Owing to a crazy cheap Christmas offer from Cebu Pacific, I found myself in Hong Kong the other week. Sure, the arrival and departure hours were equally insane, but the price couldn't be beat. All in all, the trip couldn't have come at a more opportune time: my last trip out of the country was more than five years ago. It felt good to feel my travel legs again.
For the first time in a long while, too, this was a right and proper holiday. Hong Kong used to be part of my beat back when I was working for that multinational. I know my way around, sure, but it's different when you're there on company time and when you can move at your own leisurely pace and really take note of things. That was my plan, to soak in as much as I could of the day-in-the-life.
Now we all know that Hong Kong is one of the top Asian destinations for the working Filipino expatriate. That much hasn't changed, nor is it likely to. I couldn't turn my head without spying a countryman or cock my ear without hearing conversations in Tagalog and Bisaya. Filipinos have made an imprint in Hong Kong; they make no apologies for it.
Chance encounters with countrymen happen everywhere. Once, on the top deck of a tram, I learned the minutiae of a woman's financial woes as she yammered away on her cellphone in Ilonggo. Another time, I overheard a young nanny confide jokingly to her friend in mixed Tagalog-Bisaya her plan to get wasted on her day off. Not just in Hong Kong, either, but in nearby Macau -- all the guards in the Macau Museum are Filipino, as, it seems, are the main performers in the famous Venetian Hotel.
As for me, it took all my self-control not to blurt out, "Oy! Filipino rin ako!" Not that I'm embarrassed about my provenance. It just feels like something only a bumpkin would do. After all, I wouldn't make such announcements anywhere in the Philippines; why should I, just because I'm out of the country? And being Filipino in Hong Kong is like being Filipino in Tutuban.
Perhaps nowhere is the Filipino entrenchment more apparent than in the World-Wide Center in the Central District of Hong Kong. Everyone -- and I do mean everyone, Hong Kong Chinese included -- knows it as "The Filipino Building." It's not just because that's where Filipinos congregate socially, it's where they transact business, whether it's sending money to family or buying a bit of home to ease the loneliness.
I visited World-Wide Center because that was where they had the best dollar exchange rates. On the outside it looks like any other building in the central business district. On the inside, well, it's like teleporting back to a busy Quiapo arcade mall. As I entered the building, I couldn't miss the busy bank offices -- BPI, PNB, Equitable... They were all there.
And not just banks, either. Three floors of World-Wide are dedicated to Filipino goods and services, manned by Filipinos, and patronized by Filipinos. Hankering for a bit of Philippine magazines? Check! Looking for Lucky Me Instant Mami? Check! A dose of April Boy Regino (hey, don't knock him; I'm a fan)? Check! Rounding out the picture, over to one corner, I spied a weary young shopman taking a late lunch of rice and bulad from a styrofoam box -- a contrast, it seemed, with the Delifrance coffee shop on the main floor of World-Wide, until I realized that Delifrance was as Filipino as he.
Oh yes, it all looks and sounds so kitschy, but it's a snapshot of Philippine life transported to a foreign land. Perhaps its jologs sensibility might elicit sneers from the Greenbelt elite that wants everything bright and shiny and branded. Who cares? The Greenbelt elite have never had to work long years in a country not their own. World-Wide Center is unpretentious and authentic Filipino.
When I finally transacted for my dollars, it was in Filipino.
"Magkano yung palit ninyo dito sa dollar?"
"7.20 po," said the Western Union teller.
"May service charge ba?"
"Wala naman." I thought I saw her roll her eyes: noob!
"Ah, sige, balik na lang ako." 7.20 was too low; 7.60 was where it's at.
And there it was: it felt as if I'd never left home.