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Humans of Hong Kong: On culture & community with Parveen Sajahan

By Annette Chan 12 March 2021

Welcome to Humans of Hong Kong, a brand-new story series on Localiiz that takes a deeper look at the many colourful characters and unique personalities that call our beloved city home. We journeyed to Mei Foo Sun Chuen to chat with Parveen Sajahan, whose Filipino speciality store has been providing a home away from home to the neighbourhood’s domestic helpers for nearly 20 years. Join us as we talk about community, the simple joys of home-cooked food, and the importance of giving back.

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“I came to Hong Kong as a domestic helper when I was 21. At first, it was hard, because when you miss your family, it’s so heart-breaking. I was lucky to have a good employer. They had a business selling fur coats, and every time they had shows in the convention centre, I would model the coats for them. When I told them I was getting married, they even gave me gold gifts and a necklace.

“I never expected to marry someone in Hong Kong, that somebody here would like me. Before our wedding, my husband asked me to embrace Islam and change my name. My Christian name was Perla and I already had a necklace with the letter ‘P’ on it, so I asked him to choose a Muslim name that also begins with P.”

“After we got married, I was an ordinary housewife. But then when my sons were older and they were spending more time in school, I wanted something to do, some income of my own. At first, my husband didn’t want me to get a job—in Muslim culture, they prefer for the wife to stay at home and look after the children. But I told him that life in Hong Kong is different to life in India, where he is from. We have more expenses here, and I have family in the Philippines who need help.”

“When I started my business in 2002, I originally sold garments. I travelled to Thailand to source t-shirts, jeans, bags, carpets, mosquito nets, even TVs. I did that for about a year, but during SARS, business was very bad. Over time, customers would come after they found out I was a Filipina and started asking for tinned foods, bath soaps, skincare products, phone cards… I realised there was a big helper community in Mei Foo, so I decided to slowly turn my shop into a Filipino mart.

“Whenever customers ask for something I don’t have, I say, ‘Okay, I will get it for you next week.’ I want to give people from my country a home away from home. Before the pandemic, we used to have tables in front of my shop for OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) to gather every rest day, and we had gatherings for Christmas and Chinese New Year, too. They eat, they sing, they dance, they play games in front of my shop. It’s really fun. Before everyone had smartphones, my customers asked me to get computers so they could chat with their families, so at a time, I had eight computers and a karaoke machine. It was like an internet café. Those were the golden days in Parveen’s.”

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“I have a lot of long-time customers. I have a friend who comes to the shop every Sunday and every holiday—we met here when the shop first opened almost 19 years ago and became close friends. She normally comes to my house every Saturday night and sleeps over. We are family.

“Most years, we organise a picnic or outing for Parveen’s anniversary in April. We just want to bring my customers somewhere to have some fun… we hire a big bus to take everyone somewhere fun, like the Gold Coast in Tuen Mun, where we can have a party. I provide food, drinks, t-shirts, and prizes for parlour games like Pinoy Henyo.

“I tried to make halo-halo for two summers, but you need a lot of ice and space and it’s so time-consuming. So I made Filipino ice candy out of mango purée for a summer snack… it’s like an ice lolly, but you freeze it inside plastic bags.”

“My husband is a very business-minded person. He’s always pushing me to make the business bigger, but I don’t think I can do that. I don’t want to open up more branches, I want to spend more time with my family and be more hands-on with my shop.

“Aside from money, I do this to give my people what they need. There are a lot of helpers who come in and say their employers don’t give them enough food, or they’re being maltreated in some way. All I can do is listen and give them food, but I refer them to the Philippine consulate or migrant workers’ associations. For customers whose family have been the victims of calamities at home, we raise money through a donation box or gather supplies to send back, like a balikbayan box.”

“After staying in Hong Kong for many years, I really love being here. I love the surroundings, the food, everything in Hong Kong. You can make money more easily here. Even if you are a degree-holder, in the Philippines, the salary is really low. Working in Hong Kong, even as a helper, you can make a lot more money. The only thing I hate is when money lenders target helpers. A lot of my customers in the past have got into trouble with loan sharks. Most of the times they prefer to run away, but I always say, ‘Please don’t. You already used the money—and you put it to good use to help your family. But it’s better to pay it back instead of running away from your debt. Karma is always there.’

“For the future, I think as long as I am still here and healthy, I am going to continue doing what I do for my Filipino community.”

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Annette Chan

Senior editor

Annette is an editor and copywriter with a lifetime of experience in hunting out the most interesting, odd, and delightful things about her beloved home city. Having written extensively about everything from food and culture to fashion, music, and hospitality, she considers her speciality to be Hong Kong itself. In her free time, you can find Annette trying out new dumpling recipes or playing Big Two at her favourite local bars with a cocktail in hand.