Chris Everyone in Singapore knows Lucky Plaza.
Chris Sorry to bother you, I have a quick question. Have you heard of Lucky Plaza?
Passer-by A Yeah! The one in Orchard
Passer-by B I know it’s crowded on Sundays, there’s alot of Filipinos there…
Passer-by C I don’t have a very good impression of the place… Yeah.
Passer-by C I heard that it’s a place where the maids usually hang out… yeah…
Chris I see, thanks!
Chris Everyone knows Lucky Plaza, but not because it’s a historical monument or a famous tourist destination. It’s just a shopping mall, one of dozens of malls on Orchard Road, the 5th Avenue of Singapore. Lucky Plaza is a dull gray tower filled with seven levels of clothing, beauty salons, travel agents, electronics stores, money changers, restaurants, and remittance shops. But it’s not famous for what it sells.
It’s famous for what it becomes every Sunday: a destination for thousands of foreign domestic workers, mostly from the Philippines, who visit the space to meet friends, buy specialty foods and products imported from the Philippines, and send money back home.
Dual-income families have been common in Singapore for decades, leading families to hire women from around Southeast Asia to help care for their homes while they are at work. The responsibilities of these foreign domestic workers run the gamut of physical and emotional labor, from house cleaning to cooking, childcare to eldercare. These live-in employees come from places like the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar in search of better income than they can earn back home, often to support parents, siblings, and even their own children they left behind.
These foreign domestic workers spend six days a week caring for and living with, their employers. On Sunday, they finally get a day off. So many of them stream out of the homes of their bosses and into the city. To its churches, its parks, and its air-conditioned malls like Lucky Plaza.
This is Home on The Dot. I’m Chris McMorran.
In this episode, Celia, a double major in Japanese Studies and Sociology, visits Lucky Plaza on a Sunday to find out what it means to the people who go there. She also talks to an expert on foreign domestic workers in Singapore, to better understand the phenomenon. Finally, she reflects on her own experience growing up with foreign domestic workers.
Why are there so many of these foreign domestic workers in Singapore, and what do they have to do with shopping malls on a Sunday?
Celia Foreign domestic workers have been part of my life, and my family’s life for generations. My ancestors were part of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, with members of my family living in Indonesia from at least the time of my great-grandparents’ generation.
Within the Chinese diaspora, it was common to hire live-in domestic help, usually young women from the local community who would help cook, clean, and raise children. My family continued this tradition for generations, so having a live-in domestic worker was a regular part of life for me.
The same is true for a lot of families in Singapore, though the country’s official history of welcoming FDWs is more recent, from the 1970s.
Shirlena Huang The Foreign Domestic Worker phenomenon started when the Singapore government was trying to persuade women – women citizens – to go out and work,
Chris That’s Associate Professor Shirlena Huang, a Geographer at the National University of Singapore. She grew up in Singapore and has spent years researching and teaching about Foreign Domestic Workers.
Shirlena Huang …and when that happened of course they wanted to provide support in the home. However, the local and Malaysian sources of what we then called “servant girls”… Unfortunate term, but they were basically young women who provided domestic work in the home or middle-aged women who did part-time work etc. were drying up because offices, factories, shopping malls were more attractive as alternative jobs.
So, the government opened up to initially a limited range of countries, and from there it became so popular, it’s taken off and…and actually, they never saw it as such a long-term policy. They were hoping that – at different stages they would say “we’ll stem it” or oh, “we’ll limit it”, or “we need it to slow down”…but it’s just gone on because, of course, you know, Singapore women have become so dependent on them.
Celia In 2019, Singapore is home to more than two hundred thousand foreign domestic workers, and the number has been gradually growing for the past decade or so.
When my family moved from Indonesia to Singapore when I was 3, it was only natural for us to bring our domestic worker too. To me, she was my ‘Kakak’ – that’s Bahasa Indonesia for older sister. She was a constant in my life, just like my own family. She… eventually returned to Indonesia when I was 12 years old though, and I cried as if I were losing my own flesh and blood.
I cried when the next Kakak left too. We had shared a love for things like the movie High School Musical and anime, and we constantly talked about music. She felt like family too. But that was just it – my Kakaks were almost family. Over time, I learned to foster a more distant relationship with my Kakak, including the one who lives with my family now. Otherwise, the connection was too strong and the pain of separation too real.
When I took Prof McMorran’s course on home last year, I used it as an opportunity to learn more about the experience of women like my Kakaks, and how they maintained their ties with their other homes beyond Singapore. My Kakaks weren’t from the Philippines, but I went where I could find women in the same situation – Lucky Plaza.
On Sundays in Singapore, you can’t help but notice more Filipinas out in public. More than any other day, they’re on the buses and trains, and they are in tourist areas and well-known shopping districts like Orchard Road. Dressed in their best clothes and decked out in full makeup and jewelry, they chatter excitedly in a mixture of Tagalog and English, carrying bulging plastic bags of food and sometimes, bulky speakers perched on their shoulders.
