Six months ago I visited the Hong Kong contemporary art gallery, Para Site, when it hosted “Afterwork,” a collection of work about migrant domestic workers. The blog I wrote then was about the (mostly white) audience who patronized the gallery on its opening. I feel this was a mistake. The artists themselves had little control over how the expatriate community would receive their work. The anger I felt distracted me from the art itself, which I hope to rectify in this installment.
Only six months later, in retrospect, does it become clear how these artworks were pushing against the grain. The artworks flat-out rejected ideas of migrant workers as heroes celebrated on Migrant Workers Week and applauded in Hong Kong when they’re not caught stealing or going to bars. But it also rejects the Human Rights version of them as helpless victims. The introduction to the exhibit selects work that shows “how the Southeast Asian ‘other’ has been approached in Hong Kong and more broadly in Chinese culture.” It does not cater to the audience, as I presumed in the previous blog. The collection plays with the audience’s desire to hear the maid’s story, or to provide rescue. Its introduction reads, “Afterwork does not, however, mean to patronizingly give a voice to or be the vindicator of the struggles of migrant workers.” In Hong Kong migrant workers are seen as either unruly, willing and ungrateful thieves, or as church mice stamped with the oil of heroism and self-sacrifice.
The activist artist Daniela Ortiz’s contribution was titled 97 House Maids. Ortiz took Facebook photos from upperclass Peruvians that unintentionally caught glimpses of their migrant workers. The frames display the erasure of migrant domestic workers as mere background or as props to hold up and support the family narrative.
The background labor is necessary to the storyhood of the family, yet the workers’ presence is effectively erased.
The Taiwanese artist Jao Chai-en’s REM Sleep (2011) addresses the difficulties of dissecting life stories from migrant workers who themselves are paid to perform as puppets resembling religious purity. Chai-en does not simply interview migrant workers to discover their real story, but has them recite their dreams during REM Sleep, the only time when their strings aren’t being pulled, and no performance is being demanded from them.
In this cruel reality, free thinking is only permitted during deep sleep. Their stories are meandering depictions of their own dreams: dreams of freedom, of family, of anger.
In Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s Hong Kong Intervention (2011), the voice of the domestic worker becomes visible only through a final destructive act of anger and (presumably) vengeance: a grenade left on a kitchen counter, paired with the domestic worker who wishes the family harm, her back turned to keep herself anonymous.
The un-knowable migrant body positioned next to the grenade shouts resentment and anger, but also threatens my own gaze staring at her, hoping to access her life story.
The solidarity presented in these works crosses national, racial and gendered borders. The ubiquity of migrant domestic work broaches into disadvantaged nations. These artists’ works immediately resonated with me. Isolated from Filipino and white communities as too mixed race, and called an “island hopper” even by close friends, I had accepted early on that I would remain a cleaner or service worker for most of my life, where I belonged with the other brown-skinned mulattos. In Las Vegas I worked jobs for $5.50 an hour where I cleaned, smiled, and absorbed all the stored-up resentment from every customer. If I was interested in a girl, that too was colored by race. If it didn’t work, I felt it was because of my Asian-ness, and if I got lucky, it was because she was looking for an exotic spin among the jungle hybrids. Even my small successes were taken away from me. After three years of applications, I finally got into graduate school, only to hear my best friend tell me (totally sober) that “I wish I were Asian like you, then I’d have everything given to me.” I never spoke to him again. I never spoke to a lot of people again. For years I have preferred isolation and estrangement. Why was everything, failure or success, sex or unsexed, blamed on my race? Was I really just a mere puppet, with this invisible being, “race,” pulling my strings?
Perhaps this is why, as a traveler, I’ve always felt more at home with locals or low-paid immigrants than with expatriates. Black, Asian, and other minority travelers I’ve met seem to feel the same. Leaving America is a political choice, it’s getting away from that pigeonholed identity, from the puppet master who forces you into exile even when you are home. As minorities we are always exilic, and it’s not a question of finding home or of fitting in but of just waking up one day without feeling his strings tugging at your every limb. But as travelers we carry new identities with us: upper-class, whimsical Americans, who can breeze in and out, armed with English and passports and ready-to-work jobs that make us indispensable.
Domestic workers in Hong Kong are the expatriate community’s Others. Where we always make above minimum wage, they always make well below it. Where we are pushed into isolated apartments, they are kept under twenty-four-hour surveillance by their adopted families, often living in the same rooms as the children. Where we can stay for months at a time with no explanation, they are kicked out after two weeks without a sponsor. Where we can gallivant in clubs and mix with locals, they are hunted down for any sexual trespass, and their mixing (in terms of pregnancy, prostitution) leaves them vulnerable to forced deportation. Where we are seen as contributing to the “globalness” of Hong Kong, they are seen as third world parasites. In the literary world, works like Jose Dalisay’s 2008 novel, Soledad’s Sister, and Mia Alvar’s short story “Shadow Families,” are unique gems that tell us different stories. And even in the garish business of the art world, there are still a few gems.
This blog was originally published on decomP
Daniela Ortiz’s 97 House Maids
Jao Chai-en’s REM Sleep
Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s Hong Kong Intervention