[REVIEW] “A Study of Where Sexuality is Produced: Reviewing Maid to Queer” by Noah Arthur Weber

{Written by Noah Arthur Weber, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Francisca Yuenki Lai, Maid to Queer: Asian Labor Migration and Female Same-Sex Desires, Hong Kong University Press, 2020. 148 pgs.

It’s a Sunday afternoon in Kowloon Park or Victoria Park, Hong Kong, and Francisca Yuenki Lai is going dancing. She will join thousands of others playing games, socialising, and relaxing under the shade of camphor and banyan trees. That most of those she joins are domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia should surprise no one who has visited either park on a Sunday or who is otherwise familiar with labour affairs in the city. For the nearly 160,000 Indonesian migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong (according to Lai’s 2017 statistics) and the hundreds of thousands more from the Philippines and other countries, Sunday is the main day off. And on that day, the park is the place to be.

Lai is not the first ethnographer to document these communities or their Sunday activities. Nicole Constable’s 1997 Maid to Order in Hong Kong recounts the public and contentious debate around whether these women should be allowed to congregate in the centrally located parks around Victoria Harbour. In the 1990s, property developer Hongkong Land complained to the Central and Western District Boards that “off-duty foreign workers were ‘giving one of Asia’s most glamorous shopping areas the appearance of a slum’” (Constable, 5). But the ethnically charged battles between Hong Kong’s elite and its migrant worker force mostly form the background of Lai’s work. She writes instead on an Indonesian pop dance group and its members.

While her focus is more on dance routines and fashion shows than labour unions and activism, her work is no less vital or illuminating. For in these all-women routines and shows, she finds participants organised into two “genders”—tomboi (which Lai does not gloss but suggests is akin to the English “tomboy”) and cewek (which Lai glosses “girls”) (Lai, 13). These genders, the relationships between the group’s members, and individual profiles of women attracted to other women in the migrant domestic worker community form the subject of Lai’s welcome late-2020 release—Maid to Queer: Asian Labor Migration and Female Same-Sex Desires.

Since the book’s publication, other reviews have offered a detailed summary of Lai’s research and contextualised the work within the LGBT+ movement in Hong Kong. This essay will do neither; instead, it will analyse a particular element of the text—its treatment of place. Specifically, I will compare Lai’s depiction of Hong Kong with another important site in the women’s narratives—the professional training centres in Indonesia the women must attend before heading abroad.

My reading of Lai’s work suggests it is in these training centres, and not Hong Kong, where alternative gender expressions and sexual possibilities become intelligible and desirable. This conclusion debunks the misconception that the migrant workers act on their same-sex desires only after exposure to Hong Kong. It also combats the related misunderstanding that Hong Kong’s purported liberalism primarily allows the women to express their “true nature” in contrast to “traditional,” religiously conservative Indonesia. This mischaracterisation informs an Indonesian-produced magazine that circulates in Hong Kong, which, according to Lai, “constructs Hong Kong as an overly free society that causes some Indonesian migrant women to leave Allah and become lesbians” (33). Relevant to anyone who studies the spatially dependent nature of sexuality, Lai’s work reminds us that “free societies” with visible queer culture, as some might characterise Hong Kong relative to Indonesia, do not unilaterally produce queer subjects. In other words, to write slightly against Lai’s titular turn of phrase, it is not in Hong Kong where the migrant women are “made/maid to (be) queer”. Instead, a set of experiences before leaving Indonesia leads the women to create a vocabulary of same-sex intimacy that is intelligible among them. It is not that the women learn this language by being passive observers of “modern” Hong Kong. Rather, they actively develop, understand, and negotiate their desires through personal experience and localised expertise.

For a work by a Hong Kong author, published by Hong Kong University Press, researched primarily in Hong Kong, and reviewed in various Hong Kong-based journals, Hong Kong occupies a less critically important position in the text than one might expect. It is telling that neither Lai’s title nor its subtitle references Hong Kong, unlike Constable’s Maid to Order in Hong Kong, after which Lai models the work that she titles simply Maid to Queer. The description on the back cover reads, “Maid to Queer is the first book about Asian female migrant workers who develop same-sex relationships in a host city.” It appears Lai’s fundamental interest lies with the broader relationship between sexuality and migration in the context of domestic labour. Her work defies strong national or geospatial bounds that might limit her findings to a specific group of people temporarily residing within that mountainous megalopolis in the Pearl River Delta.

That is not to suggest that Lai has nothing to say about Hong Kong, that Hong Kong is irrelevant to her study, or that we learn nothing of Hong Kong in the course of reading her work. Lai supplies relevant context on Hong Kong’s domestic labour policies, including a local media controversy regarding “masculine-looking domestic workers” (34). We also read about the Indonesian community in various Hong Kong parks and other spaces, such as internet cafes, karaoke rooms, and rental rooms where Indonesian women spend their leisure time. Regarding the rental rooms, we learn of specific attitudes in Hong Kong that actively facilitate the same-sex relationships that some domestic workers maintain; the proprietors do not allow men to join them in these rooms, but other women are allowed. Hong Kong and its peoples’ views play a notable role in shaping the women’s lives.

