When I read the following passage on Francois Lelord’s book, Hector and the Search for Happiness, I knew he was referring toa familiar sight in Hong Kong where domestic workers gather in parks and practically every available space, mostly around the Central business district, to enjoy their day off. It was my first tiime to see for myself the convergence of these workers on a Sunday morning amidst the rather fancy backdrop of massive buildings and adverts for luxury goods.
Most of these workers are Filipinas coming from various regions and talking in varied dialects and accents, and it is during this one day off in the week where they meet amongst friends, sometimes making calls to families, trade gossips and stories, and share food that remind them of home.
Hector began sipping his large coffee and watching the entrance to the tower.
And he saw something he’d seen several times before when he came to his neighbourhood: a group of Chinese women had spread an oilcloth out on the ground and were sitting on it in a circle, like schoolchildren having a picnic. on closer inspection, Hector noticed that they weren’t exactly like Chinese women; they were in general slightly shorter, and quite slender and dark-skinned. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, continually chatting and laughing. He’d seen several groups like that when he came to his neighbourhood, with their oilcloths spread out beside the entrance to the towers, under the footbridges or anywhere that gave shelter from the rain, but always outside the buildings.
Hector wondered whether they got together like that in order to practice some new religion. He would have liked to know what it was, perhaps the same one the old monk practised, because, like him, they laughed a lot.
… There were also westerners like Edouard, and Hector tried to guess where they came from just from the way they looked. No doubt they got it wrong a few times, but since he couldn’t check he didn’t know, and it amused him, and from time to time he laughed to himself.
Edouard’s colleagues didn’t look amused at all as they left the towers, they looked tired, and some of them were staring at the ground as if weight down by worries. When the group of them emerged, talking amongst themselves, they looked very serious and sometimes it seemed as if they were cross with one another. Some looked so preoccupied, so caught up in their own thoughts that Hector almost felt like going up and prescribing pills for them. This cafe would have been a perfect place to establish himself as a psychiatrist if he had been planning to stay longer.
Finally, he saw Edouard, and he felt glad, because it’s always more heartening to see afriend in a country than simply to come across him at home, even if you are slightly annoyed with him. Edouard looked very pleased to see Hector, and he immediately ordered a beer to celebrate…
…He asked Edouard who the groups of women were that he’d seen everywhere sitting on their oilcloths. Edouard explained that they were cleaners, and that they all came from the same country, a group of small, very poor islands quite a long way from China. They work in this city (and other cities in the world) so tat they could send money to their families, who’d stayed behind.
‘But why do they gather here on those oilcloths?’ asked Hector.
‘Because they’ve nowhere else to go,’ replied Edouard. ‘Today is Sunday, their day off, so they can’t stay at work and they don’t have enough money to sit in cafes, so they meet here and sit on the ground.’
Edouard also explained that as their country was made up of small islands, women from particular islands or villages often sat together, and it was almost as if all their oilcloths formed a map of their impoverished archipelago in the midst of these very wealthy towers.
Hector watched the women who had nowhere else to go and who were laughing, he watched Edouard’s colleagues coming out of the tower looking very serious and he told himself that the world was a very wonderful or a very terrible place — it was difficult to say which.
When they left the cafe, Hector wanted to go over and speak to these women, because he felt that it was very important for his investigation. He walked towards a group of them, and as they saw him approach they all stopped talking and smiling. It occurred to Hector that they might think he was going to ask them to move along. But people usually quickly sensed that Hector meant well, and when they heard hilm speak in English they began laughing again. He told them that he’d been watching them for a while and that they seemed very happy. He wanted to know why.
They looked at one another, chuckling, and then one of them said, ‘Because it’s our day off!’
And another added, ‘Because we’re with our friends.’
‘Yes that’s right,’ the others said, ‘it’s because we’re with our friends.’ And even with their families, because some of them were cousins.
Hector asked tem what their religion was, and it turned out that it was the same as Hector’s! This dated back to the time, long ago, when people of Hector’s religion had occupied their islands, because at that time they tended to think that everything belonged to them.
But they didn’t seem to hold it against Hector because all said goodbye to him smiling and waiving.