F.G. has told the story of her experience as a migrant worker for the documentary series, “The Migrant Worker’s Face.” She has chosen to conceal her identity for safety and privacy concerns relating to details of her story.
Edited by Hannes Zetzsche
As I watched the Starquest stage, rocked by the likes of Filipino celebrities Eric Santos and Sheryn Regis, I knew I was next.
Starquest 2000 is much like the show currently running in the U.S. called America’s Got Talent. In both reality shows, hundreds of amateur vocalists attempt to realize dreams of on-stage singing success, though only a limited number pass the first round and even fewer reach the subsequent televised elimination rounds. I was fortunate to sing on both stages.
I tried out for Starquest 2000 in 2003. At 17 years old, I was young and confident in my singing ability, so I auditioned to become a star on a small stage in Manila.
The first song I performed was To Love You More, by Céline Dion. I will never forget the judges’ expressions when they heard my voice, their approval for the force I extended Céline Dion’s lyrics. I reveled in my sense of power on stage.
The judges lavished me compliments and I advanced to the next round, to sing When You Tell Me that You Love Me, another love song, by Nazareth. Again, the judges heaped me with praise, admiring my strong voice and persona on stage. They promised me I was sure to thrive in upcoming, televised rounds, when my voice could really dominate the stage and screen.
So in Starquest’s brightest lights, after rocking performances from Santos and Reyes, I illuminated. I sang No More Rhyme, by Debbie Gibson, and the crowd loved it. In addition to a television audience, spectators had arrived to witness the audition in person. I used my powerful vocal chords to make the audience happy and instant-fans seemed to celebrate with one voice in response. They embraced me and I was elated!
Ultimately, I did not pass the third round. Despite my joy in singing and the audience’s apparent pleasure in hearing me, the judges didn’t think I could be a viable candidate. With competitors like Eric Santos and Sheryn Regis ahead of me—both of whom would go on to great success and glory as actor and singer—the judges told me I just didn’t have the look of a superstar. One judge apologized, “I’m so sorry. Your voice is so very powerful, but we need a singer who can be an actress. Your voice is good but your personality isn’t.”
I was sad, but I understood. By personality, I knew the judge meant my sexuality; as a lesbian, I knew I couldn’t have the same mainstream sex-appeal of my straight peer competitors. On stage, I dressed more masculine than the other female competitors. During a trip to South Korea with my band a few weeks before the competition, I had cut my hair short to avoid being harassed by older men, and now I wore my hair in a masculine style, short on the sides and spiked on top. Certainly, Cheryl Reyes looked like a better singer than me.
It surprised me that Starquest’s judges could hurt me as much as they did; I had lived and grown comfortable within my identity for the 17 previous years.
I credit my voice to my mother, a woman who sang professionally throughout her young adult life. After high school, she tells me she moved straight to Bangkok, in Thailand, where she would sing in bars and concert halls. She was in a band and they played together for several years until she fell in love with my father, a Marine.
She met him on a trip home to the Philippines to visit her family. When she told her parents about the man she had met, they were enraged; how could she, the daughter of a wealthy family, love my low-class Marine father? they vented. But she did, and they ran away to be married.
My mother gave birth to me in a small city on the Philippine island of Mindanao. I was the third child of five; I have two older sisters, one younger brother, and one youngest sister. While I was still young, my family moved to Manila because my father wanted to begin a business farming rice and selling lumber. He bought a small plot of land and a house outside the city, and there my siblings and I were raised.
I told my parents I was a lesbian when I was 15. They weren’t surprised; from a young age, I had played with boys’ toys—cars, sports, outside games—and I had worn masculine clothes, like my brother. Having long noticed this, my family had been gracious to my identity throughout my childhood, inviting me to do man’s jobs around the house rather than washing clothes and doing the dishes like my sisters. They respected me and were very happy when I brought home my first girlfriend. I think me having a girlfriend made my mom happy because it made her think she had another son.
When I stopped singing, after Starquest, I was still very hurt and unsure of where I should go with my life. I was only seventeen, a recent high-school graduate, so I went to college. I didn’t know what to study, so I registered for courses in a variety of subjects, but without clear purpose. After two years of uncertainty in college, I dropped out and transferred to a vocational school to study clothing design. This experience was immensely fulfilling and I learned the skills to become a clothing designer and sample maker.