In addition to attitudes toward sexuality that facilitate same-sex encounters, we also read of how certain employer’s attitudes toward gender expression affects the migrant women. One boss attempts to mould her tomboi employee into a more feminine woman by offering her “women’s clothing” (95). This employee is able to renew her contract only after explicitly confirming that she is not a lesbian, despite secretly engaging in a same-sex relationship. Other bosses comment awkwardly on their tomboi employees’ male underwear or lack of bra (96). On the other hand, one tomboi noted that her masculine appearance made her a more attractive hire to the wife of the household, who did not want the live-in maid to be a sexual threat (93). These examples allow Lai to explore the power imbalance that informs the migrant workers’ interactions with their bosses. They also demonstrate that their Hong Kong employers’ points of view reinforce the women’s understanding of “proper” sexuality and “normal” gender expression.

While Lai shows these and other interactions between the Indonesian community and Hongkongers, such moments appear severely limited. Having carved out specific parks and specific days of the week to congregate while otherwise mainly remaining in their bosses’ homes, it is almost as if the Indonesian migrant worker community lives in a separate Hong Kong to local Hongkongers. In a public online lecture by Lai hosted by the University of Hong Kong, a reader pointed out that the Hong Kong people recede almost monolithically into the book’s background. There is no mention, for example, of a relationship between an Indonesian woman and a Hong Kong woman. It is not even clear whether the Indonesian women consider such a relationship possible. In her response to this reader’s comment, Lai suggested that the two arenas where Indonesian workers are likely to interact with local Hongkongers are in employment or activism. But even in the activism space, we read of disconnects between the Hong Kong and migrant worker communities. For example, Lai notes that since the Hong Kong Pride Parade is traditionally held on Saturdays, most migrant workers are unable to attend (32). Indeed, nearly all Hongkongers who enter the narrative that Lai presents are the women’s bosses. The limited interaction between the two communities leads the reader to conclude that there is a finite extent to which Hongkongers shape the women’s opinions toward sexuality. In turn, this raises the question of what other people or places might shape those opinions.

In addition to the people of Hong Kong and the city itself, there is another place that plays a critical role in the women’s narratives—the training centres where they are required to attend lessons on working overseas before they leave Indonesia. Lai provides historical context for this site in her first chapter:

In the mid-1980s, the Indonesian government stipulated that all prospective migrant domestic workers undergo compulsory training in centres operated by recruitment companies to become “skilled” labour before they leave for work abroad (Robinson 2009). This was a national response to incidents in which Indonesian domestic workers were ill-treated or even sexually abused by Saudi employers. Instead of addressing these problems by negotiating with the Saudi government, the Indonesian government presented the argument that these women workers were ill-treated because they were unskilled and had damaged household appliances or the property of their employer.

—Francisca Yuenki Lai, Maid to Queer Asian Labor Migration and Female Same-Sex Desires, 20.

At these centres, the women learn various household tasks and strategies for confronting problems that might arise while working. Despite the government setting up the centres in part as a response to incidents of sexual abuse in Saudi Arabia, they do not include sex education among the topics curated to prepare the women, Lai notes. Nevertheless, like other single-sex environments, the centres become sites of same-sex erotic discovery (51). While this behaviour is forbidden and policed, Lai reminds us through Foucault that the policing and regulation of sex does not prevent people from engaging in forbidden sex. Rather, through this policing at the training centre the gender category of tomboi is created. The centre administration marks the tomboi as those dangerous short-haired women who are to be monitored. Marked and monitored, the characteristics of tomboi emerge more clearly. Soon, other women hear stories of tomboi spending the night in someone’s bed. The administration’s policing marks this behaviour as illicit; therefore, it is worthy of gossip and intrigue. Thus, at these centres, same-sex eroticism and alternative gender expression first become thinkable, possible, or desirable for many of the women. 

In my reading of Lai’s work, the training centres’ role in the story of same-sex desire among migrant workers cannot be overstated. This example busts the myth that it is something about Hong Kong that makes the women behave as they do. While still in Indonesia, the women become aware of the tomboi and the forbidden sex that this gender signifies. Through interrogation from administrators and gossip with other workers, the women speak of a previously unspeakable type of sex and gender expression. It is not exposure to Hong Kong Pride Parades or so-called liberal attitudes that construct the tomboi or the possibility of same-sex intimacy. It is the experiences in the training centres that lead many to discover new romantic possibilities or “reassess their sexuality” (55).