Many head for Lucky Plaza, which has a reputation as a “Little Manila” because of its popularity among workers from the Philippines. When we visited on a balmy Sunday in January, we saw that this is still the case. The mall was crowded and temporary dividers had been set up to control the flow of traffic. Otherwise, we’d be swallowed by the crush of people.
Chris Lucky Plaza was built in 1981 as a prime shopping destination and residential development. It was stocked with luxury goods and well-known brands and was the hangout for a few years. It was especially impressive as the first commercial building to have glass elevators. These allowed shoppers to look out over the ‘open vertical bazaar’ as the mall brands itself.
Over time, as other fancier malls sprouted in the Orchard Road area, Lucky Plaza was nudged from its perch. Wealthy local shoppers gradually thinned out and foreign domestic workers took their place. Soon, specialty stores catering to these foreign workers opened.
Celia Today, Lucky Plaza has shops where people can remit money, with snaking queues on Sundays, minimarts with names like Kabayan and Cebu, which reference locations in the Philippines, and restaurants like Jollibee, a fried chicken chain that only recently expanded into Singapore, but has long been a household name in the Philippines.
Given this concentration of shops catering to customers from the Philippines, it’s not surprising that so many come on their day off. As we walked around the mall, we heard Tagalog all around us. But I also recognized some Bahasa Indonesia, the language spoken by my Kakaks.
I turned to find an Indonesian foreign domestic worker wearing a baby blue tudung – a traditional headdress for Muslims. I decided to ask why she was at Lucky Plaza, a mall famous as a hangout for Filipinas. Her name was Nur, and she had been working in Singapore for 20 years. Normally she goes to City Plaza on Sunday, since it caters to Singapore’s large community of Indonesian foreign domestic workers. She only comes to Lucky Plaza to meet foreign domestic worker friends from the Philippines, because this is “their place”. To her, City Plaza feels more like home.
I also met a pair of sisters, both foreign domestic workers from Batam, Indonesia. They also usually go to City Plaza on Sundays, but they were about to take the short ferry ride back home to Batam and needed presents for family and friends. So they came to Lucky Plaza, which they said has a great selection of snacks they cannot otherwise find in Batam. Plus, one sister noted the clothes here were more stylish than those she could find in City Plaza – and they were still affordable.
City Plaza has food and clothing that is familiar and reminds them of home. But when they need souvenirs, City Plaza would not do.
Chris All around Singapore, different malls have come to cater to different foreign workers. They were not built with that purpose, but they have developed into Sunday enclaves. Filipinas go to Lucky Plaza. Indonesians go to City Plaza. Thais go to Golden Mile Complex. Peninsula Plaza is often called “Little Burma” because of all the customers from Myanmar. Most foreign domestic worker only get one day off per week and they usually want to get away from their workplace, which is also their residence. For many, an air-conditioned mall with familiar faces, foods, stores, and their own language is the best option.
Celia Not all Filipinos liked Lucky Plaza. Some preferred the wide open sky and natural surroundings of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, where they could picnic with friends. Lucky Plaza was too crowded for them – not somewhere they could relax.
Amid the chaos, we noticed that few people stayed still in Lucky Plaza unless they were waiting for friends or video-chatting with friends or relatives. Most were flitting in and out of stores, emerging with bags of goods or food, but inevitably, they would take those bags elsewhere to enjoy them.
Some of them placed mats on the sidewalk in front of Lucky Plaza or to a park nearby, where they could chat and laugh with friends. Most of all, they were noisy and visible, in spaces where they could just be themselves, free from the need to step into the background like they do at their workplaces.
Professor Huang also mentioned how foreign domestic workers fill Singapore’s public spaces and shopping malls every Sunday. It might take visitors by surprise, but she explained that it’s perfectly natural.
Shirlena Huang Many domestic workers, like the Indonesians and Filipinos like to gather in parks. Toa Payoh, Central lots of domestic workers, with their little mats across the whole park. They go where they can get what they need, I think that’s natural, right? And, when we are living abroad we go look for Chinatown when we want Chinese food. I’m sure other nationalities go to certain areas when they want to eat their own cuisine or hear their own language, and so on.
Celia In addition to visiting parks, many foreign domestic workers from the Philippines go to church on Sundays. In fact, many churches in Singapore offer services specifically for foreign domestic workers, in languages like Tagalog.
At other times however, girls just want to have fun! FDWs we met at Lucky Plaza admitted that they also liked to visit tourist hotspots in Singapore like Sentosa and Marina Bay. In their words, “Because we are not Singaporean mah, so everybody likes to see the very famous place.”
It may seem strange to spend time at a crowded mall to combat homesickness. But it’s normal for some of these women. Given their status in the household, it’s not surprising that a foreign domestic worker might find the house of their employer a stifling, oppressive place.
