FDHs and beauty pageants

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Ms. Chen (Photo by Dada Habab)

Cinderella is not ‘just a maid’


EVER wonder why many Filipino domestic helpers in the territory spend so much time, resources, and effort in joining beauty pageants?

This is the same question that plagued Ju-Chen Chen, a lecturer at the Department of Anthropology of The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), leading her to spend between three and four years in researching and analyzing Filipinos’ fondness of beauty pageants.

Her research yielded surprising results: instead of looking at beauty pageants as an avenue that demean women, Filipino domestic workers see them as a way to assert their identity as more than just a “maid”.

The CUHK professor presented the findings of her study at “Keep Catwalking: Education and Beauty Pageants of Filipino Migrant Workers in Hong Kong” at the Hong Kong Museum of History on February 25.

In an e-mail interview, Ms. Chen told Hong Kong News that although she became curious about Filipino beauty pageants here in Hong Kong since late 2012, she began acquainting herself with the overseas Filipino workers’ community since May 2011.

“Participating in these festivals and shows – no matter whether as event organisers, judges, performers, masters of ceremony, receptionists, photographers, or assistants – make these women feel valuable and fulfilled,” said Ms. Chen in the chapter of the book “The Age of Asian Migration: Continuity, Diversity, and Susceptibility Volume 2”, which was released in 2015. Her presentation was based on the book’s chapter which she wrote.

Citing the metaphor of “Cinderella”, the maid who, with the help of a fairy grandmother, transformed into the belle of the ball, Ms. Chen said Filipino migrant workers get the the opportunity to show their femininity, beauty, talents, and educational qualifications in beauty pageants.

“The ‘Cinderella’ metaphor helps to illustrate their self-image and subjective choices: they are just not maids, whether it is Monday or Sunday. That said, domestic work is a profession they are proud of, and being maids, therefore is an identity they confidently own,” she said.

“Cinderella knows during every moment of her life – Mondays to Fridays included – that she is not ‘just a maid’ and she does not have to attend the ball in order to prove this. It is the same for my informants…From the Filipinas’ perspective, Sundays are free time and family time. Sundays are time to take care of oneself and fulfill other responsibilities as friends, sisters, girlfriends, wives, daughters, mothers, and breadwinners, as well as self-enterprising subjects,” Ms. Chen said.

Beauty queen titles, she said, are considered pathways for Filipino migrant workers to build promising careers, change their life, and obtain economic success and enhanced social status.

Ms. Chen said she found her Filipino informants (those she interviewed for the research) proud of their work as domestic helpers in the city and see themselves as professional home-workers, but these beauty pageant events allow them to attain “some personal achievements”.

One of Ms. Chen’s informants – Daniella – said beauty pageants give her the opportunity to show her “talent”.

“After meeting more beauty queens, I found that ‘talent’ and ‘confidence’ were two keywords repeatedly evoked when Filipinas talked about entering into a competition,” Ms. Chen said.

Besides a showcase for their talent and enhancing their confidence, beauty pageants are also events that allow others to form bonds and a community with other foreign migrant workers in the territory.

“Participating in these Sunday events, as my research has shown, is first of all, a way for the Filipinas, who spend most of their time living alone in their employers’ homes, to build up a meaningful social world, a humane and corporeal community, that is not far away and not digitalised (unlike the long distance call communications with their own families),” Ms. Chen said.

She found that Filipino domestic workers would be usually assisted by their friends –other domestic workers- in their transformation to become beauty queens.

“Participating in these events is not about either fully relaxing or fully enjoying.Participation brings with it tension, heavy workloads and exhaustion. However, these positive and negative emotions and experiences are critical steps towards their realisation of who they [are] and in terms of maintaining their community and identity,” Ms. Chen added.

As for criticisms that beauty pageants tend to demean or exploit women, she said those she interviewed, knew about this debate, but they disagree with it.

Ms. Chen’s curiosity was piqued after observing that Filipino domestic workers spend their Sundays – their rest days – on a flurry of activities that require them time, effort, and money to join and participate in a beauty pageant.

“’Why don’t they rest on their “restdays”?’ was my earliest question regarding this perplexing phenomenon. Why are they willing to spend Sundays-their only rest-days- and much of their very limited free time during weekdays on these events?

“Additionally, these activities are costly. For example, it costs as much as one- to two-thirds of a foreign domestic helper’s monthly income to participate as a candidate in the contest,” she said.

Through her research, Ms. Chen said she was able to understand better the OFW community in Hong Kong.

“They know (better than me) that what is most precious in their lives in Hong Kong is not just leisure, time, and money. Rather, in migration – living alone with a new family and discovering new communities in this so-called metropolitan city.”