Besides the policing of suspicious tomboi, another mechanism arises at the training centres that shapes the women’s actions and beliefs while in Hong Kong. During her discussion of the role of Islamic teaching in the women’s lives, Lai notes how the training centres reconcile the Islamic prohibition on handling pork with the fact that pork is the most common meat consumed in Chinese cooking. She writes that centre directors offer strategies such as wearing gloves. Some even tell the women that eating pork while in Hong Kong is something Allah can forgive. These suggestions, as well as similar pardons for behaviour violating Islamic teaching coming from the women’s parents, set the foundation for the notion of cuma di sini, which Lai glosses as “only here” (82). Lai argues that cuma di sini, which emerges as a strategy for negotiating certain failures to adhere to Islamic teaching, becomes an important rationale for women who engage in same-sex relationships while in Hong Kong.

Again, I want to stress that cuma di sini is not a notion that comes about after the women are exposed to life in Hong Kong. Although the spatial bounds of “only here” indeed refer to Hong Kong, it is not as though the largely un-Islamic/secular city spurs the women to reject Islam and embrace a new path to accommodate their same-sex relationships. Lai points out that while in Hong Kong the women pray certain prayers and wear Islamic clothing on some occasions while avoiding more serious forms of prayer due to the perception that handling pork or maintaining a same-sex relationship makes them “unclean” (85). Cuma di sini, therefore, is not a means by which the women throw all Islamic teachings out the window. It is not just a simple excuse. Instead, it is a vocabulary the women write themselves to understand and make space for their same-sex desires within a cultural-linguistic context relevant to them. The women richly develop and deploy this vocabulary, including language like cuma di sini and gender categories like tomboi and cewek, before leaving Indonesia.

Given what Lai’s book reveals about how the Indonesian migrants develop a vocabulary for same-sex intimacy while in Indonesia, one naturally wonders what happens to those who do not end up in Hong Kong. Further studies in different locations would bring even greater clarity to sexuality’s close relationship with place. Lai’s current employment in Taiwan has brought early intrigue along those lines. In her online lecture, she recounted some Taiwanese colleagues’ hypothesis that Taiwan’s recent legalisation of same-sex marriage would create a better environment for Indonesian migrants who seek same-sex relationships than those migrants might find in Hong Kong. Lai’s simple counterargument was that these women do not intend to marry and settle down in Taiwan, and so in her reading, the marriage law is entirely irrelevant. A study in Taiwan might well problematise Taiwan’s recent self-categorisation as “pro-gay”, which, in turn, might further critique the narrative of “open” societies imparting enlightened views on same-sex relationships onto migrants from “traditional” cultures.

In addition to Taiwan, Singapore strikes this reader as a site worthy of further research along the lines of Lai’s work. There is a sizeable Indonesian migrant worker population in Singapore, which is also home to a 15 per cent Malay population, an ethnic group of people hailing in part from Indonesia and speaking a variety of the Indonesian language. Work on Singapore’s queer politics has revealed how the government’s policies have divided the queer community there “along linguistic, cultural, and class lines” (Obendorf, 112). These divisions strike me as highly relevant to Lai’s interests. Natalie Oswin’s argument—that through a set of policies meant to exclude them from the country’s definition of family, the Singapore government “queers” foreign workers (in turn contrasted with highly educated and sought-after “foreign talent”)—would also prove relevant to work on same-sex attracted migrant workers in Singapore (Oswin, 425).

Regardless of future avenues of research, Lai’s present work provides plenty of thought-provoking material to ponder. Unpretentious, concise, and enlightening, Maid to Queer will interest general readers and academics alike.

Works Cited

Constable, Nicole. Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers, Second Edition. Second, Cornell University Press, 2007.

Obendorf, Simon. “Both Contagion and Cure: Queer Politics in the Global City-State.” Queer Singapore: Illiberal Citizenship and Mediated Cultures (Queer Asia), edited by Audrey Yue and Jun Zubillaga-Pow, Hong Kong University Press, 2012, pp. 97–114.

Oswin, Natalie. “Queer Time in Global City Singapore: Neoliberal Futures and the ‘Freedom to Love.’” Sexualities, vol. 17, no. 4, 2014, pp. 412–33. Crossref, doi:10.1177/1363460714524765.

How to cite: Weber, Noah Arthur. “A Study of Where Sexuality is Produced: Reviewing Maid to Queer.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 14 Mar. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/03/14/maid-to-queer/.

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Noah Arthur Weber has a BA in Chinese Language & Culture and English Literature from Washington University in St Louis. Originally from St Louis, he is currently Summit Fellow for International Student Support at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He has been accepted to National Chengchi University in Taipei and received a Taiwan Scholarship from the R.O.C. Ministry of Education. Having twice deferred his enrolment due to the pandemic, he plans to pursue an MA in Taiwanese Literature in the autumn of 2021. His work has appeared in SupChina. Contact: noahaweber@icloud.com

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