It was Sunday night in Hong Kong. Lilly spun her body around in circles to the music, her arms flung high above her head. She could feel the ‘whump, whump’ of the Surabaya Club’s techno beat in the packed lesbian bar vibrating deep inside her body like a tuning fork. Around her other Indonesian Tommy-boys and Girly-girls gyrated to the music.
Sunday, the day Hong Kong’s Indonesian and Filipino domestic helpers had off, migrating as a herd to Central and Causeway Bay, and particularly to Wanchai’s wild bars and clubs, intent on partying hard enough to last them for the rest of the week. The Surabaya Club was one of these clubs, the only difference being that it catered to women who preferred women.
Lilly danced and spun, her senses bombarded by strobes flashing in the blackness, images of asymmetrically cropped hair appearing and disappearing around her, prisms of bright colors as laser lights swept over bouncing heads on compact bodies. Her soul temporarily liberated from a week of demoralizing servitude as she surrendered to the driving beat, she danced with abandon.
Next to Lilly, wearing a baseball cap with an extra-large brim, embroidered with ‘AC lightning bolt DC’ and worn backwards on her head, Bella hopped to the music. As one song evolved into the next Bella stopped dancing and beckoned Lilly to follow her through the crowd to a dark booth along the perimeter of the bar. Lilly slid in next to Bella, close, inhaling. She liked that Bella smelled like a man. Her hand resting on Lilly’s thigh, Bella signaled the waiter, “Two tequila shots.” The two girls smacked glasses and slammed back the shots of Jose Cuervo Gold. “Santi!, Cheers!” Lilly grimaced from the after-burn.
The chaos of the Surabaya Club’s body-piercing music, flashing lights, twirling shapes, and a woman instead of a man sitting next to her, blurred into the background as Lilly’s thoughts drifted back to her life before Hong Kong. She thought about The Dream and the promises that had sounded so real back in Indonesia, so achievable.
She had been, like most girls in her village, pulled out of school early, no marketable skills, no hope of finding work. A Sponsor had visited her parent’s home, as he did all the homes with young girls. The Sponsor, bad teeth and bad breath, a crocodile with his mouth open waiting for a small animal to stroll in, sat on her mother’s flower-patterned couch sipping tea. He had described a vision of wealth. Work overseas as a maid for a few years and soon you will be buying property, have a house, a future. They had bought The Dream.
Lilly immediately had found herself sitting in a training center in Jakarta learning the four ‘C’ skills: ‘Cantonese, cleaning, cooking, and courtesy’. Cantonese was the only challenge, but after three months of study, she had reached an acceptable level of competence, and, as if a tsunami wave had suddenly rolled in from in the ocean and ripped her from Indonesia, Lilly was whisked off to Hong Kong to meet her Agent and to be introduced to an employer.
It was her first trip on an airplane. Lilly gripped the armrest as if it was her tether to solid land. The sleek metal tube powered into the sky, Lily staring out of the circular window at the clouds below them. What sort of magic keeps us from plummeting into the ocean below?
The Agent, a short woman in a gray suit, each fingernail painted a different color, met Lily and three other village girls at the gate. The Agent seemed to Lily to be an incarnation of Rangda, the mythical child-eating demon queen with large fangs, claws, pendulous breasts, and protruding eyeballs. “You four, follow me, quickly.” Rangda spun and took off through the crowd.
The four girls followed the Demon Queen through Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport to a waiting shuttle bus which, with slipping gears and the sharp odor of a burning transmission, transported them to a moldy boarding house in Sheung Wan. Is the world spinning faster? Everything is moving so fast, Lilly thought as she looked out of the dirt-streaked van windows at Hong Kong’s complex urbanity. She calmed herself by thinking about The Dream. I will soon be sending great sums of money home to my family.
In the morning, after an indoctrination speech to the group, which sounded to Lilly like a scolding, the Agent, same gray suit and clicking heels, strode over to Lilly and, pointing her finger in Lilly’s face, said, “You, Lilly, come with me.” Lilly followed, the Agent setting a pace as they wove their way through the crowded streets of Sheung Wan that Lilly found difficult to match, finally arriving at the Metro.
