Julia Gillard and the maids of Hong Kong


Australia and Hong Kong face similar dilemmas in the way they implement immigration policies, writes Max Mack from the Island.


Over the years Hong Kong has had its fair share of gripping court cases meander their way through the legal system. One country, two systems, many unpredictable outcomes.

It all started in May 1996. Cheung Tze-keung, known as “Big Spender”, kidnapped then 32-year old Victor Li in Hong Kong. Mr Spender then visited Victor’s father, Asia’s richest man Li Ka-shing at home.

Mr Li Senior and Big spent three days together negotiating the largest ransom in history reported to have been between HK$1bn to $1.38bn.


Big, realising he was onto a good little earner, kidnapped tycoon Walter Kwok the following summer. Big put him in a box for four days until Walter’s wife paid a ransom of HK$600 million… in $1,000 notes conveyed in 20 large bags.

But Spender’s big mistake was fleeing to China a few months later. In August 1998 Big was arrested in China and tried there, despite pleas from his lawyer for the case to be transferred to Hong Kong, where the crimes occurred. On December 16, 1998, Cheung was convicted of kidnapping and other charges and sentenced to death. All of a sudden, Mainland justice moved quickly. Big Spender was executed that afternoon. Sovereignty can be tricky. Sometimes. For other governments.

Big was brazen and clever, but not original: that wasn’t the first tycoon kidnapping in the colony.

Teddy Wang was the tycoon at Chinachem when he was kidnapped in 1990. His wife, Nina, subsequently fought her father-in-law for years for control of Chinachem. Teddy never resurfaced, and his body was never found.

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That dispute was always going to be popular, with a missing tycoon, a family fortune and more dirty laundry than the Kennedys. But it was only the curtain raiser. It was nothing compared to the legal showpiece that was the fight for Nina’s estate launched by her feng shui advisor-slash-lover. Toothy Tony Chan’s forged claim on the estate was played out daily in the papers with revelations that will provide an education of ivy league proportions for a new generation of soap opera script writers.

We’ve had the “milkshake murder”, which saw Nancy Kissel make a tainted strawberry milkshake for her investment banking husband before she clubbed him to death. Having completed the first part of her genius plan, this mother of three/criminal mastermind progressed to part two: disposal. She asked her building guards to move a rug containing his body to a downstairs storage area. Two trials and countless court appearances later and it remains unclear what the rest of part two was supposed to be. It is difficult to believe she only thought it through as far as the storage area. She bought the rug, sedatives and the strawberries.

It all makes you wonder how Hong Kong maintains its reputation as one of the safest cities in the world. I presume they quote crime statistics with crimes against tycoons excluded.


I’m getting way off the track, but it’d be remiss not to remember Monica Wong.

In 2004 Monica Wong was the Asia Pacific head of HSBC’s private bank. It must be stressful advising some of the wealthiest people and families in Asia on how to invest their money, so she wanted a little distraction. Enjoying dancing in her spare time, she decided she wanted to take some dance lessons. So far, so normal.

So she paid about US$15 million for seven years of dance lessons from a world champion dance instructor couple.

As these things so often go, progress towards mastering the samba and cha-cha proved to be harder than anticipated. There were words from teacher to student that would’ve made Amy Chua proud. But Monica thought this was all a bit too much and felt humiliated in front of her classmates. Remember at this stage she’s not six, she’s 60. So she sued to get her money back.

She won. Seriously.

And now we have the case of Evangeline Vallejos. Evangeline is not a banker, nor has she killed one; nor is she a tycoon or a daughter of one. She’s a Philippino domestic helper who’s lived and worked in Hong Kong for over 20 years.

Now in Hong Kong, if you are continuously resident in the territory for seven years, you can apply for permanent residency. So she did.

The Immigration Department denied her request and she appealed all the way to the High Court.

At the end of September, the High Court ruled that immigration laws barring domestic workers – mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia – from applying for permanent residency violated the Basic Law of Hong Kong. In the Immigration Ordinance, amongst the provisions for attaining permanent residency, there is a specific exclusion for domestic helpers.

In case that sounds discriminatory to you, let me clarify. One of the reasons mainland Chinese helpers are prohibited is because of the government’s fear they will claim right of abode and seek residency too. It is clearly discriminatory. 

Is this a big deal? There are about 300,000 Philippino domestic helpers in Hong Kong. What if they all want to get residency? That could mean chaos. 

This is not a new issue. It surfaced in 2003 and the then-acting Consul-General of the Philippines, welcomed the legal challenge, saying there had always been two sets of policies, one for domestic helpers and one for foreigners in other professions. “We always consider this arrangement to be unfair and discriminatory,” he said. He was correct.

As I see it, the government is trying to balance the interests of existing residents against those of potential residents. Or put another way, the government is trying to balance fairness, equity and humanity against sovereignty. Many governments all over the world wrestle with this, especially countries with strong welfare systems or attractive economic opportunity. How a government decides who to let in and become a local (whatever that means), and who doesn’t qualify, is a difficult balancing act. Governments largely can’t support, or be seen to support, welcoming all comers. On the other hand, to exclude anyone is to discriminate.

This is exactly the same issue that Julia Gillard’s government is facing. Only in Australia it’s called an “asylum seeker” issue. But essentially, it’s the same decision.

In Hong Kong there are already calls to refer the High Court decision to Beijing. Beijing will weigh the issues carefully before (I predict) deciding in favour of sovereignty over anti-discrimination. The Hong Kong government will avoid having to make a tough decision, and the few helpers who want to become permanent residents (and can afford to) will have had their hopes crushed.

The Hong Kong situation is alleviated in its gravity by the fact that the applicants are gainfully employed and there are no life and death arguments at stake. That is not the case in Australia. But I’m troubled by the Gillard government’s lack of weight for the sovereignty argument. I suspect that Australians – the ones already resident (read: voters), will favour the sovereignty side of the coin. Not because they’re inhumane, but because they’re Australian.

I find it fascinating to observe these two parallel cases play out on opposite sides of the world, with opposite political ideals, and yet likely end up in the same spot. Although, of course, in reality it’ll be pushed off the front page the next time a dancing tycoon kidnaps a big spending banker. Or the other way around.

* Originally from Sydney, Max Mack is a long-time expat and banker currently living in Hong Kong.


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