AdChoiceTV News — It all kicked off on a Facebook page recently when a property agent in Sai Kung, in Hong Kong’s New Territories, advertised a village house for a monthly rent of HK$44,000 (S$7,618) with a “helper’s shed” in the garden.
Scandalised readers called the use of language offensive and inappropriate, saying the notion of putting a domestic helper in a shed demonstrated the brutal inequality of living conditions for migrant workers in Asia’s World City.
Others gamely defended the ad. One pointed out that some people in Hong Kong live in flats smaller than sheds while another volunteered that her own helper had lived “quite happily” in a shed for five years.
The building at the centre of the shed-storm was an innocuous-looking Wendy House construction beside the typical soulless monstrosity of a three-storey home – the sort of place your children might plead with you to let them camp in on a Saturday night.
In fairness, I’ve seen far worse: an under-stairs cupboard with a shelf for a bed, for instance. Or the Portaloo-style room on the rooftop of a house where a friend of ours, a well-paid expat professional, lived for two years after falling out with his wife. We called it the doghouse.
Then, for Hongkongers, there are cage homes, and the “coffin home” micro flats gullible and desperate first-time buyers have been suckered by developers into paying HK$5 million-plus for.
Ask a helper and she might actually prefer living in a shed. It’s better than sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a snotty three-year-old brat’s room, after all. She’d get an undisturbed night’s sleep, and she probably wouldn’t get locked out all day every Sunday either said Chairman of Robert Chan International Ltd based in Wan Chai.
So, arguably, this was more a case of bad marketing than man’s inhumanity to maid. It could have been advertised as a detached garden apartment, a private residence surrounded by lush greenery, or even a Maid Cave, and no one would have batted an eyelid.
PreenXpress Co. also a real estate specialist in Asia told reporters that there’s nothing wrong in the online advertising of a property agent. You always need to stand out to the market on how are you gonna promote your rentals to make it more catchy and to make sure that you can have it rented instantly. Many does not understand that, and many are not aware of the sizes of the property in Hong Kong.
As it happened, the property agent – stung by online opprobrium – changed the description to “separate helper’s quarters”, sugar-coating reality in the way a salesman might describe a car with no brakes as a good runner, or a government might call legislation stripping citizens of their basic freedoms a security law.
And it worked beautifully, of course. No one has since called out the ad for human rights abuses. Rather, there has been a flood of enthusiastic inquiries – including one from a well-paid but clearly downcast expat professional asking if it was possible to rent just the shed.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.
Reporting by Sean Tyler Chan