Sundays are special for Indonesian domestic workers. It is their weekly statutory rest day. Many spend it congregated in parks and other public spaces, mingling on makeshift mats made of cardboard and plastic.

But for others, the limited downtime provides a rare opportunity to live out parallel lives as beauty queens and tomboys.

Photo: Rebecca Sampson.

German-American photographer Rebecca Sampson has spent the past two years chronicling the parallel worlds of Indonesian helpers in Hong Kong. Supported by scholarships from the Robert Bosch Stiftung Foundation and Literary Colloquium Berlin, Sampson followed the community over the course of four months in 2016, as they shed their maid personas and distorted their daily identity beyond recognition.

Photo: Rebecca Sampson.

The multimedia project, “Apples for Sale,” provides a unique glimpse into a genderbending subculture made visible on days off – some domestic workers, who are majority female, couple up to form a nuclear family, with one dressing up as a butch husband and the other an ultra-feminine wife. Some even adopt a doll as their “child.”

“Many of these relationships are a form of recreating family structures from Indonesia, I believe, as a reaction to loneliness, isolation and homesickness,” Sampson told HKFP.

Photo: Rebecca Sampson.

Sampson added that the couples, who may or may not be homosexual, assume these roles in search of agency: “Many, I believe, come together and – some are genuinely lesbian – react as it as a social trend and also to gain power. The first introduction to the world is to have the female role in the partnership, but over time, when they have the opportunity to take over the male role, they [switch],” she said.

Workers will also participate in glamorous beauty contests, where they labour over hair and makeup and queue for upwards of two hours in temperatures of 32 degrees Celcius to grace the stage for as little as under a minute. “I couldn’t keep up with them,” Sampson told HKFP. “They work all week and then get up early to do these things, it’s tiring.”

Kicked out

Sampson explained that, on Sundays, maids are rendered homeless as they are expected to spend their time outside of their employer’s home. She added that some groups rent out emptied shipping containers, that are converted into weekend homes complete with lights and bedding: “It shows their wish for privacy,” she said.

Photo: Rebecca Sampson.

According to NGO Justice Centre, 39.3 per cent of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong do not have their own room to sleep in; 35.2 per cent share a room with a child or elderly person, and 2 per cent sleep in a kitchen or communal living space.

Women for sale

The title “Apples for Sale” comes from an apron worn by maids photographed by employment agencies. Sampson, who has published a selection of agency headshots, adds that the title gives a nod to the “sale” of women by corrupt agencies who abuse the rights of their employees.

Rebecca Sampson. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Hong Kong law stipulates that employment agencies must charge no more than HK$401. But in 2013, NGO Amnesty International found that 85 per cent of Indonesian domestic workers were being charged up to HK$21,000 by agencies.

Employers are also required by law to grant domestic workers a 24-hour day off per week; however, more than half of 93 Indonesian domestic workers surveyed by Amnesty in 2013 said that they did not receive their weekly day off.

Photo: Rebecca Sampson.

“Apples for Sale” has since been published as a book.

A free panel discussion organised by the Goethe-Institut Hong Kong and the Hong Kong International Photo Festival on the topic “Picturing the lives of others: The Power of Documentary Photography” will be held on October 26, from 7pm to 8pm, at the Goethe-Gallery. Panellists include Sampson, Carol Chow, Jessica Fan and Xyza Curz Bacani. More information can be found here.

“Apples for Sale” will be available as a free exhibition at the Goethe-Gallery and Black Box Studio until 30, 10.00am to 8.30pm. More information can be found here.

Jennifer Creery

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.