Sunday Beauty Queens : Exploring Migrant Diasporas and Domestic Labour in Hong Kong.
15 May 2017
Sunday Beauty Queens by Babyruth Villarama is a documentary that delves into the lives of five Filipino domestic helpers, working and living in Hong Kong. The film navigates through the precarious and often lonely existence of the women over the course of a few years, their relationships with each other, their employers and an unknown city. For six days a week, the women work long hours, often as live-in nannies, cooks, cleaners and companions to their employers. However, it is on Sundays when they can relinquish their service for the glitz and glamour of beauty pageantry.
The film opens on a Sunday. The women are taking part in a round of semi-final rehearsals in the lead up to the annual event. Full faces of make-up and masses of sequins and beads embellishing colourful costumes, dance in a whirlwind of broken english and cheers from the crowd. The women are caught in the dressing room getting ready in giddy excitement while Villarama interviews an anthropologist researching the diaspora. She reflects on a question that she asked the women in the beginning of her research. “Why?Why, if Sunday is your only day off do you spend it practising for a beauty pageant?”. This question permeates quietly throughout the film and Villarama delivers the answer astutely. Later that evening we meet Mylyn. She is unexpectedly fired from her job after returning home late from the rehearsal. For the majority of domestic helpers, they are expected to live-in with their employers. Strict curfews and unforgiving employers lead to a claustrophobic and sheltered existence. Their jobs become their lives and their lives soon loses any agency. As a migrant woman in a foreign country their status is made negligible. As an OFW (Overseas Foreign Worker) they bear a heavy cross. The cultural stigma attached to their title both back home and in Hong Kong is intertwined with popular notions of the migrant helper as impoverished, uneducated and submissive. With a significant proportion of the population living and earning under the poverty line, the Philippines serves the global demand for care and hospitality in its export of skilled migrant workers. Women largely take on domestic roles that go far beyond fulfilling their care of duty. They perform serious sacrifices - to care for other families in order to support their own back home.
The women regain a sense of beauty and dignity in performing as representatives of their country. The pageants offer an opportunity for the invisible to be made visible. For the silent to be heard. They are a reclamation of identity and space in what is an unfamiliar, and exclusionary environment. A celebration and connection to a history of pageantry and international success. Beauty pageantry is big business in the Philippines. Filipinos pride themselves on winning international competitions and recognition as a country of beautiful women. The participants of the pageants build a quiet self-confidence in engaging with a long standing cultural tradition and the hope they might one day win. In contrast to the global stereotypes and presumed identities of migrant women, Villarama makes a point of highlighting their education on screen. We encounter the women as not just domestic helpers but graduates of computer science, marketing and nursing. While education is a significant cultural and expected rite of passage in a conservative Asian country, the reality of the Philippine's economic circumstance is unrewarding. Employability is rare and most enter low paying jobs, barely earning enough to support themselves or their families. The prospect of earning double or triple what they earn overseas eventually leads many men and women into entering the overseas workforce.
As women, the expectations they are required to fulfil as a mother and provider for their families may drive them to remain away for countless years. Slowly, their jobs turn into a forged routine and deep emotional bonds are created between employer and employee. This act of displacement begins a shift of care towards the people they look after. We see relationships developing with their “alagas” both young and old. The women play their assigned roles perfectly. Substitute mothers and daughters, they are both nurturing and familial. Hazel cries on the phone as her sons graduation plays on the screen in front her. She's unable to return home because she is taking care of her employers dog. She promises to visit soon and we learn towards the end of the film that this does not end up happening. The women are caught between the priority of earning money to send back home and the emotional crisis they struggle to face in sacrificing time spent with their loved ones.
