Every Sunday in Hong Kong, a Beauty Queen is crowned. This Queen is also a Filipino domestic worker the rest of the week. While Manila hosted the 2017 Miss Universe this year, The Loop HK decided to explore the world of Filipino beauty pageants in our own backyard. Anthropologist Ju-chen Chen steps into this world and unpacks it for us.
Ju-chen Chen is an energetic Taiwanese anthropologist based in Hong Kong, and a mother of two. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from the Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Chen’s interest in researching the lives of domestic workers began when she reluctantly hired a domestic worker while she was studying in China in the early 2000s. Chen was doing a favor for a friend who had told her about a woman in need of a job — this woman had traveled from a distant village in China to work in Beijing. Chen eventually became attracted to the migration patterns of women workers in China.
Fast forward to the present, and Chen’s ethnographic research has taken her to the fragrant harbor, where she is a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She gives voice to the mostly hidden diverse identities of Filipino domestic workers in the city, and is a proud judge at various Filipino pageants across the city, from Top Model Queen to Miss Pinoyshot Princess. She’ll be giving a talk later this month to share her insights.
1. You need to pay to play
It costs both money and time to join a beauty pageant. It can take up to a few months of preparation to get ready to walk a runway! Fees to join include: an entrance fee, a makeup artist, and a costume designer. But this is not a one-woman job. When a contestant wants to participate, a team pitches in to meet the “quota” of the fees: each person pays about $100 to $200. There is a whole team behind a woman who chooses to walk the runway. It’s really inspiring to see how much they support each other! Sometimes, the prize money is even less than the entrance fee and there are sadly cases where participating in beauty pageants has put some Filipinas in debt because of the costs, but this is rare. Why do they go through all of this trouble? There are friendships created, which is priceless if you had arrived in Hong Kong by yourself and there is a lot of alone time on your job.
2. It takes a village
It really is a full community event. Makeup artists, costume designers, photographers, and organizers are all domestic workers who make it work on Sundays! A makeup artist would plant herself at Jardine House right near the Starbucks, and participants would take turns getting their makeup done from her. Just by looking at the event, the participants, the organizers, and the audience are all Filipino. But the Chinese community have a foot in too. The phone companies and the people who make the sash and the crowns are all Chinese. There can be large sponsors for these beauty pageants, as they target this ethnic economy. For example, SmartTone sponsors the largest beauty pageants every year.
I’ve also been a judge at a few pageants and I truly enjoy it! It’s a live-house event, with performances and a lot of talent on display. I must applaud the makeup artists, because they do an amazing job transforming the ladies!
3. Beauty pageants are too sexy for some
The Philippines being a conservative country with modest values, certain Filipino sectors do not fully celebrate the beauty pageants for reasons like: women should not waste money, put their bodies on display, or search for vanity. Filipino newspapers in Hong Kong have a policy of not covering the pageants for similar reasons. They are also worried that the participants are badly exploited and put in debt.
That said, I know people in the Philippine consulate who are not against it individually, but as an institution, they must say it is not supported. The show goes on!
4. The designers make it work
It’s pure fun to see the confidence of these ladies walking down a catwalk, and a lot of credit goes to the designers. There is a limit to the resources and a lot of second-hand materials get used in the most creative ways. For example, I’ve seen plastic spoons used to make a crown. They make it work with what they have and know. One particular domestic worker designs a lot of the costumes, but she doesn’t know how to sew. So she uses a glue gun to piece together her masterpieces. For one pageant with a “Winter Wonderland” theme, one costume was a grand gown of white fur. I asked them how this was made and they said they bought fur rugs from Ikea, which was much cheaper than going to a fabric store. I am inspired by them, because given the limited resources they have, they really create amazing work!
5. On a side note, saying “domestic worker” instead of “helper” can help change attitudes
Hong Kong is making a good attempt at being more PC, [switching] from the term “maid” to “helper.” But “domestic worker” might be a more appropriate term now. What’s the big deal? [We need] to simply recognize them as workers. They are workers, just like any other paid worker, which means they can have unions and they can fight for their rights.
I don’t condemn anyone for saying “helper” — I also say that sometimes, because we’re so used to it. The main idea is that the dignity of this job comes from recognizing that we need domestic workers. For example, we need waitresses and chefs, and there’s no discrimination there. So, we’re pushed to question why subtle or sometimes even obvious discrimination exists against the domestic migrant worker community.
And Looking Toward The Future?
My goal is for all of us to see domestic workers as a part of our society. We (Hong Kong) cannot do without them, so let us please recognize them. And it’s just fun to witness a beauty pageant! They are everywhere, every Sunday. The most prestigious one is on Chater Road. They are held at community centers in Sai Ying Pun, Kennedy Town, and Causeway Bay. They are open to the public. The culture of pageants comes from the fun-loving spirit of the fiestas in the Philippines. I highly recommend checking one out!
Read more inspiring insights from our Hot Seat series.