Why would Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong spend their hard-earned Sundays off organizing and participating in beauty pageants? An anthropologist posits this question at the beginning of Baby Ruth Villarama’s excellent documentary Sunday Beauty Queen, and the question serves as food for thought beyond the film’s runtime.
The conditions of OFW (Overseas Filipino Workers) deserve attention, especially domestic staff. Citizens of Hong Kong are wealthy compared to other Asian countries, and as such, rely heavily on migrant labour. Many of the domestic workers shown in the film face adverse working conditions such as long hours, arbitrary curfews (that could lead to dismissal if not met), scarce food allotments from employers (the family’s pets eat better), poor accommodations (the family’s pets also sleep better). The little money saved is sent home to support families there.
The purpose of the beauty pageants is to encourage not a pretty body or face, but “a pretty mind, a pretty heart, and a beautiful soul” as espoused in the film. In fact, contestants are asked political and topical questions in the Q & A portion of the festivities: questions about the conditions of domestic workers are high on the list, and all contestants speak from the heart. An undercurrent of the pageant is the advocacy work: much fundraising is done to help charities that, in turn, help OFWs – especially since the Filipino Consulate does not, as an organization, fund safe spaces like the Bethune House, a refuge for OFWs. (To be fair, the documentary does say staff of the Consulate, as individuals, do what they can; it’s just not an organizational priority.)
These safe havens are essential, especially since strict laws and policies in Hong Kong potentially allow for the abuse of domestic staff: for example, if a Filipina worker is laid off, she must find employment within 14 days or face deportation. This could lead to situations where the worker suffers for fear of unemployment. Furthermore, even if one is working successfully in Hong Kong – there are restrictions and fees to pay upon exiting the country and more restrictions and fees to return to the Philippines.
The film shines in the quiet moments: witness Mylyn wrap a sash around her ill employer, Jack, and note the chemistry and rapport they must share. Observe Cherrie’s love for the family’s son, Hayden, and how she wishes she could just work 12 hours instead of 24 (and also eat at the same dinner table as him, I’d reckon).
The pageants are an act of resistance (and style) amongst the labyrinthine and Kafkaesque rules of living and working in Hong Kong, but in the end, the pageants are about recognition. Recognition for the small, selfless acts of sacrifice these domestic workers do every day for so little.
Sat, Apr 29, 9:45 PM Isabel Bader Theatre
Sun, Apr 30, 10:30 AM Isabel Bader Theatre
Sun, May 7, 1:00 PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 2