In honour of International Women’s Day in March, we’re revisiting our recent series of features on four female leaders who are making a mark in Hong Kong. In part three of our story, we shine the spotlight on JANE ENGELMANN.
Finding a Voice
As the director and composer of the Unsung Heroes choir, Jane Engelmann has been instrumental in evolving how domestic workers are perceived in Hong Kong.
What brought you to Hong Kong?
I came here in 1993 with my lively little two-year-old son, Sam. My husband at the time was posted here with his job.
What has been the highlight of your expat experience?
So many highlights. Being a children’s television presenter, having my daughter at Matilda Hospital, the friendships, the support network, the weather, the Unsung Heroes, the freedom, the travel, the junks. It’s been incredible.
And the toughest challenge you’ve faced?
Oh, so many of those too. For a time, on the face of it, I was living “the life”. I had a huge apartment in Repulse Bay with a swimming pool, I was working as a TV presenter, I had it all!
The truth was very different. I was living in constant fear. Finding the courage to make the break and become a single parent while staying in Hong Kong was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. I didn’t get any financial support and I had to survive by working several jobs at once. My son had big issues at that time and my daughter was only a toddler. I was exhausted and emotionally drained.
What drove you to start Unsung Heroes?
That whole personal experience, and more. When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I didn’t employ a helper. When I took Sam downstairs to play with other children, I was the only mother in the group. The rest of the children were with a helper or aunty.
After I got chatting to them, I was really shocked to discover that many of them had their own children back in the Philippines who they hardly ever saw. When I became a single parent, a wonderful lady called Gloria supported us so much. She was loving, patient, so, so hard working and she literally got me through the hard times. I really was so grateful.
I developed a deeper empathy and understanding of the domestic helper community and really connected with them in so many ways. While I recognise that I’m privileged and have a different status and more opportunities here, there are still many basic human parallels. Many of us are single mothers. We’re doing whatever it takes to do what is best for our children. We’re trying to earn enough money. We get into debt. Our families have been torn apart. We are missing friends and family from home.
Grief, loss, love – it’s the same in any language. I wanted to find a way of recognising and honouring the sacrifice that so many of these women were making in putting other people’s children to bed instead of their own.
The Unsung Heroes were profiled in a documentary, The Helper, that was widely acclaimed. What’s been the impact of the show?
The Helper was a thrilling and life-changing experience for all of us. The effect of both making the film and then the film being released has had a tremendous impact. It was the subject of international media attention. The Unsung Heroes and I were interviewed by international media outlets including CNN, La Monde, Al Jazeera and The Daily Telegraph UK. I was interviewed by Time magazine and we were invited to perform at numerous events and screenings.
The film was screened on Cathay Pacific inflight entertainment for several months, it led to my Tedx talk, a documentary, an appearance on a popular TV show in the Philippines… and it just keeps happening.
The deeper impact is that the film and the story of the Unsung Heroes helped to raise awareness of the domestic helper community. It has opened people’s eyes to treat this community like real people with respect, compassion and gratitude. When I asked the group if they had one message to share to their employers and to the community it was simply this: “Treat us like human beings.”
How can other women help support the Unsung Heroes, and the wider domestic helper community?
In terms of how to support the choir, we’re still looking for a rehearsal space close to the Central piers; we don’t charge for our performances but we welcome donations to help with running costs, transportation, T-shirts, our website, stationery and other incidentals.
The Unsung Heroes are only one part of your creative achievements. You’ve worked in a leadership role as an educator, facilitator, performing artist and more. Has being a female leader in Hong Kong been a positive experience?
Yes, I’ve been extremely lucky to have had so many opportunities in the performing arts field here in Hong Kong. If you have the right mind-set and determination, and you have an idea, ambition or passion, anything is possible!
Hong Kong opens doors for you. I often think I could do more, though sometimes self-doubt and fear still get in the way. Oh yes, and tiredness and my full-time job!
Women who employ domestic helpers are leaders in their own homes. What’s your advice to expats who’ve employed a helper or who are considering it.
It can be a daunting process – you hear horror stories on both sides. When it works out for both sides, though, it can be wonderful. I couldn’t have managed without the help I got. Everyone is different but the very basic things I would advocate from both sides would be based on values such as respect, honesty, integrity, empathy and compassion.
About the Unsung Heroes
The Unsung Heroes is a choir made up of domestic workers. There are about 360,000 of these workers in Hong Kong. Many work long hours as “maids” despite the fact they may have tertiary qualifications in areas like engineering, teaching, science, accountancy, and more. They’ve often made the ultimate sacrifice: leaving their children and families to earn higher wages in Hong Kong, to provide a better life for their loved ones back home. Visit helperdocumentary.com to read more about the documentary, and for more details about the choir itself, visit unsungheroeshk.com.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.