Hong Kong Profile: Susie Utomo

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If the pen is mightier than the sword, then the softly spoken and diminutive Susie Utomo is as mighty as they come. Utomo moved from Java, Indonesia, to Hong Kong in 1999 to work as a domestic helper. “I had two children already,” she recalls. 

“I left them because there was a crisis in Indonesia. I couldn’t earn money; my business [selling home appliances and cosmetics door-to-door] had fallen. Somebody said ‘why not go to Hong Kong? It has bright salary prospects;’ so I came.”

Utomo had always harboured a love of drawing and writing (“Since childhood, I liked to draw – I drew all over the walls in my house!”), so it was fortuitous that in 2004, she came across Forum Lingkar Pena through local Indonesian media. 

“[FLP] is a literary community,” she explains. “The name means Circumference of Pens – because it’s all about writing. Anyone can join. If they are a housewife, or they have no education, they can join to become a better writer. It was great for me to find [a group doing] what I like very much.” 

The group of around 30 women, composed of mainly Indonesian domestic helpers, meets on alternate Sundays in Victoria Park. “We have a bulletin [of members’ poems, stories and journals] that we publish every month,” says Utomo. “We try to increase the quality of our works. We have no teacher, but we have sharing – we share knowledge about how to write better.”

It’s no secret that the 300,000 domestic workers in our city often put up with a lot, and many do it silently. “As a domestic worker, it’s just… very low, very down kind of work,” says Utomo, evenly. “[But] because I write what I think, then spread it out, they [Hong Kong society] will come to see us not just as a worker, but as interesting – maybe the same as them. It is important to us to share our experience and our ideas with the world. Then people will understand you so much, so easily.”

While the writers in FLP are free to write about ‘anything, everything’ they wish, it is not always as easy for them to get their words onto paper. “Some members have kind bosses,” she says. “But some, they [can only write] in the night, or only on Sundays. [One of] my members, before she sleeps, her boss tells her she is not allowed to turn on her light. So she has a small torch and she writes [in the dark]. Why? I don’t know; so many reasons. But we must respect [the boss]. That is okay – all the members have a very strong spirit, so every difficulty they solve by themselves.”

Currently, FLP’s monthly bulletin is in Indonesian, but Utomo wishes to have a regular translation into English.
“It is a big problem for people to understand our ideas; I think it is so urgent. I think I must work harder to translate into English.”

When it comes to promoting Indonesian writing in Hong Kong, Utomo has not stopped at FLP. In 2010, she organised the ‘first [local] Indonesian migrant literature festival’ in a school hall. “Our members have such great potential. It’s better to let other people read your ideas and share your creativity.”

Utomo’s latest project is the Islamic magazine Cahaya Qu, which she has published with a friend since 2012. She sells enough copies at $10 to rent a small office in Causeway Bay, which she has also turned into an Islamic community centre. Through Cahaya Qu, Utomo hopes to spread positive messages of Islam. “Muslims are a minority in Hong Kong, and sometimes we face discrimination,” she admits. “People talk so negatively about Islam. Sometimes [helpers] are not allowed to pray five times per day, because the boss has no understanding. We share our ideas to get some understanding from people.” 

Cahaya Qu is succeeding enough that, in mid-October, Utomo quit her job as a domestic helper in order to focus fully on her projects. She praises her boss of the past 14 years for having always supported her. “Sometimes I will still help them,” she smiles, “because they cannot cook!” Anna Cummins

See Susie Utomo speak at The Help. Their Stories: Panel Discussion. Sun Nov 3, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Wan Chai; urbtix.hk. 2pm-3.30pm. $60. 

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