Jul 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

A room of one’s own

Mobile libraries and writers clubs reveal a rich reading and writing culture among Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong

Brigitta Isabella

Victoria Park, in the busy shopping area of Causeway Bay, is one of the favourite places for Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong to spend time on their one day off each week.  Lola Amaria's 2010 film Minggu Pagi di Victoria Park (Sunday Morning at Victoria Park) features scenes of Indonesian migrant workers participating in their leisure activities at the park. On weekdays, the basketball and tennis courts inside the park are used by Hong Kong residents, tourists are relax alongside Indonesian migrant workers waiting to pick up their employer’s kids from school.

The neighbourhood near the park has many Indonesian restaurants and shops selling Indonesian goods. The consulate is just a 10 minute walk away. It is surrounded by shops that offer services to send money and goods back to Indonesia, facilitating the daily interaction of Indonesian migrant workers. A similar dynamic exists for Filipino migrant workers, who use Central station as their meeting place.

On weekends, Victoria Park becomes a huge picnic ground where Indonesian migrant workers spend their day off. Whilst in their daily life as domestic workers many of these women are ignored and marginalised from the pulse of Hong Kong metropolis, on the weekend one sees their efforts at reclaiming their individual and communal identities at Victoria Park.

On their Sundays in Victoria Park many of the women dress differently: whether wearing a veil or mini skirt, many feel free to perform their identity to some extent. Gathering in a public space becomes a way of asserting their presence and togetherness. In Victoria Park, Indonesian migrant workers sit together to picnic, creating small groups assembled from various kinds of affiliations, be it similar hometown, religion, sexual preferences, hobbies, or just because they happened to come from same working agency in Indonesia.

Activities in the park are very diverse; from performing modern dance, playing music instruments, learning how to do make-up, reciting the Qur’an together, to practicing public speaking. All happens in the one place. They are forming their own territory, creating a complex map that illustrates the plurality of Indonesian migrant workers’ identities in Hong Kong.

Migrant domestic workers make up four per cent of Hong Kong’s population and are the largest minority group in the city. Indonesian migrant workers – mainly women – make up almost 50 per cent of all foreign migrant workers in Hong Kong. Indonesian government statistics from 2015 rate Hong Kong as the fifth most popular destination for Indonesian migrant workers after Malaysia, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. Compared to the other destinations, Hong Kong’s high density urban environment is unique. These physical conditions and their large numbers combines to create a somewhat unique community bond among the Indonesian migrant workers, which is most visible on Sunday mornings at Victoria Park.

A thriving literary culture

One activity that caught my attention was the presence of several mobile libraries around Victoria Park. These libraries are initiated by either individuals or groups of migrant workers who are passionate about reading and writing. According to Yully Riswati, a migrant worker and an author whose pen name is Arista Devi, there are around eighty active mobile libraries of different sizes and proprietorial models across various neighbourhoods in Hong Kong.

During my last trip to Hong Kong in October 2015, there were five libraries based at Victoria Park but this number changes daily depending on when the organisers have their days off from their fulltime work. Although owned and maintained by different people, these mobile libraries have a similar modus operandi and quite similar collection of books. Each library has around 100-200 books stored in suitcases.

The use of a suitcase for book storage evokes a poignant reminder of the act of travel, what has brought the workers to this city in the first place. Because some of the migrant workers might not have enough space to store their libraries in their employers’ house, many of the suitcases are deposited in a shared repository near Victoria Park owned by an ex-migrant worker who was successful in creating her own business. Each library pays around 100 HKD (Rp. 170,000, A$15) every month for this service. 

Most mobile libraries do not have a strict rule for borrowing books. The borrowers only need to write their names in a small notebook and give a donation to the library. The donation is mainly used to buy more books or to pay for storage, though there are also some libraries that distribute donations to Islamic charity institutions in Indonesia. There is no need to have a membership card and there is no time limit on borrowing, because it is understood that some migrant workers are sometimes not allowed to have a day off from their job and so cannot always return the books on time.

Most of the books in these libraries come from existing personal collections, but the owners also often buy and ship books from Indonesia. The collections of books held in the mobile libraries I looked at in Victoria Park were quite diverse, although dominated by self-help books, religious books and those offering tips for entrepreneurs and on doing business. According to Nyami Kaswadi, the owner of mobile library Pandu Pustaka, popular books in her library are religious novels made into films, such as Assalamualaikum Beijing and Hafalan Sholat Delisa. Some classics of modern Indonesian literature can be found though. For example, Atheis (Atheist, 1949) by Achdiat Karta Mihardja, or Catatan Seorang Demonstran (Notes of a Demonstrator, 1983) by political activist Soe Hok Gie. Most libraries have Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s books in their collection.