Oftentimes, especially when there are visitors, the worker is relegated to the kitchen or their room. Some employers even resist speaking with them in any way beyond giving orders. In other words, these women often don’t feel at home in the place they live and work.
Professor Huang explained how this expectation for domestic workers to know their place in their bosses’ house can lead foreign domestic workers to search for a space beyond the home where they can finally relax and be themselves.
Shirlena Huang I think what is still important in a sense, or still relevant, rather, is the notion that even within the home, the domestic worker has her place and her space. So many domestic workers are expected to be in the back room, the back region, if you use Goffman. Where, you are seen only when I need you to be seen. And when I need you to be seen and you’re not there, I get angry! Right? So, they have front spaces and back spaces, front regions and back regions in which they have to operate quite differently and where can they actually relax?
And so… I know even, a family who may lock their master bedroom when they’re not home because they don’t trust the domestic worker. Some families don’t even allow the domestic worker to watch TV with them, because this is my family space, you’re not family. They don’t allow the domestic worker to eat with them, because you are lower than I am. So, there’s all these different axes of discrimination and hierarchies that determine the place of the domestic worker even within the home, let alone Singapore.
Celia Maybe it’s because they live and work in the same place that it doesn’t feel like home. Or maybe, it’s the absence of the little things, like being able to hear and speak their native language, the freedom to cook familiar dishes, or even the sight of their fellow countrywomen, all things that remind them of the place where they belong.
Shirlena Huang I think it’s important for us to recognize that at the end of the day, even as we use the term “Foreign Domestic Worker” that they are people first. That they are like you and me. We may be employees of this university or students, but that’s only one of your identities. What is the other identity that makes you really who you are? And, on the weekend, I think that’s the identity that they fall back to. Whatever it is that they are at home, whether they are more a social person, whether it’s more a mother who wants to fulfill the future for their kids, whether it’s somebody who has aspirations to be an entrepreneur and so on.
Celia Who were my Kakaks? They were more than just foreign domestic workers. My first Kakak was an older sister to numerous siblings at home whom she missed dearly. My second Kakak was saving money to one day pay for her university education back home.
Hearing Prof. Huang’s explanation about the restrictions facing foreign domestic workers, and having listened to the women I met at Lucky Plaza, I came to see my previous kakaks in a new light. Since I was the oldest child, my former Kakaks really did feel like the older sisters I never had – I would confide in them, and I think that they did care for me as more than just a charge. But… they probably had many other things on their minds: their siblings back at home, their mothers and fathers, even their own futures beyond Singapore.
Perhaps they always felt the same way as the women Dr. Huang knew – constricted in our home and unable to truly feel like they belonged. Such a feeling requires a lot more than just a shopping mall like Lucky Plaza.
Chris I grew up in a time and a place, in the 1970s and 80s in a small town in the US, where having a foreign domestic worker was unthinkable. Getting struck by lightning would have been more likely. And although I have lived around foreign domestic worker since moving to Singapore nine years ago, I guess I am still not used to the idea.
This probably has as much to do with my definition of home as anything else. I still think of home as a private sanctuary where only your immediate family members live. You might have houseguests a few days a year, but you certainly wouldn’t live with a stranger. The closest people got was hosting a foreign exchange student. But those weren’t employees; they were like adopted kids.
So when I think about what it must be like to live with your employer, and when I hear Prof Huang talk about how foreign domestic workers need to negotiate those front spaces and back spaces of their employers’ home, it makes me feel a little uncomfortable. It seems like it must be awkward to share that intimate and private space called home.
Plus, no one I ever knew hired a cleaner, unless they were elderly, living alone, and unable to do it themselves. Domestic work – cleaning and cooking in particular – was mostly done by women and it was something they were expected to do with pride. Just try visiting a house in my hometown without being given a tour of the whole place. And the home is usually spotless. So, I’ll admit I’m carrying around a lot of baggage when it comes to the idea of foreign domestic workerss. In fact, that’s probably why the sight of so many of them in places like Lucky Plaza on a Sunday still intrigues me.
On some levels, Singapore’s experiment to get more women out of the home and into the workplace by hiring foreign domestic workers has been a great success. Singapore is now one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and many women enjoy career success that their mothers and grandmothers could never imagine, all because they hired another woman to care for their children, cook the meals, and clean the home.
But at what cost? Singapore’s families have shifted the responsibility of domestic labor to another woman who makes a great sacrifice and lives away from her own home. Indeed, Celia grew up sharing her life with her kakaks, young women from Indonesia who lived with her family and helped raise her. I know Celia cannot imagine her home without these women.
But I still cannot imagine my home with them.
This episode was produced by Celia Leo, with sound design by Johann Tan and David Chew. Celia first worked on this project over a year ago, and she wants to acknowledge her group members, Christabelle Lee, Matthew Myint and Uma Devi, who provided invaluable help in the early stages.
Special thanks today to Shirlena Huang and all the women who spoke with Celia at Lucky Plaza.
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