I first visited Hong Kong in 1996. My relatives there are relatively well-off, ensuring all I’ve heard are stories of how great it is to live there. I was 11: naive in many ways to the world, and most especially the plight of so many Filipinos living as domestic helpers.
The day we were set to fly back home, I was greeted with a rude awakening: Sunday in Hong Kong. That was the day the city’s domestic helpers take their day off. They were setting up picnics in sidewalks, offering pedicures in plain view of the public, taking over whole streets, being loud and rambunctious, essentially destroying the beautiful image of Hong Kong that I had in my head.
As I never understood what it felt like to work six days a week for a meager amount, I was annoyed. “How dare the invisible domestic helpers show up and be everywhere?” said the bratty, selfish, 11 year old me.
That was an incident from 22 years ago. I would like to think that I’ve grown past the selfishness that defined that one moment. But as the opening scenes of Sunday Beauty Queen played, it came flooding back and just wouldn’t leave.
Sunday Beauty Queen explores the lives of five expatriate domestic helpers in Hong Kong. By tracking their lives, director Baby Ruth Villarama exposes the unfair conditions they often live in. The beauty pageants they organize and participate help them escape the drudgery of menial labor. The contrast between their daily lives and the weekly glamour that they live for is a recurring theme. In the documentary’s opening, one of the subjects, Rudelyn, wins a beauty pageant only to be fired from her job hours later for missing her curfew. She has 14 days to find a new employer or she has to be sent back home.
We also meet Leo, one of the few domestic helpers allowed to rent their own apartment. A spunky transgendered man, Leo lives with his girlfriend and in his free time organizes the beauty pageants. They are, according to him, a way to raise money to help Filipino foreign workers in need. Through Leo, we see the small efforts done by various groups to help foreign workers like the small shelter for domestic helpers who have nowhere else to go. In the shelter, we hear the inhabitants voice out their grievances against Hong Kong’s labor laws. These laws have enabled abuse against domestic workers for years. For the domestic helpers who were able to find good, caring employers, we see their relationships, like Mylyn and her aging boss Jack Soo. Her strong bond with Jack leads us to one of the most heartbreaking developments toward the end of the film.
It is in this backdrop of drudgery and menial work that we see these domestic helpers. Saddled with homesickness and desperate for human contact outside of work, they get together and seek to reclaim whatever small dignity they have with these weekly gatherings. It doesn’t matter if the makeup they put on is too thick, or if the dresses they wear are tacky. For one day, they are beauty queens, and they can leave all their problems behind.
Here I am, watching the stories of the people I once wished would stay invisible 22 years ago. And I am grateful to know the stories of Rudelyn, Cherrie, Mylyn, Hazel, and Leo, even for just a couple of hours.