Bhelle and Yeye: Love That Binds

Bhelle and Yeye

Bhelle and Yeye

On any given day, Bhelle Abella, 38, would have breakfast with her “yeye” (grandfather), then set off for the market. It will be a very short outing as Bhelle knows Yeye will be watching her every movement through a CCTV monitor installed in the old man’s flat in Aberdeen, Hong Kong, but she doesn’t mind. This has been their routine nearly every day since she started working for 88-year-old Chung Chi Kwong five years ago.

As the hefty retired fireman is confined to a wheelchair, he is dependent on the diminutive Bhelle for nearly all his needs. And Bhelle, all four feet, 10 inches of her, has fully measured up to the challenge.

Theirs is the kind of relationship given life recently in “Still Human,” the highly acclaimed movie on the deep affection that develops between a Filipina domestic worker and her half-paralyzed, cantankerous employer.

 But the ties that bind Bhelle, a single mother of a teenager, to Yeye, who has three married sons but prefers to live on his own, go even more deeply. Their story is the stuff great films are made of – ordinary people doing extraordinary feats, inspiring by simply being.

The first time she was introduced to Chung, who was then looking for a caregiver, Bhelle says “Parang magaan agad ang pakiramdam ko sa kanya (I felt comfortable on meeting him).” Thus, while she only looked after a toddler previously, Bhelle did not think twice about accepting the elderly man’s job offer.

Now, it is Bhelle who goes with Chung for his regular hospital visits, gives him his medicines, takes his blood pressure, and even gives him his insulin shots daily. Aside from diabetes, Chung suffers from gout, arthritis, and heart problems; so Bhelle also has to make sure he sticks to his prescribed diet. 

Recently, when Chung had to be confined in a hospital for a bout with pneumonia, it was Bhelle who kept watch daily, fussed over him, and only left when visiting hours were over. 

More telling is how Bhelle has taken to sleeping on a mattress beside Chung’s bedroom instead of the comfortable room she was given, saying simply that she wants to make sure her elderly ward does not attempt to get up unaided while she’s asleep.

Matigas din kasi ang ulo niyan (He’s quite hardheaded) ,” she says in the tone of a doting granddaughter.

Bhelle hardly leaves Yeye's side

Bhelle hardly leaves Yeye's side

While Chung can still be helped to stand up, he can do no more than take a few steps. He needs to be helped into the bathroom, but Bhelle insists on him keeping the door open, with her on standby just a few steps away.

There is also the unenviable task of lifting her 180-lb ward each night so she could put him on diapers at bedtime or when he’s sick, and cleaning him up when he soils himself, but Bhelle clearly doesn’t mind, her affection for her Yeye clearly taking precedence.

But it’s not a one-way relationship, for Chung clearly dotes on Bhelle like she’s the daughter he never had.

He teases her with statements like, “She gets all my money – four thousand, five hundred every month!” But Bhelle says her Yeye is actually as generous as his limited retirement pay would allow.

Binibigyan kami pareho ng anak ko ng pera tuwing Pasko (He gives me and my kid money on Christmas,” she says.)

More importantly for her, he always tells her to always look after her daughter, and shares her happiness at the girl’s exemplary performance in school. 

When Bhelle was victimized two years by an illegal recruiter who charged her $10,000 for a non-existent job in Canada, Chung went with her to the Small Claims Tribunal to try and get her money back.

Bhelle, who stands barely higher than the back of Chung’s wheelchair, attracted a lot of attention as she pushed him all the way from their house in Aberdeen to the court in Wanchai, so they could file the claim together.

Yeye was reportedly as outraged as Bhelle that someone had run off with her money and crushed her dream of going to Canada, even if that would have meant them parting ways.

Bhelle has shelved that dream for now, and appears resolved to stay by Yeye’s side for as long as she’s needed.

Bhelle admits pushing Chung’s wheelchair about could be difficult, especially on uphill terrain but again, she gives this little thought. When she saw the mechanized one used by actress Crisel Consunji who played the role of the maid Evelyn in “Still Human,” Bhelle said it would surely help if Yeye could have one, but immediately added it would surely cost a lot.

This is something Bhelle shows she could do without, like having a day-off. On Sundays when she should be out enjoying her only rest day in the week, Bhelle chooses to stay at home with Yeye, and just asks her friends to come over.

But it’s not a one-way relationship, for Chung clearly dotes on Bhelle like she’s the daughter he never had.

Two of them, Ron and Janice, are regulars, and so have become friends with Yeye as well. Janice, in particular, seems to have sparked fatherly concern in Chung so that as soon as she arrives in his home on Sundays, she urges him to sleep and rest first. Everyone has become so used to this set-up that they look more like family members getting together every Sunday. The Filipinas would chat, nap or eat together, with Chung joining them intermittently. Otherwise, he’s content to just lie down on his comfortable sofa in the living room, watching horse racing, while the girls chat.

Bhelle sees no problem with this set-up. “Hindi naman ako kailangang magluto o gumawa ng kahit ano (I don’t need to cook or do anything),” she explains. 

Even when she gets her monthly pay Bhelle opts to send money home online so she does not have to go out and leave Yeye behind.

Recently, when her brother suddenly died, Bhelle decided she needed to go back home to Manila for his funeral. So, she did, but stayed for only three days, saying, “Kawawa naman si Yeye, walang mag-aalaga (Someone has to take care of poor Yeye).”

On those days when she must be away from his side, Yeye’s sons would take turns looking after him. They also reportedly took him on a trip to Taiwan recently. Their children would also pop in once in a while to take their grandfather out for a meal.

But most days it is just him and Bhelle. On days when the weather is fine, the two would go to a nearby park to take in some fresh air, and maybe chat a bit with acquaintances, as Yeye is a bit aloof and does not have friends he meets with regularly.

Sometimes they’d go to the grocery store together and elicit smiles from passersby when they’d emerge with Chung holding rolls of toilet paper across his legs, while Bhelle pushes him with shopping bags dangling from the wheelchair handles.

On a Sunday once, the two of them were joined by a big number of Bhelle’s friends who decided to have a picnic, and the pictures they posted afterwards showed Chung looking very happy while being doted on by the women.

Yeye on a picnic with some of Bhelle's friends

Yeye on a picnic with some of Bhelle's friends

Bhelle is realistic enough to know that Chung may not live much longer; so she has to start looking for options on how she could continue working abroad to provide for her daughter, who is just about to finish high school.

With her extensive background in elderly care and  Hong Kong in dire need of workers with precisely her experience, Bhelle should have no problem looking for jobs in the future.

But that’s for later. For now, it’s Yeye who rules her life and Bhelle clearly wouldn’t have it any other way.

First published in The Sun Hong Kong, June 19, 2019.

Daisy CL Mandap

Daisy CL Mandap

Daisy CL Mandap is a journalist, lawyer, migrant rights advocate and a Hong Kong resident for 27 years. She edits the leading Filipino community newspaper in Hong Kong, The SUN.

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