HONG KONG - Unperturbed by the prodemocracy protesters, Filipino domestic workers spent their day off Thursday in Hong Kong's central business district, their usual weekend Shangri-La.
Teodora Trillana, 52, and her friends from Ilocos Sur province laid down their mats on the sidewalk at the corner of Chater Road and Ice House Street in Central, not bothering with a barricade of steel railings that protesters had set up the previous nights beside where they were staying.
"It's peaceful here," Trillana said, in an area strewn with parasols in what foreign media had described as the "Umbrella Revolution."
Central has been a favourite hangout of Filipino domestic workers on their days off. Here, they swap stories from the homeland, share native delicacies in brown bags, spend endless hours talking on cell phones to folks back in the Philippines. And on Thursday-a public holiday-was no different.
Outside the Worldwide House building, where Filipino stores and remittance centers are located, Pakistani hawkers sold their wares to customers from the Philippines.
"As long as we don't join and go to the venue of the protests, we're safe," Trillana said.
"The protesters were peaceful, bringing their own food and helping each other. One of my friends said our former ward, who is now grown up and in university, had joined the protest," she said. "But we cannot join. The consulate has warned us not to."
The Philippine consulate has warned the 170,000-strong Filipino community in this former British colony that, under Hong Kong laws, those found guilty of causing public disorder could be fined HK$5,000 (S$820) and imprisoned for up to 12 months.
"I had seen rallies here but this is the worst that we've seen because they used tear gas. Before, they would just allow the protesters to go around with their banners," said Trillana, who has spent three decades in Hong Kong.
Migrants' rights activist
Up on the elevated walkway in front of IFC mall, Lumen Llagas, seated on a mat-covered pavement, recounted that her worried husband in the Philippines had called her on the phone.
"He told me not to go out as much as possible. But I just can't stay at home with my employers watching me there. And what would I do there? I just told him that I would keep myself safe," said Llagas, who is from Cagayan Valley.
"I haven't heard of a Filipino being hurt. As long as you don't join the protests, you won't get hurt," she added.
Llagas said her male employer was from China but was not overly concerned with the civil disobedience campaign that has paralysed parts of the city.
While most Filipinos have stayed away from the rallies, migrants' rights activists here have expressed support for the protesters.
"We are one with the people of Hong Kong in the call to stop the repression against their democratic rights. We call for the immediate release of the arrested protesters. We call for the HK government to respect the people's rights," said a statement from the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body (AMBC).
"AMCB commends the determination displayed, especially by the young people of Hong Kong. We extend our solidarity to those who uphold the people's rights and democracy," said the group, which represents Filipino, Indonesian, Thai, Nepalese and Sri Lankan workers.
Filipino leaders of AMCB have joined protests at nearby Admiralty to express their solidarity with the students.
Witness to history
Catherine Tating, a Filipino permanent resident from Antique province who is married to a Brit, said she was impressed at how the students had so far conducted themselves.
"I'm proud of them because they are fighting for their rights. They understand that their future is at stake and they are doing something about it," said Tating, who went to Admiralty on Tuesday at the behest of her teenage son and was gifted with an umbrella by a student protester.
"It's a good feeling that you are there and doing something about it instead of just staying at home. It's not just being a witness to history, it's human nature to help somebody in need," she added.
Tating said what struck her the most was the discipline and organizational skills displayed by the young protesters.
Youths fighting for future
"Supposedly, these are young people who just text or play the computer, not knowing anything about the world and then you see them there fighting for their future," she said.
"And I never saw anybody with an angry face or a temper. They are fighting for something but they did not look angry. You don't feel any danger," she added.
Tating said she got her umbrella after some protesters noticed that she had none when it rained on Tuesday night.
"They were giving away free umbrellas and these black garbage bags. And when the rain stopped, they cheered and turned on their cell phone lights. It was so beautiful. I was overwhelmed," she said.