Posts Tagged ‘Hong Kong’

“Stamped: Notes from an Itinerant Artist” Vol. 10

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016

With this tenth 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).

Hong Kong Domestic Workers in the Gallery

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.


Daniela Ortiz’s 97 House Maids

Jao Chai-en’s REM Sleep

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s Hong Kong Intervention

Prose Editor Kawika Guillermo spends his days traversing around Asia, with Hong Kong as his beloved base. His fiction has appeared in Feminist StudiesDrunken BoatTayo, and The Hawai’i Pacific Review. His debut anti-travel novel, Stamped, will be published in Spring 2017 by CCLaP Press.

“Stamped: Notes from an Itinerant Artist” Vol. 5

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

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?

The Afterwork exhibition at Para Site art gallery will last until May 29, 2016.

Prose Editor Kawika Guillermo spends his days traversing around Asia, with Hong Kong as his beloved base. His fiction has appeared in Feminist StudiesDrunken BoatTayo, and The Hawai’i Pacific Review. His debut anti-travel novel, Stamped, will be published in Spring 2017 by CCLaP Press.

“Stamped: Notes from an Itinerant Artist” Vol. 4

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

With this fourth 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).

Hong Kong’s Occupy Sundays

At a café in Admiralty, I get lost in thought, checking out the barista. Muscular, with dark skin, a smile as broad as his shoulders. He tamps down on the espresso with a grunt, twisting his whole body, then snaps the metal filter into the machine.

“Dessert of St. Honore gateau,” David says, placing a gold-plated cake onto the glass table, edging my laptop so far off that I have to balance it with my knee. David is a bearded British publisher who has invited me to tea to give me the rundown on Hong Kong, a city that David thinks is devoted only to finance capital and has little culture to speak of.

Nearby, a financier rants to a woman about the umbrella movement protests happening just a block away. “They cannot win. They should give up. Democracy is one thing to fight over, but everyone is losing money.”

I feed some birds. Four, hopping about the deck, catching beads of bread. One sits atop David’s Apple-Cranberry Kuchettes cake, flitting about, like the crème were a tree branch.

Droplets of coffee fling from David’s glass as he spins to answer a text message. “The wifi sucks,” he spits, “it’s the domestic workers outside. They take up all the bandwidth.” He jokes, “Sundays are their day off. Puts us in a conundrum: can’t leave the house, because they take up all the space; can’t stay home, because there’s no one to clean the house.”

“I’m Filipino,” I say.

I think he’s going to whistle, but he doesn’t. Just looks, his face all like no you’re not.

It’s with so many arguments not worth having that I keep quiet and watch the dark barista. His eyes finally settle on mine. After a moment he pulls out a cigarette and heads into the street.

I give chase, leaving David to his phone call, and follow the barista’s glide through the city streets. A man dragging an empty metal cart cuts me off, and I lose the barista at a strange demarcation.

A dozen metal bike racks are woven together by bicycle chains and zip ties. My legs cannot go beyond the barricades. I climb over, looking for the barista’s black collared shirt. Tourists push past me, hoping to take selfies with yellow umbrellas and Cantonese Post-it notes.

My body remains in-between them, taking up space.

I find him, my barista, with smoke slithering from his mouth, slipping through a group of domestic workers waving their arms in synchronized dance. I pass them, then waver through a group of women playing Miss Universe. As I squeeze through another barricaded street, I realize I am leaving a political action, and entering a rendezvous point. From protest to festival, from one occupation to another.

In Statue Square young women perch on every available surface: cement barriers, stairways and broken-down escalators, sitting on cardboard boxes with the edges up in a curved wall. With their shoes lined to make a barrier between them and the street, they crowd onto the cardboard pieces like island settlements eclipsed by an ocean of pedestrian commerce. Some play cards, chewing pork rinds and giving each other pedicures. I have to push past them as they pose for pictures near artificial waterfalls and Christmas ornaments. “Merry Christmas!” they shout, throwing their hands up in that puro arte of the islands, not caring that Christmas is still two months away.

In the center of the square a legion of tourists stand, their cameras aimed at a robust colonial statue, their fingers set on their smart phones as they wait for a group of Filipinas to pass.

My eye catches him: the barista, now behind me. Is he following me now? I get nervous and try to hide inside a cathedral. But the Filipinas are packed in, blocking me along with the other tourists.

I find him again, the barista, whose enticing smile–fake as it is–invites me to sit with him on his cardboard ship. He tells me his name is Nico, and he has a friend competing in a potatosack race. We watch the women hop and scream. Some, Nico tells me, are go-go girls, some maids, some nurses, and some stewardesses, who tomorrow will share a workspace higher than any Hong Kong skyscraper. When the police tell us to leave, we stand up and chat until they are out of eyesight, then settle right back down into our trenches. When the sun peaks, Nico opens an umbrella to give us shade.

Prose Editor Kawika Guillermo spends his days traversing around Asia, with Hong Kong as his beloved base. His fiction has appeared in Feminist StudiesDrunken BoatTayo, and The Hawai’i Pacific Review. His debut anti-travel novel, Stamped, will be published in Spring 2017 by CCLaP Press.