Transit in Doubt — Foreign Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong

By Bonnie Chiu

The emboldened title reads, ‘The Legacy of Slavery: The American South and Contemporary Domestic Workers”. Bridget Anderson, Professor of Migration and Citizenship at University of Oxford, explores the connections between slavery and contemporary domestic labour, and how they are intertwined with power hierarchies of race and class.

For foreign domestic helpers, is the sky the limit? Taken by Gloria Battaluyan, June 2013.

Reading Professor Anderson’s work sent uncomfortable shivers down my spine. Scenes of migrant workers in Hong Kong being abused, forced to sleep in the bathrooms, among many other forms of human rights abuse, floated onto my mind. I am one of the very few among my friends who has not been raised by a domestic helper in Hong Kong.

A research I conducted when I was working at Amnesty International Hong Kong. From Human Rights Magazine (March 2013)

There are 300,000 foreign domestic helpers working in Hong Kong, most of them are female. Around half come from the Philippines, and the other half from Indonesia. In March 2013, when Lensational was set up, Hong Kong’s top court has ruled that domestic workers are not eligible to apply for permanent residency. This is when Lensational decided to pilot our photography education programme with the group of women whose voices need to be heard in Hong Kong — foreign domestic helpers.

Why photography for foreign domestic helpers?

In the Statue Square and Victoria Park where masses of migrant workers gather every Sunday, many can be seen holding their camera phones to take pictures — selfies, group photos, street photography. During our first photography workshop in May 2013, I asked our participants why they liked taking pictures so much. The number one reason they gave is that they wanted to show their families and friends back home how life is like in Hong Kong, so that they won’t worry about them.

Our students, Josie and Rona from the Philippines, bonding through photography. Taken by Gloria Battulayan in May 2013.

As we conducted more research into the issues faced by foreign domestic helpers, we realise that photography is a powerful tool to help them overcome social isolation, to connect with others through images, and to channel their creative energy despite being confined to the space of home.

Elizabeth Kassongo, from Indonesia, originally came to Hong Kong as a domestic helper. She told us that Lensational has helped her learn how to take great pictures for her two cute sons, and how she herself can look beautiful.

At Lensational, we believe that photography is an enabler of agency. We want to move beyond the monolithic image of victimhood forforeign domestic helpers, because they not only have overlapping identities — mothers, daughters, friends —, but are also individuals with dreams and aspirations.

What issues are we exploring?

We want to see the world through their lenses. Through holding the cameras, the foreign domestic helpers move from being seen to seeing — a power transposition. We don’t believe that they should be condemned to a life of servitude. Rather, working as foreign domestic helpers is a process of transition, with contradicting emotions — frustrations, hope, uncertainties. From an asthetic perspective, this is about changing perceptions and cultivating empathy.

Three Indonesian domestic helpers performing their regional dance at Victoria Park. Taken by Jem Guanzon in July 2013.

From an academic perspective, we situate our work in Professor Anderson’s research. How does the juxtaposition of migration and domestic work affect the lives of these foreign domestic helpers? What does it say about the common bond of womanhood, if there is such a thing to begin with? As women’s empowerment liesat the core of what we do, we hope to shed light on the understandings of the gendered nature of both paid and unpaid care work. After all, women globally spend four times as much as men on care responsibilities.

What did we do?

In May 2013, we started the first photography education programme over 4 weeks in partnership with WeCare, a youth-led NGO focusing on ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. The stories and photos by our students are collected in a photography journal. We engaged further with the Indonesian community through TCK Learning Centre, a small NGO providing free training to Indonesian domestic helpers set up by a British lawyer Chris Drake.

Our 1st photo education programme in May 2013, at the University of Hong Kong.

We were impressed by our students’ talents and see potentials in them using photography not only as a means of expression, but potentially, a tool of income generation.

One of our students, Sulikah, able to earn extra income through photography. Screen shot from Lensational’s interview with Asia Calling by Samantha Yap.

We then partnered with the PhotoCrafters, a non-profit organisation led by photographer Simon Wan, to provide fine arts photography training to former programme participants who want to continue with photography. The fruits of the 4-month training resulted in the Soul exhibition. Tomorrow it will greet everyone in London at the Espacio Gallery.

Soul’s exhibition had its debut in the Chinese University of Hong Kong in January 2015.

We will be posting stories of all photographers involved in the Soul exhibition this week, so do watch this space and share their stories. We are collaborating with an inspirational arts organisation called Sweet’Art, and as part of the Y Not exhibition, Lensational will showcase the Soul exhibition. Our London team has adapted it in a way that it is a truly immersive experience, to recreate the experience of our photographers in Hong Kong. If you are in London, please pay a visit to the Espacio Gallery in between 11AM and 7PM, 31st March to 5th April. We also have a launch party on 2nd April (Thursday) starting from 6pm, please join us.

Join us tomorrow! See the event details here.

Bonnie Chiu is the Co-Founder and Director of Lensational. She has led the Soul Exhibition’s curation efforts in London together with Lucile Stengel, Marketing and Communications Manager.