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Wednesday, September 21, 2016, 09:21

Maids of honor

By Chitralekha Basu

Many foreign domestic workers in HK are discovering the joy of taking up a creative hobby and using it to add value and meaning to other people’s lives. A report by Chitralekha Basu.

Maids of honor
Over a 100 foreign maids in Hong Kong have attended the photography workshops conducted by Lensational at Para Site’s art space. (Edmond Tang / China Daily)

Remember Xyza Bacani? She used to be a maid in Hong Kong who famously made it to the pages of The New York Times for her intense portraits of Hong Kong street life in 2014 and went on to win a prestigious scholarship to study at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

Bacani’s story has been extensively covered by the international media. She was among the BBC’s 100 Women in 2015 and also featured in the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia 2016 list. After all, it’s not every day that a young woman from the rural outback of the Philippines arriving to work as a foreign domestic worker (FDW) in Hong Kong ends up being a globe-trotting photographer. What’s more, Bacani has become a crusader for the community of FDWs, drawing attention to the abuse and discrimination suffered by some of them through her work.

Taking up photography brought about a 180-degree turnaround in her life when the San Francisco-based Filipino photographer Rick Rocamora spotted Bacani’s work on Facebook and helped promote them. In a recent interview to China Daily (see sidebar) Bacani acknowledged that she owed the dream life she was living now entirely to her art. She travels a lot these days, zipping across half the globe, from Makati to Abu Dhabi to the backstreets of New Jersey, on photographic assignments, loving every moment of this newfound freedom.

Could the practice of art make a real difference to people’s lives even if they weren’t as obviously talented and aided by a stroke of luck as Bacani was?  

At Para Site’s Quarry Bay art gallery on Aug 28, there was some evidence that art could indeed cross a few hurdles and add meaning to an otherwise often humdrum, and sometimes rather sordid, existence. On that afternoon, Para Site, Hong Kong’s leading institution for promotion of arts, hosted a pop-up exhibition to showcase the images shot by FDWs as part of a series of photography workshops conducted by Lensational Academy. Participating FDWs shared the stories of their daily struggles to find a space to pursue creative interests in the middle of hectic 18-hour work days, watched closely, sometimes, by unsympathetic employers.

The writer Jason Ng came away from the sharing session teary-eyed. Ng has written extensively about the plight of FDWs at the mercy of abusive employers. He also sits on the judging panel of a support group that invites FDWs to design sustainable rehabilitation options once they retire from working in Hong Kong. Still, it came as a pleasant surprise to him to see the far-reaching impact of art and its efficacy in helping Hong Kong’s maids cope with the hardships in their lives.

“I felt the courage and the resolve to push themselves because they finally believed in themselves,” said Ng. “These artists didn’t just take pictures. They were pushing themselves to be spokespeople for themselves and their community.” 

Maids of honor
Over a 100 foreign maids in Hong Kong have attended the photography workshops conducted by Lensational at Para Site’s art space. (Edmond Tang / China Daily)

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