With this fifth installment, Prose Editor Kawika Guillermo continues “Stamped: Notes from an Itinerant Artist,” a travel series focusing mostly on art, literary exhibitions, and “artist areas” around Asia (and perhaps beyond).
Para Site Contemporary Art Gallery, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong
We squeeze into a tall elevator, the fetishists and I, and as the doors close, the lights geld bright like an oven set on high. A woman squeezes beside me, priming herself in the elevator door’s reflection. Her animal-hide scarf hides her whispers as she makes some bracing comment to her boyfriend, a short man with curled hair, a Mark Zuckerberg lookalike gently massaging the shoulders of his gateway to the Chinese market.
The elevator stops at the Para Site art gallery on the 22nd floor, and already I can hear the toasts for the “Migrant Domestic Worker Project,” and the words “grassroots” and “minority peoples” being bandied about by suited MacArthurs clutching their mistresses. I try to ignore them, the product of such a union myself, already familiar with the Romeo and Juliet narrative they expel, when, to cynical onlookers like myself, they’re more like Robert Lomax and Suzie Wong.
The gallery is hosting a grand opening gala, a “Housekeeper Spring” that seems startlingly absent of domestic workers themselves, with a crowd that remains over-dressed in chintzy long gold necklaces and plaid suit jackets. This place carries a gloom. Digital art of brown women speaking their dreams seems mismatched to a room of Pinkertons clutching their Butterflys who left their Southeast Asian maids at home to tend to their children. I feel bad for the gallery, that this is the smug crew they have to satisfy with free wine and gimmicky poster art.
And this Anna person still hasn’t texted me back. “Just got to the domestic worker art opening,” I write over the Tinder messenger. “Let me know when you arrive. I’m wearing a brown shirt.” The sad smile on her profile image makes her look like someone who might flake out on a Tinder date. It’s one of those smiles that lunges through anger and desperation, like the smile of my own helper when I give her a ten-dollar tip. Wait, could Anna be a domestic worker too? Anna. “Anna” was no “Mary” or “Rosalina,” but it also wasn’t one of those English names locals often took, like Joy, Pearl, or Grace. Her Tinder profile stated no age or nation, just said that she liked art. I cycle through her photographs, each one of her posing at an airport and coffee shop. Perhaps, to her, these were exceptional spaces.
I stare at a tapestry of hanging clothes, meant perhaps to mimic a migrant housekeeper’s main product: a clean surface, washed by hand, an artisanal craft. Next to me Rupert Murdoch brushes back his Asian wife’s hair, commenting to his face-fucker friends how unbelievably straight and gentle her hair feels, asking them to “try and touch it for yourselves!” (With the money that guy’s floating, I’d probably do whatever he asked me to, too.)
It becomes abundantly clear how this crowd ended up here when I follow the trail of hand-washed wrinkled clothing to the gallery’s open bar, which hosts bottles of British imported beers. I cut the line, daring anyone to try and stop the only brown man here from getting his drink on. The faster I get drunk, the faster I will no longer scowl at them and their absent-minded John Smith and Pocahontas reenactment.
Drink in hand, I waver to the only sober person within proximity, a South Asian intern giving away large red books. She tells me it’s an anthology made up entirely of domestic worker stories. I take a glance at the contents and immediately recognize Carlos Bulosan. Not caring to point out her mistake, I just say “Oh, Bulosan is in here too.”
“Do you know her?” she says.
“It’s a him,” I say, pleased to talk about Manong Carlos in the present tense. I add: “My man Carlos has a thing for white women. Like, a huge fucking thing.” I say it loud, a point of Pinoy pride, to make them feel a smudge of what I feel.
I wander through the gallery’s pasty white walls, looking for Anna. Maybe she got offended that, when she suggested a date, the first thing I thought of was a migrant worker art exhibition. Maybe she showed up, realized she was the only domestic worker in an art event about domestic workers, and fled. Or maybe she found someone more attractive in the elevator, a bearded John Lennon to her hazy Yoko Ono. I squat and read over her past texts. “Hey yo!” was her first message to me. And later: “A migrant worker art event? That sounds killer!” And another: “I’m gonna bounce to my mom’s pad, then I’ll meet you there, ok? Peace!”
Just who, where, what, was this girl?
I join a Woody Allen and step-daughter lookalike staring at a photograph series. It’s a photograph of a maid with her back turned, posed alongside the place where she works, with a hand grenade placed on the dining table like a centerpiece. The grenade, an explosion of anger that leaves nothing left of itself, a device that screams, bursts into light, and takes all the lights out.
I wonder about the artists who have to watch the audience watching their work, trying to think of a metaphor to spot, a classy word to pass on (“espy,” “adage”) so they can get on their colonial banging, passionate because it comes from an authentic artistic experience, guiltless because the maid, who has to sort the sweat-ridden red dress from the bejeweled necklaces and need-to-be-ironed shirts, has had her say.
Anyways, just what could be keeping this Anna?
Prose Editor Kawika Guillermo spends his days traversing around Asia, with Hong Kong as his beloved base. His fiction has appeared in Feminist Studies, Drunken Boat, Tayo, and The Hawai’i Pacific Review. His debut anti-travel novel, Stamped, will be published in Spring 2017 by CCLaP Press.