The Sun Writers Club: Meet the maids reporting Hong Kong’s hidden stories

 

After she finishes cooking dinner, cleaning up and reading her employer’s children a bedtime story, Marites Palma aims to be in bed by 9pm — especially if a deadline is looming.

With the rest of the house asleep, she rises at 2am, sits at the table where her television usually rests, and, in the glow of her laptop, begins work on her articles.

The 42-year-old domestic helper usually writes until 5:30am, then takes a bath and begins preparing her employer’s breakfast.

Though tiring, her early morning routine, she says, is the realization of a life-long ambition. 

“When I was in school, I wanted to study [mass communication], but my parents could not afford it because that course was only in other provinces, so I took agriculture instead,” says Palma, a native of northern Luzon.

“But I always read newspapers and I love to write. I think maybe this is the dream.”

Palma is a contributor to the Filipino community newspaper The Sun, one of about 100 overseas workers in Hong Kong that the free bi-monthly publication has trained in journalism since it was founded 22 years ago this week.

Sun contributor Marites Palma conducting an interview at a demonstration against mining in the Philippines in Central last month. Picture: Shaun Turton

A few times a year, the paper holds workshops for any readers interested in news writing. Some of the attendees, mostly domestic helpers, then join the Sun Writers Club and contribute a handful of stories to the paper each month.

It’s a taxing double life. The contributors use their one day off each week to report, and often correspond with sources in the brief spare moments between housekeeping, running errands and cooking.

But for members of the all-volunteer Sun Writers Club, it’s a role they cherish and excel at.

Their stories cover the gamut of the experience of the roughly 189,000 Filipinos living in Hong Kong. From community events, travel features and sports write-ups, to the all-too-common stories of abuse, indignity and misfortune suffered by their fellow maids.

And though each enjoys improving their writing, their overriding motivation stems from helping their community.

“It’s sort of activism and journalism,” Palma told Coconuts Hong Kong last month in Central, where she had been covering an environmental group’s demonstration against destructive mining in the Philippines.

“If you know more, you know about your rights and how to fight for them.”

Paper with a purpose

In its first four-page edition, printed on Dec. 3, 1995, the Sun vowed to serve Filipinos as they “toiled in this strange land.”

And toil they do. Recent research has highlighted the “appalling” living conditions of many maids who are forced to sleep in toilets, showers, storage rooms and on balconies. Another, government-backed, report revealed that more than 70 percent of employment agencies charge exorbitant fees, withhold passports, or act as de facto loan sharks, ensnaring maids in debt.

One year-long study found a “significant proportion” of the maids it interviewed were working in conditions that would constitute “forced labor”.

Newspapers, a page 1 editorial in the Sun’s inaugural edition reads, can be pieces of paper tossed away after reading, or they can become institutions. Leo Deocadiz and Daisy Mandap — the Sun’s founders and veterans of the Filipino and Hong Kong journalism scenes — promised to be the latter.

More than two decades later, the husband and wife team continue to run a publication that is much more than the sum of its parts, adopting what might be called a hybrid approach to journalism — melding reporting, advocacy, social work and community service.

Sun publisher Leo Deocadiz and editor Daisy Mandap. Picture: Shaun Turton

Behind adjacent desks ensconced in the Sun’s 15th-floor North Point office, the couple works late most nights, surrounded by shelves piled high with files, mementos, and back issues.

With a small full-time team of three — Deocadiz, the publisher; Mandap, the editor; and associate editor, Vir Lumicao — the paper tackles an endless torrent of troubling tip-offs: from shady recruitment agencies offering bogus jobs, to helpers abused by employers, to those stricken by illness or terminated in the dead of night.

Reporting the facts is draining enough, but their work goes far beyond simple reporting.

Behind the scenes, the team arranges lawyers, coordinates the rescue of maids in distress, refers helpers to shelters, accompanies them to police stations, and helps them file complaints or compensation requests. Its these efforts outside a newspaper’s traditional mandate that have earned them the unofficial title of “second consulate.”

“We grew into this role because there was a need for it,” Deocadiz said, sitting behind his desk last month.

“We were schooled in the journalism principle of always being in the middle, but in this case, since we started this, we have found that it’s not enough. You have to take sides, and you know which side you’re on. We’ve always taken the side of these people, and we recognize that.”

Rodelia and the rescue

Sun contributor Rodelia Villa, who began writing for the paper this year after 13 years of publishing a church newsletter, occupies a middle ground of her own: reporter, responder and, perhaps her favourite role, a source of recipes.

After finishing her work as a domestic helper each day, usually about 11pm, the 39-year-old informs her Facebook followers that she is available to answer questions.

She administers two Facebook groups, one providing basic Cantonese translation services for maids, and another that shares recipes for affordable meals to cook their employers. Each has several thousand followers.

Sun contributor Rodelia Villa at a market in central. As well as writing stories, Villa maintains a Facebook group to share recipes for fellow domestic helpers to cook. Picture: Shaun Turton

Her profile online also sees her regularly contacted by helpers in need. Most days, she gets 10 to 15 messages ranging from minor issues to emergencies. She refers serious cases directly to the Philippine consulate, where she also somehow finds time to volunteer.

On three occasions, she’s been contacted by domestic helpers contemplating suicide, and in each case, talked them down.  

“She said she was at the window,” she recalled of one. “I told her to step back, just step back.”

