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Inside an Opera That Uses Everything Including the Kitchen Sink to Depict the Lives of Domestic Helpers

9 minute read

There’s a general rule of thumb in Hong Kong that when you have a child, you get a maid. That may seem like an indulgence, but hiring live-in household help—predominantly females hailing from the Philippines and Indonesia—is seen as essential and, at just $565 a month in minimum wages, highly affordable. One helper means both parents can work. Two means never worrying about groceries or figuring out how to use the washing machine. And 360,000 of them make Hong Kong’s middle classes among the world’s most cosseted.

The helper’s side of the story is, of course, very different—but it is the tale Mila tells in a trilingual chamber opera production held last week at the Asia Society’s Hong Kong venue. To previous generations of Hongkongers, welcoming a stranger into a family, who can vie for the affection and closeness normally given to a parent, is nothing new. In colonial days, many families had a lifelong helper known as an amah (after the Portuguese word for nurse). But to the newly affluent, who have no experience of managing such relationships, hiring a helper often causes a myriad of internal dysfunctions—jealousy, frustration, insecurity—that don’t surface until they sadly make the Hong Kong headlines.

Creating a chamber opera that storms right into the living room of a quintessential Hong Kong family, grappling with these issues, is quirky, quintessentially Hong Kong, and bold. Conceived by award-winning local playwright Candace Chong, with music by Eli Marshall, stage direction by Chan Chu Hei, and conducted by Neal Goren, the hour-long production must be one of the first of its kind anywhere to use opera to confront the problems of modern-day domestic workers. With kitchenware doubling as instruments, Mila also asks first and foremost what it means to be a modern family.

“Domestic helpers in Hong Kong… [have] become a significant population and they’re important to Hong Kong’s family, especially me as a working mom,” says Chong, who has a track record of confronting social issues in her plays such as The French Kiss (2006) and The Wild Boar (2012). “They seem so invisible. If we cannot fight for the best rights for them, at least we can treat them better.”

Over three years in development, Mila captures the fraught, quotidian life of a posh Hong Kong family with a new Filipino maid—the eponymous Mila (Stefanie Quintin, soprano). She’s the thirteenth to enter the unhappy home where, even 53 floors suspended above a pool, the family is drowning in unhappiness. Mila’s employers are a married couple called Sir (Joseph Beutel, bass-baritone) and Ma’am (Amanda Li, soprano)—the former a high-powered white philanderer, the latter a paranoid Chinese tiger mom. They’re too absorbed in their own bills and bickering to notice the suicidal thoughts plaguing their son, Little Master (Joanne Shao, Soprano), who spends most of the show stressing over his grades and gravitating to the balcony. Mila is desperate to a save a son that’s not hers from the same fate of a daughter that once was.

It’s a disturbing tale. Depression, loneliness, disappointment, mistrust—these family tensions are not unique to Hong Kong. But what is unique to Hong Kong is the way helpers like Mila can become the scapegoat. Mila does her best to tiptoe around her employers’ volcanic marriage. But each of their own worlds of inner turmoil—sung in their native languages English, Cantonese, and Tagalog, with subtitles projected in the back—collide on stage. Mila’s employers are too busy lashing out at Mila about bad eggs to realize at some level, they’re all singing the same language. “We all work so hard, but enjoy so little,” they both sing. “If anyone should jump from the balcony, it should be me.”

Foreign domestic workers (or FDWs, to use the common abbreviation) have supplied Hong Kong with a integral source of labor since the late 1970s. They come from Southeast Asia to earn three times more than what they would at home. Today they make up 9% of Hong Kong’s workforce and are employed by 11% of households. They tutor, they cook, they clean, and in many cases, become part of the family. They also support their home economies in the form of remittances: In 2015, total remittance income from overseas Philippine workers amounted to $28.5 billion—equivalent to 10% of the Philippines’ GDP.

