Hong Kong: Where Filipino domestic helpers are beauty queens
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Hong Kong: Where Filipino domestic helpers are beauty queens

BABYRUTH VILLARAMA is the director of a documentary about a beauty pageant held in right in the glitter and lights of central Hong Kong. It includes the whole works – gowns, talents shows and interviews. It’s almost like a Trump Miss Universe event, except there’s one difference here – the contestants are Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in Hong Kong.

Sunday Beauty Queen follows the lives of several OFWs as they prepare for their beauty pageant during their only day off on Sunday. From Monday to Saturday, these women are on call 24/7 to the needs and whims of the families they work for. But on this one day of freedom, these women train in this beauty contest, not for the sake of self worth, but to “save lives, change the abusive system and be happy inside out”.

The Asian financial hub’s relationship with OFWs is an intimate one – helpers are literally required by law to live with their employers, a situation that most find stressful as this leaves them with no personal space and time.

While Villarama’s work highlights some fortunate to get employers who treat them with respect or even as family, many of the nearly 200,000 working there are victims of unfair employment policies. These abuses and the institutional environment allowing them, are not shown or delved into deeply in the 95-minute long film unfortunately.

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Nevertheless, Sunday Beauty Queen is effective as a primer for those unaware of OFWs plight in Hong Kong. Where the film shines best is in its success in capturing their personal moments as mothers, daughters and wives sacrificing their freedom and dignity, so they are able to send some money to their family back home. It puts a very human face to the “robots” known only as the invisible cleaners and carers for Hong Kongers.

Asian Correspondent (AC) caught up with Villarama after the film screening at the Kuala Lumpur Freedom Film Fest 2017 yesterday to talk about the beauty pageant, how the film is breaking stereotypes and the generation of children growing up without their parents in the Philippines.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

AC: Why were you drawn to the topic of OFWs in Hong Kong?

Villarama: We discovered them by accident. We were there for the Hong Kong Film Market in March. One Sunday afternoon on the way back to the hotel, we chanced upon them. We’re talking about hundreds of thousand of people. I thought it was a big rally. You feel like the Philippines were transported to another city. So, I got curious and raised what I saw in my courtesy call to the Philippines consulate there. They shared that one of the phenomena among these OFWs is that they are spending a lot of money in these beauty pageants.

So we talked to them and we found that this was a necessary escape. They need the pageant to raise money to fund shelters for Filipinos who have been fired and displaced, as well as those of other races. Also, as a foreign worker alone in a foreign country, it’s natural for them to seek another person to celebrate who they are in that small window of time, on Sunday.

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Behind the scenes with Mylyn Jacobo, an OFW and Miss Hong Kong Tourism finalist. Source: Voyage Studios

AC: Why do you think a moving picture, a film, is the best medium to tell their story?

Villarama: Each of us has a role to portray the realities of our world. For me, I believe cinema is such a powerful tool to celebrate life, victories and small joys. It’s about transporting a person from where he or she is to a whole new world. Like awhile ago, it was as if all of us were in Hong Kong and seeing from the point of view of an OFWs. To me, that is potential and power of cinema.

AC: What is the impact of the film thus far?

Villarama: The biggest impact has been on the children of these OFWs who caught our screening in the Philippines. For so many years, there has been an unspoken hatred from these children to their parents because they’ve been gone and missing from the important events in their lives, like graduations and birthdays as well as the challenges they faced while growing up. These events are the very fibre of society, yet they have been destroyed by this migration phenomenon.

But after seeing what their parents are actually going through, they finally understood.

AC: Sunday Beauty Queen did not show the children of the OFWs back home. Was that a conscious decision?

Villarama: Yes, we wanted to protect them. We did not want people to feel sorry or judge them. We had to be careful how this will affect them in schools and with their relatives. Also, some of them are facing complex relationships with whoever is taking care of them, usually by the OFWs’ grandparents or siblings.

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Villarama and Mylyn Jacobo at the Kuala Lumpur Freedom Film Fest 2017. Source: Lee Lian Kong

AC: There’s a generation of Filipino children growing up without their mothers. How do you think this will affect the country?

Villarama: You can just imagine how these children will grow up without understanding because their parents will never tell them about their work overseas. They only know that “You left us so you can send us money”. So, these children are growing up with the understanding that love is synonymous to monetary rewards.

It’s emotionally messy, as you can see from one of the OFW in the film, Hazel, who had to miss her son’s graduation back home. How can you explain to a 13-year-old child, in a critical phase of his life, that your mother cannot go home to attend your graduation because she needed to take care of her employer’s dog?

I can’t put the right words into this, but I know it’s not something positive.