It was on the 55th floor of the Fortune Apartment. Units D and C faced each other, and my balcony looked into the maid’s room of the unit across from me.
Two maids bunked there, and occasionally when I took my evening tea outside, I saw them winding down after a 12-hour day, supine in exhaustion. Maids in Hong Kong have six day weeks, 12 hour days (sometimes longer), and responsibilities ranging from food preparation to childcare, to everything in between depending on the vagaries of their employer. All this, while having no private space to themselves except the shoebox closets beyond a slide-out door, that fit only a single bed and a bag of luggage, or two. Sometimes households with kids employed two maids, and so they have to bunk.
The lives of the real hustlers in Hong Kong are fascinating. The bankers who work 18-20 hour days. The maids who worked for them, with the same hours. The 60-year olds who worked 12 hour days collecting the trash, via stairwell, floor by floor, in 30+ level buildings. The older storekeeps who close up their shops at 9 or 10pm, long after the regular office workers have gone home. Hong Kong was and is and will be, a city imbued with a Southern Chinese ethic of immigrant hustle.
Try to imagine that life. To do it every day for years without breaking down, because every Sunday you get to send your paycheck via wire back to the Philippines or Indonesia.
The only way to sustain that kind of life is with patterns of work and relief. For young bankers, probably related to alcohol and parties and weekend getaways. For the maids, though, what?
One night, I noticed one of the maids, she had this big open smile, this smile of pure delight as she looked down at her phone. It looked like her fatigue fell away in a moment of release – a small, private moment that is yours alone, where after serving someone else for the majority of your life, you return to a small space that reminds you of who you are. However small.
I quickly went back into my apartment. It felt like I had stolen something.