For those who don’t know, every article of clothing you own was created thanks to the cooperation of a clothing designer and sample maker. The clothing designer creates the concept for a style and draws how he thinks the shirt, or pants, should look. He then sends his drawn concept to the sample maker, who will sew what he has drawn. and smart to create a marketable piece of clothing.
Normally, these two people must work in concert for a new shirt or to be successfully brought to market, but my vocational school taught me to do both. By the time I graduated, I had been offered a job for an Australian-owned company based in Manila that specialized in sports jerseys.
I loved my job because it allowed me to be creative in a way I hadn’t been since being rejected by Starquest and I allowed myself to live happily again.
During all this time, I lived happily but very unhealthily too. Looking back now, I think I was still disappointed from my rejection at the hands of Starquest’s judges, and I made choices reflecting my disappointment. I drank often and smoked cigarettes daily, even though I knew both were bad for me. I broke the heart of my girlfriend of seven years—a lovely woman who had generously bought me a motorcycle and cell phones—falling instead very quickly for another woman whom I hadn’t known for long.
Finally, and perhaps most damagingly, I became obsessed with money, and moved to Taiwan to feed my greed.
I arrived in Taiwan on April 16, 2015, with the false promise of a lucrative job as a computer programmer.
Despite my hard work in the Philippines, and my passion for the work I was doing as a clothing designer and sample maker there, I knew I could earn more money elsewhere. I earned between ₱12.000 and ₱16,000 (NT $7,407-NT $9,663) per month in Manila, a sizable salary by most of my countrymen’s standard. But because of the relatively poor economy across the Philippines, it was common knowledge among my coworkers we could earn double or triple our salaries in neighboring, wealthier countries like Japan.
I had long admired the fashion scene in Japan, so in 2013 I began learning Nihongo Japanese, preparing myself to secure a job in a Japanese factory. I applied to work in Japan or Taiwan, the second of which I viewed purely as a backup plan. But when the broker to Taiwan called first, I agreed excitedly. All I knew about the country was that it was a country much wealthier than the Philippines, and that was what I had wanted!
Though I was accepted by the broker in 2013, the entire application lasted almost two years of interviews and paperwork, and costed more than ₱120,000 (NT $72,471).
When I landed in Taiwan, I was affronted by a series of abuses at the hands of my broker.
After my broker collected me from the airport, I was brought to his office where I sat in silence for more than seven hours, from 8 in the morning to late afternoon. Hungry and confused, I insisted on learning when I could begin work, though no one would talk to me. When the broker finally came back to me, he told me I had no job. Specifically, he said, “After you arrived, your employer called and said he doesn’t want you anymore.”
I didn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe it. Is this what I paid ₱120,000 for? To be falsely promised a job? I knew I had been deceived; the broker had never organized a job for me, the contract I’d signed was fake. As during Starquest, I felt unwanted and betrayed. But there was nothing I could do.
The broker told me I could work part time, for a household in Taoyuan County, and I could live with him. I had no choice but to agree.
On my first day in the household, my broker dropped me off and then locked the house’s doors from the outside, effectively imprisoning me. I was terrified.
He would do this every morning after I arrived at work, limiting my freedom of movement to his house and my place of work. I worked seven days every week, with no days off, for long hours, and on most days my diet was limited to one piece of bread in the morning. I implored by broker to buy me a SIM card for my cell phone so I could contact my parents—they hadn’t heard from me and worried immensely, rightly—but my broker refused.
On a few occasions, I also met with the woman whose home in Taoyuan I cleaned. She, a kind lady who didn’t seem to understand my broker’s cruel employment practice, let it slip that she was paying my broker NT $800 for every day I worked in her home, but I had never seen more than NT $525 for a day of work. I confronted my broker, demanding, “Where is my salary?” Infuriated, my broker threatened me, “If you don’t work, then I won’t give you any salary at all!” He had my passport, my ARC, and all other documents; if I had tried to run, he told me I would quickly be arrested as an undocumented worker.
