Singapore—When Singapore’s legendary founder Lee Kuan Yew passed away in 2015, reporters interviewed his maid. Then 98 and back in Guangdong, Ouyang Huan Yan showed her yellowing, treasured photographs. She recalled Lee’s simple wedding. His modest breakfasts of toast and eggs. How he would call to make sure she had dinner when he was a young lawyer working late into the night.
She joined Lee’s household in the 1940s, when he was studying law in Cambridge. She stayed for over 40 years, raising his children, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Swimmer Joseph Schooling beat Michael Phelps in 2016 to win Singapore’s first Olympic gold. He praised Yolanda Pascual, then 56, as his “second mom” in a viral Singapore Telecom ad.
“Aunty Yolly” has been his second mom for 20 years. When Schooling trained as a boy, she would take him to and from the pool, give him massages and cook adobo. She was “nagtatatalon (jumping up and down)” and crying when he won in Rio.
On GMA7, Schooling told Filipinos accusing her of exploiting his fame that they should be shot.
These stories are not unique. One Singaporean friend’s second mom stayed with her family for 16 years, seeing her go to law school. She flew her old nanny back from the Philippines for her wedding.
Middle-class Southeast Asians are raised by maids. Our region hesitates to demonize the late Pulitzer awardee Alex Tizon, unlike the West.
In his final story in Atlantic, “My Family’s Slave,” Tizon’s grandfather gifted then 18-year-old Eudocia Tomas Pulido to his mother in 1943. Eudocia moved with Tizon’s family to Los Angeles in 1964, by then their “domestic” for 21 years.
“Hers was the first face I saw in the morning,” Tizon wrote, “and the last one I saw at night.” He learned to say “Lola”
before “Mom” or “Dad.”
His haunting descriptions shocked us: His parents refused to pay Lola money to send to her sick mother. Made her sleep among piles of laundry. Watched her rotting teeth fall out and refused to take her to a dentist.
Yet we sympathize with photos of an aged Lola cooking, sniffing flowers in her garden and hugging Tizon. She smiled broadly in each, perhaps at peace with the past. In her eighties, she declined to return to Tarlac.
Tizon’s daughter Dylan wrote that Lola was “for lack of a better word, an angel,” who loved “every single person that walked into our house with her whole heart.” She, too, wept when she read her father’s draft.
The 2016 documentary “Sunday Beauty Queen” moved me more than Tizon did. It refreshingly viewed maids in Hong Kong through the lens of beauty pageants they organized on their days off. It captured how articulate, industrious and creative each was, even flashing each character’s college degree, beyond the typical portrayal of hardship and homesickness.
A woman stands against the backdrop of a majestic harbor sunset in one poignant scene. She calls her son to say she cannot be home for Christmas. She must care for her employer’s dog while they go on vacation.
Aunty Yolly’s eldest daughter Alelli felt Schooling’s win was hers, too. Her siblings have visited him in the Lion City. But she cannot help but be jealous. Her mother showered Schooling with attention as he grew up, something Alelli never enjoyed.
We explain these powerful but conflicting accounts with sociological and cultural insight. Perhaps we should discard emotion for economics.
A young couple in Manila cannot afford to start a family unless both work. They hire a maid for $100-200 a month out of rationality, not inability to clean their own home.
And when anyone criticizes Singapore, even my most well-meaning friends retort that they do not need to send their people abroad to work as maids.
Lola left postwar Tarlac for an allowance of dollars that was never paid. Aunty Yolly left post-Edsa Lal-lo, Cagayan, to seek work after her husband left her. Tens of thousands more, highly educated and motivated, continue to choose to cross oceans to raise other nations’ children.
Perhaps one day, they will be free to raise their own Schoolings, Tizons and Lees.
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