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Home maid picnics

After losing their picnic spot to a shopping mall, Filipino maids in Singapore continue to return to Orchard Road’s in-between spaces

On Sundays, Filipino maids gather at pedestrian walkways and grass patches in Orchard Road to picnic. Photos by SAM KANG LI

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BY JUSTIN ZHUANG

It looks like a great spot for a picnic. The huge trees shelter Rovelyn Fronda and her friends from this sweltering heat as they sit around a red chequered mat sprawling with Tupperware of food. Tucking into various Filipino delicacies such as adobo (stewed chicken), paksiw nab angus (fish in milky vinegar sauce) and pansit (bee hoon), the ladies chatter and giggle away, oblivious to the commotion around them.

A bustling crowd shuffle by with shopping bags in tow, their rhythm matched by the incessant drone from the cars driving by the ever-busy Orchard Road. Towering above the ladies on one side is Lucky Plaza Shopping Centre. On the other, a giant poster of a fashion model for Guess gazes at them, as if scrutinizing the cheaper clothes they are dressed in.

Their clothes may be cheap, but the ladies take care to keep them clean. Those not sitting on the mat are instead on portable stools or flyers – anything to protect them from the grey-tiled pedestrian walkway they are on.

On any other day, this would be a quiet lead up to Mount Elizabeth Hospital, but every Sunday, this walkway is lined on both sides with groups of Filipino maids like Rovelyn and her friends. “We eat, play, chit-chat with friends… most of the time we just sit down here and relax,” says the 31-year-old, even as waves of traffic jams and crowds continue to descend upon the edges of her oasis.

THE ‘GOLONG’ GOOD TIMES
Choked full with remittance centres and shops like Pasay Grocery and Pinoy Shoppers that stock goods from the Philippines, it is no wonder Lucky Plaza is the first stop for Filipino maids on their off days. In fact, according to Orlina who has worked in Singapore as a maid for 15 years, the community regard this shopping mall as the “Filipino Centre”.

A maid’s off day, usually only once a month on a Sunday, is spent around Lucky Plaza. After attending church in the morning, they come here to remit their salaries. Some might then visit a disco, while others like Orlina picnic around the vicinity with friends.

The building of the shopping mall ION Orchard over a picnic spot that was popular with the Filipino maid community for years has forced them to find new spaces in the vicinity to relax.

The building of the shopping mall ION Orchard over a picnic spot that was popular with the Filipino maids for years has forced them to find new spaces in the vicinity to relax.

The former park above Orchard MRT station was where most Filipino maids used to picnic, she recalls. A large open grassy ground sheltered by huge trees, the park was a welcome change from the four walls of their employer’s home – a freedom expressed in the community’s name for the place, ‘Golong Golong’ or Tagalog for ‘Rolling Rolling’, explains Orlina.

But in 2007, construction began on the 1.8ha site to build Singapore’s latest shopping extravaganza. As part of the government’s plan to rejuvenate this city’s shopping district, ION Orchard, an eight-storey shopping mall was recently opened on the former park.

Some then moved on to an unkempt ground behind ION Orchard, but many more moved across Orchard Road to this walkway along Lucky Plaza. “Now you can see very crowded cause nowhere to go,” says Orlina, She claims some of her friends come as early as 7am to reserve a good spot to picnic on a 50-metre long walkway that is wide enough to fit no more than five people.

THEIR LAST FRONTIER

But it is not just the maids who go to lengths to mark their turf.

Along Tong Building, which the walkway sits right next to, barricades with a yellow sign that read: “PRIVATE PROPERTY. SITTING ON THE PLAZA AREA IS NOT ALLOWED” protect its empty plaza from the picnicking maids.

Its management declined to comment on the signs, but a worker in the building who wished to remain anonymous, says the barricades were only put up a year ago. He used to see maids picnic on the plaza. They often dirtied the area with leftovers and sometimes, the guys, usually boyfriends of the maids, would also get drunk and fight. Since the barricades came up, the plaza now remains empty even while the maids huddle along the walkway.

Similarly, on the other side along Lucky Plaza, its management puts up laminated A4-sized signs on the row of lampposts every Sunday that read: “STRICTLY NO SITTING/PICNICKING” and “NO WAITING AT THIS POINT”.

But the most obvious sign that the Filipino maids are seen as a problem are the A4-sized signs that barricade the corridors of the shophouses behind Lucky Plaza. Printed in Tagalog, they read: “PAKIUSAP: BAWAL PO TUMAMBAY AT MAGKALAT DITO (SALMAT PO…)”, a hostile warning to not picnic here or it will be reported to the police.

The maids remaining oasis is this walkway, a strip of public space sandwiched between these private properties. But like ‘Golong Golong’, a public park, one can never be too sure it will stay this way.

NOWHERE ELSE TO GO
“For us, because only Sunday is our off day, we have to find a place to sit, just to rest and to meet up with friends,” says Rovelyn. Unlike most employees, maids have no home to return to rest when they are off work.

The maids end up in Lucky Plaza, crowding the mall in such numbers that “Sunday is Filipino Day,” says a shopowner as she sat outside her storefront watching them go by. Like many other tenants who also declined to be named, she laments how the maids scare away customers because they are so noisy. Plus, there is always a long queue to use the female toilet.

The maids hangouts often have signs such as this one found inside Lucky Plaza Shopping Centre.

The maids' hangouts often have signs such as this one found inside Lucky Plaza Shopping Centre.

Thus, a year ago, the building’s management reserved the second-storey toilets every Sunday just for tenants to use, she says. Plus, signs were also put up inside the mall to discourage the maids from loitering. Time and again, security guards can also be spotted trying to herd the maids away so that they don’t clog up the seven-storey building.

Forced out of Lucky Plaza, some maids resort to sitting along the roadside kerb where they out-stretch the queue of taxis. Some also camp at the side entrance of neighbouring shopping mall CK Tang and others like Rovelyn and Orlina picnic along this walkway just across Lucky Plaza.

It is the most convenient location for a picnic, both say. From here, the nearest picnic area at the Singapore Botanical Gardens is actually a half-an-hour bus-ride away. But for a maid who only has half a day left after church and errands, they cannot afford to waste such time because they have to return to their employer’s home by 7pm.

“We got nowhere to go. And wherever we go they are chasing us away, so where can we stay?” says Elsa, a maid who has worked in Singapore for over a decade.

The sheer numbers of them have only compounded this problem. In 2007, some 80,000 Filipino maids were working in Singapore, making them the largest nationality amongst the foreign domestic workers population here. While Filipinos are less popular today, the total number of maids working in Singapore is still on the rise, hitting a high of 190, 000 last year.

This has given some maids a reason to voice out. “Filipino maids started in Orchard Road because we don’t have a specific place to stay,” says Josie. For the maid who has worked here for 11 years, her community deserves much more recognition. She compares the situation here to Hong Kong where maids are not only paid more but have more space and rights thanks to the help from non-governmental organisations. In fact, Josie thinks the government here should do more for them because all maids employed incur a monthly levy of $265.

But for other maids, the current situation is not so bad. “We’re only here on Sunday,”  says 34-year-old Evalyn who is sitting on the walkway’s edge with her feet in the drain so that there is enough space for her friends, “We just want them not to chase us away from here.”

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