Literary culture among Indonesian migrant workers started to develop in art communities that emerged in the early 2000s, such as Teater Angin and Sekar Bumi, founded by several women with a shared interest in art and culture. Both groups organised cultural activities including theatre and writing workshops. Early performances of Teater Angin and Sekar Bumi were presented in conjunction with mass demonstrations, which still often incorporate artistic expression such as drama and poetry to articulate their protests. 

Writing competitions sponsored by NGOs and workers’ unions also contribute to the vast amount of writings produced by migrant workers. Themes for the competitions are often related to issues relevant to the migrant workers, such as human rights and domestic violence cases. Most writings produced in the framework of these competitions are in the form of diary entries or journalistic articles using first-person narrative. In a way, these competitions also set a certain standard of ‘good writing’, which more often than not, considers the saddest story to be the winning work. 

Yully and Nyami told me that they first became interested in writing because they want to test their skills through these competitions. Overtime they realised that writing only within the limits of a competition restricted their ability to experiment with different topics and literary forms. Some of Yully’s writing, for example, plays with the boundaries between fact and fiction by exploring different characters’ perspectives. She is also interested in writing horror literature. Like many other migrant workers with an interest in writing, Yully regularly writes in her blog. Free community newspapers are another outlet for journalistic and fictional writings by Indonesian migrant workers. 

Alongside these channels for creative ventures among Indonesian migrant workers, Forum Lingkar Pena’s (FLP) branch in Hong Kong is one of the active organisations focused on literary activities. FLP Hong Kong organises mobile libraries, writing workshops and publishes books. FLP is a writers club established in Jakarta by Helvi Tiana Rosa in 1997. It now has many active branches in Indonesia and abroad, particularly in the destination countries for Indonesian migrant workers including Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan. 

Hong Kong as an ‘open university’

Hong Kong has become an organic and informal ‘university’ where Indonesian migrant workers can share and exchange knowledge and experience with their peers. The most important knowledge exchanged is about their legal rights as domestic migrant workers. The strong bond of community that emerges from the habit of gathering in Victoria Park has also raised political consciousness and resulted in a powerful support group for those in trouble. Many migrant workers spend their free time taking courses to improve their skills, such as language and entrepreneurialism classes. These are courses in practical skills focused on providing some advantage once they return to live in Indonesia. In addition to these, small yet dynamic creative communities have also become important spaces for sharing knowledge and raising subjective consciousness.

The writers’ community and mobile library is a space to discuss favourite books or to share tips on writing. The advice and motivation shared among the group is even more crucial in an environment in which these domestic workers lack personal time and space in their long working week. Many write on their smartphones because they are not allowed to use electricity at their employer’s house during the night. This limitation has affected the length of writing produced, which includes mostly poetry or short stories.  

What is interesting about the literary culture within these writers’ communities is the autodidact learning habit developed among the migrant workers, most of who have only studied to a high school level. This reveals a great determination for self-improvement. Although the primary reason women come to work in Hong Kong is to find a better income than what is available at home, for some young women in their twenties working abroad is also a way of finding identity and exploring their potential.

Terenia Puspita, a 25-year-old from Lumajang, East Java, has been working in Hong Kong for three years. Terenia told me she was unsure about returning to her hometown. She is afraid her family would rush her to get married. She described how she would miss the good public transportation and free access to public libraries in Hong Kong. Terenia likes to read and write, and she is currently taking an English literature degree in an Indonesian open university in Hong Kong. I regard Terenia as a writer who supports her passion by being a migrant worker, rather than a migrant worker who happens to like writing. 

Whilst Hong Kong is undoubtedly a place to ‘dig for money’, for many Indonesian women work and live in Hong Kong is also a way to pursue dreams and ambitions which are likely to be restrained by social conditions in Indonesia. For most migrant workers, Hong Kong offers room to push back, to persist in not fulfilling other people’s expectations of what one’s life should be. As Virginia Woolf said, a woman who writes should have money and a room of one’s own.


Brigitta Isabella works in KUNCI Cultural Studies Center a research collective based in Yogyakarta. In 2015 in collaboration with Para Site gallery and Indonesian writer’s community in Hong Kong, they conduct a program called ‘A Room of Their Own’ which explores the production of knowledge through reading and writing culture among Indonesian migrant workers. 


Inside Indonesia 124: Apr-Jun 2016


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