During this time, my health deteriorated. I became very thin from my poor diet; I developed bags under my eyes; I felt weak. I felt like I was being punished in the most horrific way for an awful crime I had never committed. I also felt guilty for the worry I must have caused my family at home, who still hadn’t heard from me.
One day, I recorded my broker threatening me so I could use it as evidence to seek help. I had confronted my broker again over the salary I was owed and he had engaged the same tricks to coerce my cooperation. While he shouted, I held the “Record” button, saving the sound of his evil voice as legal evidence.
I brought my evidence to the Hope Workers’ Center one day in late 2015, seeking help out of my horrible situation. The week before, I had begged my broker to allow me to go to church. My broker had known government offices would be closed on Sunday and there would thus be no chance for me to complain to them, so he had let me go. At church, I had met two Filipinos who told me of the help they had received from TIWA, an organization in Taipei that helps abused migrant workers. I told my story, though saving the two women from many of the details about my broker, and they recommended I seek assistance.
The following week, I again petitioned my broker to grant me an afternoon of freedom so I could attend the church service. But instead of going to church, I took the train to Zhongli, to seek help the Hope Workers’ Center. When I arrived, two caseworkers, Ma’am Lydia and Father Peter met with me and were appalled by what I told them. I showed them the evidence I had collected, and they promised to help me.
Ma’am Lydia petitioned to Taiwan’s Bureau of Labor and I was declared a Victim of Human Trafficking. She continued pushing on my behalf requesting I be granted a work permit, and I have been transferred to an electronics factory, where I am treated well and paid a fair salary. A legal case is ongoing to prosecute my broker, but I have not returned to work for him since.
I now see the low points of my life—my failed audition to Starquest and my abuse at the hands of my broker—as having shaped me formatively.
During the days in Taoyuan when I was a prisoner, I felt I might never emerge safely to see my family again. Hungry and alone, it seemed I had been forgotten, my hateful broker the only person to confirm my existence. But despite my destitute beginning as a worker in Taiwan, I have been blessed with a transformation, thanks to the efforts of Ma’am Lydia, Father Peter, and the Hope Workers’ Center. I am now very happy in my place of work and I am safe where I live, free to move about as I please.
Now that I can purchase a monthly SIM card for my cell phone, I can keep in touch with my family and their distance from Taiwan doesn’t feel so great. Though they never ask, I always try to send a portion of the salary I earn monthly home to them. It’s not that I would feel guilty if I didn’t send my mom money; it’s just that I want to support them and show my love.
And when the judges credited my personality for my failing in Starquest, I felt personally attacked, as if my identity as a lesbian might hold me back forever, making me an outcast and unlovable. It hurt me for a long time, with the rejection growing to seem less about my voice and more about my whole being. But I have managed to overcome those feelings to form a healthy relationship of five years. My girlfriend is very supportive to me. She lives still in the Philippines and the distance is challenging, though I hope one day to return to her.
When I was young and still challenging my gender identity, I would sometimes go carefree, uncaring for longstanding relationships, or love; but that has changed since I arrived in Taiwan. I think I have gained a sense of maturity through my life’s challenges that makes me think more about the future.
No longer do I smoke or drink as I used to, because I think about my health for the future. No longer am I wild, mindlessly following my heart and spending my money as it tells me, because I want to be purposeful, saving money for retirement. I want one day to grow old with my girlfriend, to give her a good life.
I want to sing to her.
This reflection by F.G. has been published by the Hope Workers’ Center as an entry to “The Migrant Worker’s Face” documenting project. The Hope Workers’ Center continues to seek stories like F.G.’s with which we can add detail to migrants’ intricate face. There are two ways that you can help us. If you are a migrant worker and would be willing to share your story, we want to hear from you directly! You can read instructions about how to participate here. If you are not a migrant worker, then we ask you to continue supporting our project: read our stories weekly and invite others to do the same.
The Hope Workers’ Center is dedicated to supporting migrant workers in our community. Through this project, we hope to appreciate the beauty of each person’s life while fostering recognition among a wider audience of the struggles that migrants regularly encounter in their work. Thank you for your support!