By Purple Romero
“Patsam” — that’s what Ate Rowena, a Filipina domestic worker in Hong Kong, says when I ask her what she is cooking. Her answer initially registers to me as a local Cantonese dish, what with the usual inviting mix of greens and pork, its sapid scent teasing my nostrils.
But Ate Rowena later laughs as she quickly amends it with “Patsamba-tsamba!” and I join in her laughter, my eyes widening at the realisation that “Patsam” is a clever Filipino word play for a term which means to try and try as one may just get luck on one’s side.
The “Patsam,” however, has served as a lifeline to Ate Rowena and the tens of thousands of Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong. When they first set foot in the splendid, scarred city, they have no set knowledge of the cuisine and the dishes that they have to cook for the families they will work for. What they have are guts, the searing drive to survive, and an adaptability honed and forced into them by having mouths to feed, children to send to school.
“Patsam” was borne out of the persistence to overcome poverty. They have to make sure their employers will be satisfied with their services, which include preparing and cooking meals, so they can stay in Hong Kong and not be sent home. Home means inhumanely lower salaries amid completing a college degree. Home means a future of questions.
Each flavouring and ingredient is crucial. I remember one domestic worker telling me how using a small chicken part cost her her job, as this was unfortunately used by a fellow domestic worker against her. “She told our employer I chose the small parts, but I had no hand in it, she was the one in charge of going to the market. She chose what parts to buy.” In the end, that chicken part exacerbated the simmering tension between the two, and she was the one let go.
In this day and age where cooking has become en vogue — a fixture of celebrity vlogs, a hobby or a new skill for the moneyed, a template for reality TV shows — cooking has and always been an assertion of one’s place in Hong Kong for all the Ate Rowenas here.
Satiating their employer’s appetite and cravings means having a shot at surviving in a city which has become familiar to them, but remains a place they cannot fully understand or know as they do their homeland. Satisfying the palate of the families they work for is a test they have to pass three times or more a day, from breakfast to dinner and all the meals in between.
Never mind that they hardly get the chance to taste or relish the dish they work hard to make. Some subsist on parts of fish or meat that are smaller than the ones which cost the aforementioned domestic worker her job. Some get by with the ever reliable instant noodles or pancit canton, which are usually bought at Filipino stores in Central.
They do their best and they do their homework. YouTube has been a friend, so are the Facebook groups for domestic workers where they compare and share recipes. They share with pride photos of the dishes and sweets they make, the pastries they bake on Instagram. They trade tips on where to buy fresh produce and on what meals can best bring their employers joy.
They learn how to cook meals which belongs to a foreign land, with foreign tastes, spices, textures, names, all through their own perseverance and resourcefulness. It’s all them — there are no lessons from some fancy culinary school or workshop. They learn on their own.
They have to.
The kitchen is where they wage their war against being chained to a cycle of dearth.
The place of women, as they say, is in the revolution. But here, for the Ate Rowenas of Hong Kong, the kitchen — the clanking of pots, the preparation of meals not meant for them, the resolve not to let fear and uncertainty, nor their tears and longing for home lace the food they cook with bitterness — is where they fight a battle.
Purple Romero is a Filipina teaching assistant at the University of Hong Kong.