There is a strong sense of camaraderie and family between the women, often socializing in public spaces like the metro underground, due to the lack of homes to celebrate each other’s birthday and meet their girlfriends who are themselves domestic workers. The meet ups fulfil an underlying need for a taste of home and support from fellow OFW's in similar positions. At the same time, Villarama exposes a community of lesbian, queer and trans relationships between the women. Leo the main organiser of the beauty pageants identifies as male and the women affectionately call him “Daddy”. If there was to be a protagonist of the film, it would be Leo – the head strong organiser of the yearly pageant is seen as the go-to person for help and advice. He, like Villarama recognises the value and importance of the pageant for the community. The pageants counteract the displacement and vulnerability naturally held in foreign spaces. In the pageant finale, the main road in middle of the city is occupied by the pageant performers and participants. Large crowds line the street to watch the spectacle and unabashed display of Filipino culture and identity This reclamation of public space is a powerful departure from the socials held in the secluded and uninviting spaces of the city.
Leo takes the film crew to a “safe house” for domestic workers who are in need of emergency shelter, legal advice and support. They point out that there is rarely any support given from the Embassy. A visual reminder that the Philippine government has rarely taken responsibility for the plight of their overseas Filipino workers. The process of obtaining a working visa and remaining in the country is an expensive and alienating journey. Hidden fees and the fear of deportation can leave a worker in debt and precarious to trafficking.
The revealing relationship between employer and employee is spoken about bluntly to the camera. Leo's employers non-nonchalantly describe hiring him because a Hong Kong native would have cost significantly more. Leo describes past employers who made it a rule that he was not allowed to sit on the couch and would be made to sleep on a mattress on the floor. In most cases, Leo says they will treat their dogs better than their domestic helpers. Inherent discrimination between the different Asian races is rampant in wage and in treatment. Foreign workers are more vulnerable to this exposure and employers know they can take advantage of the loopholes in foreign labour laws. Without employment, foreign workers will need to find work within 14 days before they are forced to leave the country. When there is cheap labour and when that labour is performed by a foreign woman, it becomes easy for abuses to occur. Cases of foreign worker abuses have made headlines in international news. Currently, a case of self-defence between a Filipina domestic helper and her employer in the Middle East has resulted in a battle between egregious patriarchal laws and a woman's quest for justice.
Labour that is undervalued and unappreciated creates chasms of discrimination and exploitation. It is the commodification of care – exported with consequences and unfairly placed on women. We encounter the underlying spatial divisions of labour in the homes of the employers. In a compelling scene, Cherrie explains the process of meal times within the household she looks after. When employers are eating, a helper will never eat with them at the table. They will only eat by themselves in the kitchen at the same time or afterwards. The film provides powerful insight into the reconstruction of patriarchal modes of thought in the home as “a woman's place” and as a site of oppression. The women navigate their socio-cultural vulnerability through their homes multiple fractured divisions in class, race and gender. At once, they are in charge of the functioning of the family home, but their position as migrant women undermines any choice or privilege within that home. The situation can be frustratingly disadvantageous, doubly as second class citizens (migrants), in labour that is barely recognized, and as women.
“The process of labour migration pushes women outside the home at the same time that it reaffirms the belief that women belong inside the home. The work that migrant women perform outside the home – work that sustains and provides the Philippine economy with one of its largest sources of foreign currency – usually maintains the notion of women's domesticity” (2008:4). Villarama documents a story that is both well-known and culturally embedded in Filipino history. When tracing the phenomena of exported labour in the Philippines, the systematic migration of temporary Filipino workers occurred during the long-held Marcos dictatorship in the 1970's. The Philippines was in the midst of major political upheaval and mass unemployment. Economically and politically, the country needed a solution to lift itself out of growing poverty and it found this in profit through remittances (the transfer of money to an individual in their home country) and foreign exchange.
The film is commendably honest and emotionally powerful. Villarama questions the rights of vulnerable foreign workers and the cost of women's emotional labour in this modern age. Revealing precarious overseas labour laws, and questioning the rights and discrimination of Filipino citizens. The beauty pageants not only provide the women with the chance to build community support and self-confidence but as way to recognise beauty from within. Far from being a victimised tale, Villarama’s storytelling is a heartfelt look into one of the largest diasporas of overseas domestic workers in the world. The film celebrates migrant women at their most vulnerable and at their most beautiful.
Parrenas, R.S, The Force of Domesticity: Filipina Migrants and Globalization (2008) New York University Press, New York