back to Hong Kong. The most important thing is that I still live well! KABAR BUMI needs me. I want to experience how hard it is for the ordinary people here in Indonesia. I will be starving if they starve, they will take care of me if I care about them."
Kristin lived a tough life at very young age, this was the "seed". Her experience of participating In Hong Kong workers' organization for more than a decade is the "water". In the small village of Ponorogo, Indonesia, an amazingly beautiful flower started to grow.
"In the organization, there was a feeling of unity. I definitely miss Hong Kong and ATKI. Especially the Sunday meetings when we used to have lunch and talk about sad things together. I cry everytime I think of it."
Indonesian society still believed women have to get married and have children. Failure to do so can be stressful. Many people believed that Kristin would soon marry and have children after she came back, there wouldn't be a chance for her to organize campaign. They were partly correct. People in the village kept asking her when to have a child. In a village gathering, a married woman who had no children was a weird heterogeneous. Her mother in law deliberately held the children of other people in front of her, though her mind had drifted far away.
Home meant a lot more to her. "A lot of people need us. We must cling to all the people. We shouldn't get marry and have children immediately. There are too many things and people in life to care about." I don't understand, at all. How could she withstand the pressure by her own? Why she still have the power to consider other people? She was fortunate to have a husband who was willing to communicate. But, how much more did she has to withstand?
Later, she posted her thoughts on facebook:
In these days, I chatted with friends about life, policies, social barriers, religion, and culture.
In another language. (Cantonese)
Why do I choose to stay in the suburban instead of going to the city?
Because I want to study in the village, there are many things I want to learn
How difficult to be farmer/worker?
How difficult is it for teens to find a job? How difficult is it for farmers to sell crops? How to deal with the preservative mainstream society? What does the community in the village look like?
And, how to educate children living in the village?
There are a lot more things...
I have a lot to do in my suburban village.
I love this village, I will learn and listen to people's feelings and thoughts.
What else do people need? ! !
And I don't want to be anyone but myself.
Love them and hold them all.
I want to be a part of a starving community.
Not to be those who only think of their own stomach.
Then I will say
Stay here, I love my country.
This is how I live here.
Soyi ngo cau haito cui ..
Hi og jun. Hi ngo ko ka
Cau hai yannei
(Cantonese romanized, it means:
Here I live
In the village, in my country
I felt solitary every time I saw her struggling to let her voice out. I worried about how long can she stay in Indonesia. I wondered the meaning of activism in a village faraway. The price she paid was beyond words and imagination. There will be a follow-up article focusing on the difficulties faced by Indonesian activists, and how they overcome that.