In Hong-Kong, Sundays are off for the majority of administrations and companies. Central districts, bustling by the week, are now evolving at a quiet pace. Yet, if white collars have deserted the streets, they’ve been replaced by another part of the population. Every Sunday, domestic workers take over the city’s public spaces to enjoy their rest day.
Estimated to be 330,000, they are mostly women coming from Indonesia and the Philippines looking to find in Asia’s financial capital means to support their families back home. The law guarantees them a minimum monthly wage of US$ 530, one day of rest per week, and requires their employers to provide them with social security coverage and to offer them lodging and food. Yet, abuses are not rare. Confiscated papers, sleeping or food deprivation; NGOs regularly denounce the living conditions of these « domestics », regarded as second-class citizens. The case is however common in a time of international division of labor: we hear the same stories in Dubai, Beirut, Paris…
In Hong-Kong, Sundays remain their only day off. A rule that seems to be respected by the majority of employers. After the morning Mass, comes the time for relaxation. Having nowhere else to go, the housemaids meet in small groups in the public spaces of the city’s central districts (Central, Admiralty). Under these tropical latitudes, shaded areas are a must: pedestrian flyovers, parks, sheltered streets… They make the best out of the metropole”s leftover spaces to have a comfy nest for the day to live it up.
Because of the lack of formal sitting space in these areas, women usually sit on large cardboard panels laid on the ground. They chat, play cards, sleep. Some seem to communicate with their loved ones on their tablets and smartphones. Giant smoking and cheezy pizzas are shared on several « tables »; elsewhere, some (funnily that is the only time I ca see men around) come to sell bags, shoes, clothing. Laughs and fan beats fill the air.
While these women linger around stretch time out, I notice that the « other » citizens are absent in these conquered areas. Is it because the city’s rhythms are particularly down on Sundays? Or do people in Hong-Kong avoid, more or less consciously, to mingle with these joyful crowds? The few passers-by are in a hurry; their look are fixed above the sitting mob, and no contact whatsoever is established with the women.
Moving away from the « occupied » areas, I find the white-collar crowd again, made of expatriates and locals, neat and tidy, waiting patiently to be back to work.
A few days after, I walked back to these areas. Life had gone. Seriousness and coldness were on everybody’s face. Public spaces were deserted. The squares and parks seemed to be a hindrance to the (further) densification of the city. A few housemaids walk down the alleys with children and strollers. But they have no time – no right to stop, to rest. For that, they will have to wait until next Sunday…
From an urban design perspective, I felt like these spaces were never as alive and vibrant as when used by people whom no one ever cared about. When seeing the number of public spaces designed more to respond to policy requirements than to give shelter to people’s needs, there are still efforts to be made (and I”m not specifically talking about Hong-Kong here). It is always good to remind that urban design is not about the product, but the people and the process.