At home with strangers: social exclusion and intimate labor in Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo (2013)
10 Sep 2018
Tunnels and Traps
12 Jan 2012
12 Jan 2012
In Singapore, many middle-class families employ foreign domestic workers (FDWs) to take on care and domestic work. In this setup, female FDWs need to be “a part of the family” and “feel at home” to better perform and render intimate labor, but they are structurally displaced and prevented from being fully integrated in both their employer’s homes and in the host country. Ilo Ilo (2013), a debut film by a Singaporean director Anthony Chen, has poignantly portrayed this paradoxical relationship by showing a young boy’s growing affection to his Filipina maid, and how this brief yet enduring bond demonstrates migration’s effects on both the foreign helpers and the middle-class families employing them. This Singaporean family melodrama depicts the affective nature of migration by demonstrating how FDWs are positioned as an intimate yet excluded figure inside the employer’s homes. The contradiction between intimacy and social exclusion seen in the film also simultaneously describes and prescribes the FDW’s place in the host country. The film illustrates the paradox of intimacy and exclusion in the host–guest worker relationship of employers and their maids within the private domains of household and the public discourse on FDWs’ claims in Singapore.
Mekkah is an interesting 2014 novel inspirasi (inspirational novel) from Aguk Irawan, the bestselling author of Hajji Backpacker series, along with a string of other published novels, poetry and essays. The book centers on two characters, Firdaus and Midah. Firdaus is an Indonesian student studying religion in Cairo while Midah is an Indonesian domestic worker who was hired to work in Hujjun, a few miles away from Mecca. Both a religious and romantic novel, the book is interspersed with chapters alternating with the two protagonists’ perspectives, until they encounter each other at the middle of the novel: Firdaus working as a seasonal spiritual teacher/tour guide for richer Indonesian pilgrims while Midah has just ran away from her employer, seeking refuge in the Holy Land. (more…)
In February 2016, a documentary film that centers on the case of an Indonesian domestic worker’s harrowing abuse in the hands of her employer in Hong Kong was released. Erwiana: Justice for All, directed by Gabriel Ordaz, narrates the life and struggles of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, as she goes through a legal battle that became a platform for migrant women activists and human rights advocates in Hong Kong to address the issue of exploitation of Southeast Asian women working in foreign households.
Kwek Li Na’s short story collection was originally included as a primary text in my dissertation chapter on Indonesian migrant women’s theme on suffering. Later on, I had to scrap it in my revision because I streamlined my scope only to stories set in Singapore and Hong Kong. This is actually a great collection as it narrates the lives of not only their domestic workers in Taiwan but also of marriage migrants and undocumented factory workers. Kwek Li Na, who used to be a domestic worker herself before becoming a wife of a Taiwanese businessman, knows her material very well. From one story to the next, she presents a complex tableau of Indonesian women caught up and emerging out of their individual struggles to survive in this foreign city: a reclusive Taiwanese boy who fell in love with a maid, a dying Madam who wishes for her husband’s happiness after her death by asking her Indonesian helper to marry him, an ageing Taiwanese couple who has helped their Indonesian caregiver get in touch with her spirituality, etc. (more…)
These stories are written by Indonesian domestic workers/writers, who are also members of Forum Lingkar Pena – Hong Kong. I initially wanted to include this book among my materials for my dissertation but I decided against it for a number reasons. First, two fiction anthologies seem more than enough for one chapter (I ended up writing on Menaklukan Ketakutan di Ranah Rantau and Ketika BMI Pena Menari). Second, there are only three stories here that were written with Indonesian helpers as their main characters. This is an interesting development of Sastra Buruh Migran Indonesia (Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Literature) as it only affirms how the continuous effort of many migrant women workers/writers in improving their craft has also opened new ways of aestheticizing their own voice as they engage in new forms of subjectivities and new ways of imagining their experiences through the prism of fiction. In this collection, there are stories about an Indonesian exchange student falling in love in Seoul, a woman lured into falling madly in love in facebook by a cyber-conman, an internal monologue of a young girl’s struggle with kleptomania, a light hearted rom-com from the perspective of a mischievous cupid, a wife with suspicions of her husband’s infidelity, etc. (more…)