But for all the growth they stimulate, helpers are systematically disenfranchised in Hong Kong. Unlike expatriates who obtain the right to abode after seven years, FDWs are legally barred from such, meaning that after decades of residency they can simply be told to leave. Their contracts require them to live with their employers—a nightmare if the employer is abusive or sexually predatory. A 2016 report by human-rights nonprofit Justice Centre found that 1 in 6 domestic workers was a victim of forced labor and faced physical and mental abuse. Some 16% of those were trafficked, according to the report. Amnesty International has even classified FDWs as “modern day slaves.”

“They’re hired laborers. We talk about workplace rights, so why can’t we think about the workplace as a home and treat FDWs as proper employees?” says Lisa Leung, associate professor in the department of cultural studies at Lingnan University, and author of Understanding South Asian Minorities in Hong Kong.

In the last two years, greater interest has been shown in the plight of helpers. Two documentaries, Sunday Beauty Queen (2016) and The Helper (2017) shed light on the lives of these women beyond the home. A play, Not The Maids, was put on last August. And in 2015, So Mei Chi authored Strangers at Home, a book that tracked the stories of these women back to their home countries and inspired Chong to write the script for Mila.

“I think recently Hong Kong people are more and more concerned about social issues,” says Chong. “They seem to be more interested in art about social issues.”

But as that sort of art goes, Mila is in a category of its own, with orchestration as unorthodox as its subject matter. The players are arranged in a kitchen. Rows of alcohol bottles—Bombay Sapphire, Asahi, Chardonnay, Stella Artois, filled and tuned with water—perched above xylophones. From an overhead beam hung pots and pans. Tubs of dishes sat on the floor. Industrial pipes lined the wall. “It’s sort of everything including the kitchen sink,” said Marshall. “You can’t get away from the noise, even on the 53rd story.”

“What [Mila] really has done was take all those elements and root them in Hong Kong,” says Ken Smith, columnist for Opera China magazine and the Asian performing arts critic of the Financial Times. The production lacks cohesion, but nevertheless, “It’s a strong piece,” he says. “The thing that it was supposed to do was start a dialogue in the way art is supposed to do. I would like to see an interesting piece more than one that plays by the rule books, that does everything it’s supposed to do than ultimately is not that challenging.”

Mila poses its most important challenges in the climax. Ma’am and Sir are driving and quarreling. “Why can’t we get a new maid?” Ma’am implores her husband. Mila is lazy, a poor cook, she has sad eyes—rambling off excuses rooted in her deep-seeded suspicion that Mila is covering up her husband’s affair. Sir pushes back: no more maids, no more interviews, no more strangers. Ma’am retreats and sulks. She swipes through an app on her phone connected to home video surveillance—a common trend among paranoid parents—projected on a stage screen. Mila jumps off the balcony.

In the final scene, against a pale blue digital ocean scape, Mila floats. The ghost of her daughter, Rosa, returns. Steering her to heaven, she says, “You’re paid to be a brief period in his life.”

The parallels to real Hong Kong headlines are shocking and not lost on anyone. “But the story was worth telling,” says Alice Mong, executive director of the Asia Society Hong Kong. “In the end, I feel we need talk about it. It’s reality.”

No one is this more of a reality to than the domestic helpers for whom a Sunday matinee was specially held. For most of the show, the audience laughed ruefully at the real, ridiculous demands of the Ma’am and Sir, but they fell into a deep hush when Mila (Quintin) choked up delivering a speech to them in Tagalog. Growing up in the Philippines, Quintin had aunts who worked as domestic helpers (not in Hong Kong but in the Middle East).

“I know the loneliness that [my aunts] felt being away from their families, taking care of other children while they can’t take care of their own children,” she previously told TIME. In her speech, Quintin dedicated the applause to the helpers and thanked them for their sacrifices.

“I felt sad. We cried because we feel how Mila feels,” said Malou Empig, 48, a Filipino helper in Hong Kong for 26 years. Surrounded by about a dozen friends, they all nodded in agreement. “It reflects us a lot because of the way we make sacrifices in order to earn money to support the family back home. And it makes us really sad. It was true.”

“Hong Kong people need to watch this show,” says Wina Ocuz, 31, an Indonesian helper for nine years. This story is us. This is our life here.”

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