“Good music is good music”
It is no secret that Filipinos have long played, and still play, an important role in Hong Kong’s economy. Although many of them take up a job as a domestic helper, there is another sector in Hong Kong where Filipinos seem to shine that’s often overlooked: the music industry.
If we believe Manuela Dacanay Lo, Chairperson of he Hong Kong Musicians Union and a Filipina herself, this should come as no surprise: “They [Filipinos] are very musical. Filipinos are well known for music. Everywhere you go, anywhere in the world, you will find Filipino musicians”, Manuela says.
This might be true, but, as talented as Filipino musicians might be, it seems that recently they have faced some adversity, with some claims of discrimination towards them, especially when their visa requirements became stricter in 2015, going around.
To what extent, if at all, is this the case? Is there really discrimination towards Filipino musicians in Hong Kong?
Manuela disagrees that there is discrimination in Hong Kong specifically towards Filipino musicians and points out Filipinos still make up the majority of musicians in Hong Kong. But is this because they are really treated and compensated equally or just because of their perseverance?
William Elvin Manzano, a musician and singer-songwriter who is originally from the Philippines but has been a permanent Hong Kong resident since 2014, agrees with Manuela that Filipinos are still the majority on the Hong Kong music scene and says that people generally don’t see this as a bad thing: “It’s a given that musicians here are mostly Filipino, so when people here encounter Filipinos being musicians, they accept it as part of their lives. Just like how they would see Filipinos or Indonesians as domestic helpers. It’s part of it,” William says. He adds that he has never faced any discrimination during his career as a musician in Hong Kong: “I can’t say that I’ve had that issue.”
However, William says he’s heard stories from fellow Filipino musicians in Hong Kong saying that when it comes to compensation, the situation is often different. It seems that here, equality plays less of a role. He says: “Yes, I’ve heard stories about it. The biggest story that I hear is that they [Filipinos] are paid much lower [compensation] than their Caucasian counterparts.”
William, who is in the middle of recording a new album himself, says this is not right and that music should be judged by its quality, rather than by the origin of its creator or the performer. He adds: “We should all be paid fairly.”
Saturnino Tiamson Junior, from Rizal province, in the Philippines, is a drummer and percussionist with a long musical career in Hong Kong, both as a performer and a teacher. When asked if he ever heard stories from colleagues and friends about discrimination towards Filipino musicians, he said: “Yes, a lot. A lot. Sometimes they cannot get a job in an international school [as music teachers] because they are Filipinos.”
Judging from Saturnino’s words, it seems that there have been some unfortunate cases that have given Filipino musicians a bad reputation as far as their skill sets and work ethic as music teachers go: “I heard there are some Filipinos who came late to work, some others were always absent, always drunk.”
Saturnino explained that another reason why Filipino musicians often have a hard time finding a job as a music teacher in Hong Kong is that many of them, while they have a lot of experience as musicians, don’t have a higher degree in music.
According to Saturnino, Filipinos used to thrive on Hong Kong’s music scene and used to perform a lot. He says: “Before, Filipinos were playing so much here [in Hong Kong]. Every day, every night. For all kinds of functions [occasions] they were using [hiring] Filipinos.” However, Saturnino thinks this has changed considerably. He says: “Nowadays, maybe locals are more in demand on the music scene.”
Regarding the tightening of visa requirements for Filipino musicians in 2015, Saturnino said he heard a story, involving some Filipino musicians who violated the conditions of their visa, that might be an explanation for the government’s decision: “They were hired as a musician in one theme park and their contract was only six months. And they were caught working in other places. I think it happened one year or two years ago.”
Luckily for Saturnino, he doesn’t seem affected by the difficulties that some other Filipino musicians face and he explains that since he’s been in Hong Kong he’s always had a busy schedule and plenty of work, including for the Hong Kong Disney Land band, as a drummer in various orchestras and bands, and as a teacher at the Tom Lee music Academy and Harrow International School.
Despite his busy schedule in Hong Kong, however, Saturnino still tries to make time whenever he can to give back to the Philippines and offer free percussion work shops to introduce young pupils to music.
The above painted picture of Filipino musicians’ chances to make it big in Hong Kong and the compensation they can expect to receive might seem a bit grim, but Manuela has some reassuring words: “Let me put it this way. If you are a talented artist, you can demand whatever [price] you want for your work. And if you know what is your worth in playing your music, then you’ll be okay.”