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Domestic Harmony: Jane Engelmann and the Unsung Heroes

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Look at my coffee. How posh,” says Jane Engelmann in a dry tone that’s a mix of genuinely impressed and slightly bemused. Her cappuccino has been thoroughly branded at Le Salon de Thé de Joël Robuchon in ifc Mall. The only thing missing from the chocolate dusting the top of the foam is an umlaut. That’s okay: It doesn’t say “Joël.”

Jane is on her way home from Peak School where she’s head of Performing Arts, but she takes time to sit down for a meandering chat first. We agree that dogs should not travel by handbag and cats should never be blow-dried. We touch on Imposter Syndrome (look it up), and how women find it frustratingly difficult to take credit for their achievements.

“I tend to downplay things for fear people are going to look at my photo and say, ‘Oh who does she think she is?’” Jane says. “I feel like any moment I’m going to be found out. I always brush it off with, ‘Hong Kong’s a small pond.’ We denigrate too much.”

It follows then that during our two hour chat, Jane nimbly glosses over the Hong Kong Women of Inspiration  Award she received at the Women’s Empowerment Forum in March. She took home the honours in the Performing Arts category for her work with Unsung Heroes, the local choir composed entirely of foreign domestic workers.

Founded in 2014, Unsung Heroes has long generated media headlines with CNN, Al-Jazeera and the like, and soon, Time magazine. “The word’s getting out there,” says Jane, before adding with typical humility. “The attention I’ve got has come for my giving up Sundays… But I could afford to, because of what the choir gave to me.”

The backstory

Unsung Heroes was truly born in 1993. That was the year Jane arrived in Hong Kong from the UK with her husband, who worked for the Foreign Service. She had an infant son, and soon a young daughter, but in short order found herself a single parent – her husband was sent back to England and went alone.

“I was going to stay for one year,” she recalls with a chuckle. “I was trying to figure out if I could cope with being a single parent for a year. The prospect of going back to England was quite bleak. It was a tough time, but it worked out.”

Perfectly happy in the Hong Kong swelter and a teacher by profession – she also did a stint as a children’s television presenter on Tube Time – Jane found a way to stay on. To pay the bills, she set up the Jane Engelmann Theatre School (J.E.T.S. HK) tutoring piano and drama, and got herself a full-time gig at Discovery Bay International School, where she taught for 12 years.

Naturally, helping her do all this work was a domestic helper. After 20 years in the city and with grown children moving off to Australia and London, she found herself with spare time, and Unsung Heroes was born.

“I’d always had this idea to put together a choir of domestic helpers because I’d heard them sing and… I love the power of people singing together,” she says. “This was also a way for me to say ‘Thank you.’”

The inspiration

Jane had plenty of inspiration beyond her own gratitude. The double standards, the lack of real civil rights for domestic workers and the ease with which many are taken advantage of, coupled with a keen understanding of a mother’s willingness to sacrifice for her children, led to the first draft of the choir’s signature, I Wish I Could Kiss You Goodnight, a hymn to sacrifice and loss.

“That’s where my mission was sort of coming from,” Jane explains, pointing out that there’s a danger of becoming immune to the circumstances which lead so many domestic helpers to Hong Kong. She concedes many see the salaries they can earn as worth the separations, if it builds a better life for their children. Nonetheless, abuse is rife. “It can be dreadful.”

While working on the song, Jane put the word out for singers, and admittedly recruitment got off to a rocky start. There seemed to be little interest among helpers, and the few that showed up for the first try-out did so at the pressing of employers. This came after a commitment to perform at Picnic in the Park that year… in a little over two months. But word-of-mouth did the trick, and Jane wound up with 60 women in her choir before the next challenge reared its head.

“The dynamic was all wrong,” she remembers of the early rehearsals. The song was just words. So, Jane went back to the drawing board, and remembered the shattered feeling she experienced when her children left home for university.

“If I felt this way, how did these women leave their children in the Philippines, in Indonesia? What they were giving up must be…” She trails off for a moment as she puts herself in someone else’s shoes again. “It really resonated with me.” And it made I Wish I Could Kiss You Goodnight more honest. “It became more real to them because it was coming from a place they all understood.” It was off to the races.

The mission

Since hitting its stride, Unsung Heroes has been flooded with performance requests from charity and holiday events, private clubs and music festivals. In 2017, the choir sang with the legendary Nile Rodgers at Clockenflap. Janes notes that over the years choir members have begun to exert more agency and autonomy. “I ‘head up’ the choir simply because I can arrange for them to perform in many different places. They have the talent. They have the power,” she says with a smile.

A TEDx speaker, with an IMDb producer credit (for Joanna Bowers’ documentary The Helper), Jane stresses that she’s not interested in politics or politicking. So, what is it about Unsung Heroes that works so well now? Jane chalks it up to a combination of rising community service everywhere and the increased sensitivity people are exhibiting towards those around them. Also, of course, the helpers’ story is very relevant.

“It has a human element that touches all of us. We all have people we miss and, at some point, nearly all of us in Hong Kong have employed a domestic helper,” theorises Jane. “We are surrounded by them; we see them in the streets sitting on their cardboard boxes on Sunday. And the mother-child connection really speaks to everyone… It’s just a story that was waiting to be told. It made everyone realise it was time to wake up.”

Jane and Unsung Heroes have big plans for the coming months. They’re working on a new song, A Voice from Home, and an ambitious plan for a binational visual presentation involving child singers in the Philippines. “It’s been met with great enthusiasm,” Jane says. “It really works. But I’ve learnt my lesson. If something doesn’t take off on its own, you don’t need to drive it. There’s something to be said for the organic process.”

Most grandiose is Jane’s determination to get a second gig for Unsung Heroes at the Hong Kong Sevens – this time on the  pitch. She might not be in Hong Kong during the summer, but she isn’t forgetting her singers. “I am vacationing,” she finishes, “but I’m always working.” She pauses to tap her temple. “Up here.”

The All Blacks won’t know what hit them.

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