A million thanks to ‘The Helper’, the unsung hero

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"The Helper" movie poster

A new feature-length documentary titled “The Helper” by British filmmaker Joanna Bowers is currently screening in Hong Kong cinemas. It chronicles compelling stories, both wonderful and heart-breaking, of Hong Kong’s female migrant workers mostly coming from the Philippines and Indonesia.

They leave their own country in search of greener pasture in another country. They leave their own children and families to serve children of other families. To the world, they are the migrant domestic workers. To Hong Kong, they are the foreign domestic helpers. To the affluent family, she is the ‘helper’ and only one of the 336,000 under that tag.

But what’s the name behind the tag? Be it Mabel, Vergie, Joy, Nurul or Liza, Analyn, Yumi, Vilma, Muji or Cecilia – it can mean many things to many people. To the little girl, she is another ‘mommy’. To the mommy, she is the person who runs the household. To the little boy, she is the one who brings the family together. And to the father, she is part of the fabric of Hong Kong.

Collectively, they are the unsung heroes who work long hours, are paid the minimum monthly wage of HK$ 4,410 (or US$550 ) and who stay in the walkways and parks of Central and Causeway Bay during day off because they have nowhere else to go.

Director Joanna Bowers said the documentary pays tribute to those who make such extraordinary maternal sacrifices of their own to support Hong Kong’s families. “These are real people with real stories; not just domestic helpers. They are women, wives and mothers, overcoming obstacles to achieve the extraordinary”.

Adventurous climber Liza Avelino has reached the 5,800-meter Crampon Point, Island Peak in the Himalayas to  become the first foreign domestic helper to do so.

“Sometimes, you don’t have to make it on top to be an achievement. It’s not the mountain that you conquer but yourself”, Liza said. She is an inspiration.

So also are the Unsung Heroes of Discovery Bay community, a choir of Filipino domestic helpers formed in 2014 by

Jane Engelemann of DBGlee. When Ms. Bowers saw the group’s video singing the Engelmanns-composed song ‘I Wish I Could Kiss You Goodnight’, she decided to put them in the starring role.

“I immediately recognized that this choir and their beautiful music would be the backbone of the story”, she said.

The film follows the journey of these Unsung Heroes on their way to perform on the main stage of the Clockenflap

Music Festival. But integrated within the all-helpers-singing group were individua performances of members in the stage of life. Lead singer Joy was a teacher by profession in the Philippines but a learner of housekeeping when she first came to Hong Kong. Sharing her singing talent to her young ward resulted in a surprise birthday gift from her employer – a session with a vocal coach.

Member Vilma needed to come home because her daughter was indecently assaulted by a neighbor. She partly blamed herself for not being there with her. Mother Analyn was very happy to see her dream come true, her youngest son’s college graduation.

“It was so moving to see the excited and proud Analyn, and her boy saying that he wouldn’t be wearing this cap and gown here today ‘if it wasn’t for my mom’, ” Bowers recalled.

Helper Nurul’s story was a mother’s story also but on a different note. She was wrongfully accused of theft by her employer, then unknowingly overstayed her visa and got pregnant by her boyfriend during the investigation.

Bowers said, “Her story is really powerful, because despite everything that she has gone through, she is the most amazing mother, and everything she did was for her young daughter.” Hong Kong charity Pathfinders found and helped Nurul and assisted in the birth of her daughter.

According to Bowers, the message of the documentary is to create a shift in how domestic helpers are perceived so that their contribution to HK would be valued and recognized and for that feeling to translate into a feeling of gratitude and empathy towards them.

Asked of the possibility of “The Helper, part 2” , Director Bowers told Hong Kong News, “ There are so many powerful stories  idea that keeps coming up – maybe even a TV series ?”

But for now, “The Helper” is in the cinema and the helper is the unsung hero More than cleaning, cooking , taking the kid to school or walking the dog, this hero can climb the highest mountains and can sing before tens of thousands.

It’s time to take a different look and listen appreciatively to her voice. From near and far, the message is positive and clear: “a million thanks to you’.