Hong Kong arts and culture project makes foreign domestic workers the creator and the muse

Hong Kong is home to more than 320,000 migrant domestic workers: 49.4 percent are from Indonesia, 48 percent are from Philippines and the others are mainly from Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Although this large minority group makes up four percent of Hong Kong’s population, migrant domestic workers, their legal rights, society status and personal needs are often absent from local narratives.

According to a 2013 report by Amnesty International, migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong are at high risk of seeing their human and labour rights violated.

Hoping to make a difference is Para Site, a contemporary art centre in Quarry Bay that has been collaborating with domestic workers and grassroots cultural organisations to produce a multifaceted platform of programmes, spanning photography, art, education and literature.

The latter art form saw the creation of the “Afterwork Reading Club” – an ongoing cultural project that brings the writing of domestic workers to their peers and the wider community.

Coconuts HK spoke to Qinyi Lim from Para Site and Brigitta Isabella from Indonesia’s KUNCI Cultural Studies, who teamed up to spearhead the reading/writing initiative.

Starting in February simply as educational research on Indonesian domestic helpers in Hong Kong, a six-session Sunday reading group was set up by KUNCI in a bid to see both domestic workers and locals explore the issue of migrant workers’ rights.

The project, based on the translated work of Indonesian writers, encourages migrant workers to read and produce prose about their situation. Reading groups were set up at three locations, Victoria Park, a centre for domestic workers, and at private housing.

While private housing may seems an odd choice, Isabella explained that the changing of roles of the location offer different perspectives.

Conventionally, domestic workers help around the house, yet being a participant and a guest in an activity changes the division of labour and can connect them to their employers in a different way.

“The migrant workers come together with the employers in an equal position and discuss the text together,” Isabella said.

“For the employers it [the house] is considered as a private space, but for domestic workers it’s like a workspace. The idea of inviting the employers with the workers to discuss the text on an equal basis makes it more like a neutral area,” Lim added.

While Isabella admits some of the writing produced may seem trivial or mundane, she believes such insights reflect, not only a migrant worker’s perspective on life, but also these women as individuals. By abolishing the inequality and class within Hong Kong society, they hope the writings will not only represent a domestic helper, but also a writer, a woman and an Indonesian.

“It came from our first discussion and it is related how people see domestic workers. They are classified as a specific gender and class. I want them to be seen as equal, as human,” Isabella said.

“For example, if you go to Victoria Park on the weekend, you will see their informal economy in action, like pedicures, fashion shows and even dance and rock concerts. You don’t see them as domestic workers,” Lim insists.

By writing, a worker is seen to be contributing to “intellectual” actions rather than the usual manual work. The production is a sharing of knowledge that the organisers hope will change the concept of intellectuality in mainstream society.

As every session can only accommodate five to seven participants, a travelling suitcase filled with a selection of Indonesian literature is available for domestic helpers to borrow from at weekends in Victoria’s Park.

Although the books are free to obtain, interested parties are required to first write a short note explaining their expectation and reasons for taking the text.

In terms of future plans, KUNCI will be publishing a book containing the writings of Hong Kong’s domestic workers received throughout the project to act as a reflection on the scheme.

“The text will be translated into English, but we also hope to translate some of the migrant workers’ work into Chinese and hopefully Tagalog and distribute to the community in a book form,” Lim explained

To learn more about the upcoming afterwork reading group sessions or on-going domestic helper-focused set projects at Para Site, click here.

Photos: Arista Devi

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