Mr. and Mrs. Chan, their two children, and an elderly Pomeranian, lived in East Kowloon in a six hundred square foot, fifth floor walk-up. The Chan’s were not wealthy, but having a helper allowed them to be a two-income family. The two children and the Pomeranian watched from a corner with lemur-like eyes as the new ‘Auntie’ was sized up by Mrs. Chan. As the Agent bent and bobbed deferentially while introducing Lilly to her new mistress, Mrs. Chan eyed Lily like an accident the Pomeranian had left on the living room floor.
When the Agent left, Lilly was shown to the laundry room, which would also double as her room. A mat on the floor amidst the detergent boxes and brooms was to be her new bed. “This your schedule.” Mrs. Chan said in Cantonese, thrusting a typed list at Lilly which detailed her daily activities from 6:00am to 11:00pm every day.
Looking at the list, Lilly said in broken Cantonese, “But, Madame, I was told that I would only work six days per week, with one day off. This list says that I work seven days.”
The hard slap across her cheek shocked her. Lilly had never been hit before. The pain of the violation stung the most. Mrs. Chan gave a brief half-smile, and said, “Oh, yes, six days, my mistake.” She then spun and walked away, leaving Lilly with tears welling in her eyes, The Dream collapsed on the floor around her feet.
Sundays became Lilly’s one day of relief, the one day that belonged to her. On Sundays she joined the thousands of other domestic workers in Hong Kong who gathered to make and meet friends, the Filipinas in Central, and the Indonesians in Causeway Bay. Cardboard and blankets were set out on concrete, turf staked out, gossiping, playing cards, and eating home-country food from Styrofoam boxes, Sunday was for washing away the humiliation. Sunday was a day to be relished.
Months of isolation, loneliness, abuse from her employers, and a scarcity of Indonesian men in Hong Kong had left Lilly ready to seek comfort wherever it was available. She had met Bella in Victoria Park. Bella was total Tomboy, masculine gestures and body language. There was no way that she could be mistaken for someone who liked men. Lilly had felt awkward at first, but now, after three months, she was comfortable. She and Bella knew that one day Lilly would return to Indonesia, find a husband, and have children. Bella, however, would forever be a Tomboy.
Lily’s consciousness came back to the present as a man slid into their booth opposite the girls. Bella growled, “Who do you think you are?” in Indonesian.
The man smiled, showing tobacco stained teeth, and replied in Cantonese, “Hi, Girls.”
“You are not Chinese, not Indonesian, not Thai, and not Filipino. What the hell are you?” Bella said in Cantonese.
“I am from Myanmar,” the man said.
“Go sit someplace else,” Bella snarled. Lilly noticed that Bella fingered the six inch knife that she kept strapped inside the waistband of her jeans.
“I just want to let you girls know of a money-making opportunity, that’s all,” the man said, flashing his ochre-streaked smile again. He removed a flyer from a cloth bag and placed it in front of the girls. One more smile and he moved on to the next booth and another couple.
Bella and Lilly looked at the flyer. In Indonesian it said, ‘Teach Indonesian to Chinese businessmen on Sundays. Two hour class. Good money.’ At the bottom of the flyer was a telephone number.
“Sounds like easy money,” Lilly said. “I don’t want to take away our precious Sunday time though.”
Bella shrugged. “You could try. Only two hours.”
“Maybe.” Lilly folded the flyer and put it in her pocket. “Let’s dance.”
At 1:00am Lilly and Bella walked past the bouncers in black T-shirts at the front door. They held hands as they exited the Surabaya Club onto the still-busy Wanchai sidewalk. Lilly gave Bella a kiss on the cheek and said “See you in a week.” She walked towards the Wanchai metro station. It was the last time Bella ever saw her.
In the Sham Shui Po neighborhood of Kowloon, a twenty minute subway ride from The Surabaya Club, a lean Burmese man was working late. On the long butcher block table before him lay the body of an Indonesian woman. A streak of bright blue highlight in her short hair and a tattoo of a Jasmine flower on her calf, vestiges of how she decorated herself in life, were now irrelevant. The man did not view her as a being once alive. Ever since becoming a minion of The Witch he had trained himself this way. It made the butchering easier.
With a German boning knife he carefully sliced out the rib cage. This would be the only part of the woman retained, refrigerated for Feast Day. The remainder would be disposed of in black plastic garbage bags, weighted to sink into the murky obscurity of Victoria Harbor.