Early last month, Villar received a tip-off, describing a history of horrific treatment of a helper working at a home in Tseung Kwan O, including physical, verbal and emotional abuse.

The woman had allegedly been forced to bang her head against the ground, kicked, jabbed with scissors, and made to pay exorbitant fines for perceived shortcomings in her performance, each documented in a notebook, photographs of which were passed to Villar.

She quickly sent the information on to the consulate and the newspaper. Soon after, Vir Lumicao, the Sun’s main writer, arrived at the helper’s home, and took her and the colleague who reported the abuse away to safety.

Villar helped write the story, which appeared in the Sun’s next edition.

“It’s a critical part of the community,” says the Philippine Labor Attache in Hong Kong Jalilo Dela Torre of the newspaper.

“Not only is it a source of information but, also, they see to it that all the services that our workers are entitled to are delivered by government officials, as well as non-government organizations.”

‘Small person, big voice’

Merly Bunda, too, always finds herself in the middle.

The exuberant 50-year-old is a domestic helper, a trained midwife, a volunteer radio correspondent and a contributor to the Sun. But, like many of those in the Sun Writers Club, she’s much more.

In the Philippines, some — not her, but others — say she’s a bit of a celebrity.

Since the SARS outbreak in 2003, her regular dispatches from Hong Kong for Bombo Radyo mean her voice is recognized regularly when she returns to her native Iloilo province.

“When they meet me in the market, they say ‘how does such a small person have such a big voice,” says Bunda, who has lived in Hong Kong for 27 years.

Here in Hong Kong, she’s also well-known in the community, particularly via social media. She has almost 5,000 friends on Facebook.

Sun contributor Merly Bunda draws on her large Facebook network for stories and sources. Picture: Shaun Turton

In a matter of minutes, Bunda, acting on a tip-off, can use those online relationships to track down nearly any Filipino living in the city. In October, a Filipino driver suffering from severe depression mutilated his own genitalia. A few messages later, she was in contact with the man’s flatmates.

Like others in the Sun Writer’s Club, Bunda also serves as a point of contact and source of advice for helpers in distress. For true emergencies, like workers abruptly struck down by illness, she refers to the Philippine consulate, which knows to always answer her calls.

When she can, she follows up in person. Not just for the story, but to try and provide a solution.

In recent weeks, she’s visited hospitalized maids, one with Lupus and another with tuberculosis, the latter of which she personally accompanied to the emergency ward during a typhoon warning.

In late November, she met with a domestic helper wrongly accused of abandoning a fetus in a public toilet. The woman had been summonsed a second time for questioning and was nervous. Bunda, who’s writing a piece about the episode for the Sun, counseled her prior to the interview to remain confident and answer all the questions she’s asked.

“I’m always in-between, in the middle,” she says of her role.

“You know, there is a thrill,” she admits, both in chasing down stories and trying to help those in need. “If in my heart, I think I can help, I will go.”

Agents of change

Deocadiz and Mandap joke about who is the real boss. Dela Torre, the labor attaché, calls them a “perfect match,” the former handling the business and the latter spearheading their coverage of dozens of stories a month.

Mandap’s energy and drive is integral to the operation. Holder of degrees in both law and journalism, her resume includes major Filipino publications and senior editorial roles at Hong Kong newspaper the Standard, Asia Television HK (ATV), and CNN in Hong Kong.

There’s likely not an issue affecting Filipinos in Hong Kong that she can’t detail in depth, meaning conversations easily flow from one case, to the next, to the next. 

Publisher Deocadiz and editor Mandap at the Sun newspaper office. Picture: Shaun Turton

As well as reporting many of the stories, Mandap spends her time editing the copy of the Sun Writers Club contributors, making sure her changes are accompanied by feedback.

She’s a stickler for the fundamentals. Nor is there any accommodation of double standards in the paper’s portrayal of those it’s covering.

“Our bottom line is the protection of our domestic workers, but if they do something wrong, they have to face the consequences. We do not protect them to the extent that we cover up for any misdeed they have done,” she says.

“We try to be very accurate. There’s no excuse for sloppy.”

Working as a domestic helper can be isolating, lonely and a blow to the self-confidence of women, many with tertiary educations, who often feel they’re treated as second-class citizens.

For many of the Sun contributors, reporting and writing gives them a chance to change not only the lives of the people they cover, but their own.

Such was the case for Gina Ordona, who arrived in Hong Kong fresh out of college, planning to stay just a few years. That was 20 years ago, and for a long time, the 41-year-old said she struggled with low self-esteem. That finally began to change a decade ago when she began writing.

“I could not even tell my friends, my classmates from college, what I do here in Hong Kong, for a long time,” she said recently. “I had difficulty accepting it. I don’t know what made me come to terms, but maybe it’s because of what I do now. I’m a domestic helper, but on the sidelines, I write.”

After many sleepless nights writing and hours spent comparing her copy to the published story, Ordona has become one of the Sun’s best contributors.

She wants to study writing when she returns to the Philippines, where she hopes one day to work full-time in journalism.

Speaking with Coconuts last weekend after covering a forum by Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano, Ordona explained why she loved the craft.

“I just enjoy writing the story as it is,” she said.

“You want to be the agent of change, just making a little difference to make the situation better. If you can do it by writing about a specific issue, then good enough.”

Sun contributor Gina Ordona has written for the paper for a decade. Picture: Shaun Turton