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Poke at Pinays’ penchant for beauty pageants backfires

28 March 2016

By Vir B. Lumicao

Filipino domestic helpers’ penchant for joining beauty pageants is a “puzzling phenomenon” by which they try to cast off the stigma of being mere “maids” as they pursue their Cinderella dreams in Hong Kong, a university lecturer said.
But Filipinos in the audience took exception when Dr Ju-Chen Chen, an anthropology lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the women aspired for college education only to work as domestic helpers abroad. The opposition prompted her to rectify her remarks.
Dr Ju-Chen Chen
Chen said the helpers’ fondness for expensive beauty contests, along with their “baffling”aspirations of obtaining college education and working overseas, needs to be understood in a much broader context including class culture and colonial cultural legacy.
She tried to delve into the Filipinas’ Cinderella syndrome in a lecture she gave on Feb 25 at the Hong Kong Museum of History before an audience of around 50 academics, students, NGO representatives and journalists.
She encapsulated her research in a Powerpoint and video presentation titled “Keep Catwalking: Education and Beauty Pageants of Filipino Migrant Workers in Hong Kong”. This began with photographs of some pageants staged by OFW groups to raise funds or by companies to promote their products.
Chen said Filipina helpers in Hong Kong “are often homogenized, exoticized, and stigmatized” as having no other purpose than sending money to families back home.“Filipino domestic helpers are usually seen spending their day off in Central. But they also have dreams of buying houses and experience motherhood,” said Chen.
On Sundays people usually see the domestic workers sitting in Central’s Statue Square and open spaces chatting or playing cards, while others “actively attend to personal chores, church volunteer work and beauty pageants.”
Chen said her research intended to look into the motivation behind the Filipinas’ active participation in beauty pageants where they readily spend about $15,000 each, way abovetheir monthly salaries. She said this activity had, in fact, driven many of them into debt.She showed video footages of two big OFW beauty pageants held recently in Hong Kong– the Miss Pinoyshot Princess 2013 that featured lavishly but scantily clad angels strutting on stage and the equally impressive “Miss Barkadahan 2015” contest held at the Hong Kong Convention Centre.
She pointed out the differences between the Pinoyshot, where the domestic worker contestants strutted on ramps imitating beauties in big international pageants, and the Barkadahan tilt, where the women participated with their “lady-male” partners in Broadway-like numbers.
“Compared with the spectacle and din of people idling in Central to those in the pageants,what I see are the aspirations, the dreams, the passions, ambitions, desires, fears, talk, the cheers, shouts,” Chen said.“Whenever they see their candidates coming out, they shout...and then  yell, and then they cry, and then they shout so loud, and everyone of the ladies on the stage, you look at how they move their bodies…” she said.
Then Chen moved on to show “the aspirations” of the Filipinas through a video uploaded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who narrated how a young woman named Riza Mae described how women on her island in Antique spent their lives collecting seashells. Zuckerberg then tells about Riza Mae using Internet.org to earn a degree in Computer Science, relying on her mobile phone to access the program and reach out to team members so that they could work on their thesis. Through her sheer patience and the wonder of the Internet, Riza Mae successfully finished the course and, in the final video scene, was standing on a fishing outrigger wearing a gown and toga, clutching a diploma as she sailed back to her island.
Chen made the mistake of remarking that the Filipinas’ aspirations are to go to college and earn a degree and then work abroad as maids. In the question and answer session, Filipinos in the audience pointed out some misconceptions in Chen’s research, such as the stereotyping of the women as aspiring to earn college degrees and then applying for domestic jobs abroad. Holly Allan, manager of Helpers for Domestic Helpers, said the helpers are in Hong Kong not by aspiration but by choice because there are no opportunities at home by which they could fulfill their dreams. She pointed out that many Filipina professionals who went to universities in Manila and are now employed by various companies in Hong Kong.
Ramon Bultron of the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants said the migration of Filipino workers started in 1974 when the government passed a law that turned labor exportation into an industry.
Another pointed out that labor exportation was the only recourse because the Philippine population had exploded and the local economy could not create enough jobs to absorb the 700,000 who graduate annually from colleges and universities in the country.

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