Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong recreate urban spaces – ARCO interview with Marisa Gonzalez


Spanish artist Marisa González’s 2010 project, “Female (Open) Space Invaders” documents the lives of Filipino migrants in Hong Kong. Her photographs capture how these migrant women reconstruct urban spaces to form social communities unique to Hong Kong.

Marisa González, 'At the Atrium of the HSBC Bank', 2010, photograph.

Marisa González’s project received a lot of attention at the 2010 edition of This Is Not a Gateway, a London festival that brings together professionals from a wide range of disciplines to speak on issues of contemporary urban life around the world. The organisers of the festival also publish a book, Critical Cities, now in its third volume. In this edition a chapter will be dedicated to González’s project.

In the book, they present my work as something to think about in sociological terms, in an urbanistic way, because in the photographs you can see people sitting in the middle of street, stopping the traffic, and having picnics, sleeping, building boxes to sit in, praying, singing, dancing. Each person transports their habits from their home towns to Hong Kong.

The project even attracted the attention of renowned British architect, Sir Norman Foster, who was responsible for the design of the HSBC Main Building in Hong Kong, one of the buildings under which Filipino workers congregate on Sundays. “When I showed him the book he said that he wanted to know more about the project because it was really something amazing, something absolutely new,” explained González.

At ARCOmadrid in February 2012, Marisa talked with Art Radar Editor Kate Nicholson about her Hong Kong project.

Where would you begin if you wished to introduce this project to Art Radar readers?

[In the book that supports this project] you can see the parts of the project that document the lives of the Filipino women that come to Hong Kong to work as domestic helpers. There are estimated to be between 100,000 and almost 200,000 of these women working in Hong Kong. Only women. Men are not offered work contracts. These women live in the houses of their employers, and on Sundays they head downtown and they literally occupy the city. The important thing in terms of sociology is that the financial district and commercial district of Hong Kong is transformed, absolutely changed, each Sunday. The women sit, sing, dance, pray, eat… they all meet together.

You often photograph what look likes recruitment advertisements? Can you explain the purpose of these advertisements?

Yes, they are recruitment advertisements that are displayed in Manila, in the Philippines. They ask for domestic helpers to work in Hong Kong. There are requirements for the role: only females can apply, for example.

Part of the project focuses on how the women travel downtown from their places of residence, for example, by boat, and what they do once they get there. All the women sit in the middle of the street and the traffic is stopped for them.

Marisa González, 'Banner in Manila', 2010, photograph.

So the traffic is prevented from entering the area on Sundays?

The traffic lights remain red, yes, so that the workers can sit in the middle of the street. Sunday is their only day off so they use it to socialise: the women dance outside the store fronts of high-end designer brands – Salvatore Ferragamo, Yves Saint Laurent; they eat their lunch in front of Prada and Armani. They come to Hong Kong because, first of all, it is the closest centre to the Philippines, and, secondly, it is one of the richest cities in the Asian region.

Why does this subject interest you?

Because it’s such a different way to occupy a city, particularly a financially-focused city like Hong Kong. It’s so unusual. The space they occupy is so limited that the women choose to build boxes in which they sit in small intimate groups with their family, their friends. They leave their shoes outside of the box, inside they play cards, they pray, they do everything, eat lunch…

Marisa González, 'Dance in Brands 2', 2010, photograph.

Would you say that you use photography as social documentary?

It is a testimony, yes, a social documentary.

How do you choose what to document?

I was very interested in the way that the women build these boxes, in how they stitch the sides together so neatly. The workers are, quite literally, asleep on the street, in the middle of everyone, and all the passers-by, they can see what would usually be quite intimate acts.

And the walls of these boxes are not tall enough to block the actions of each group from the eyes of passers-by?

No, you can easily see inside each box. One woman that I photographed was looking at an advertisement that offered work in Canada, others were reading, playing Bingo, eating, celebrating, watching TV… everything. The workers do all this in the middle of the street. I interviewed some of the women and they told me that during the week they wake up at 5:30am and go to bed at 11pm; they said that they are tired all day and that’s why, when they come to this part of the city on Sunday, the only thing they want to do is to sit down all day and enjoy the fact that no one will be calling on them to do something.

Marisa González, 'Resting Together', 2010, photograph.

Do you look at similar issues of migration in projects that you have undertaken in other parts of Asia, for example, in your work done in India? 

No, no, this is the only project for which I have looked at this issue. Hong Kong is the only place in the world that this particular situation happens. The women also use this space to put together packages that they fill with toys, presents and other good things to send home to their families.

Marisa González, 'Mailing Boxes', 2010, photograph.

How long did you spend in Hong Kong documenting the situation that these Filipino women are in? 

I have been twice, two trips, one week each, and I have spent one week in the Philippines.

You have undertaken many projects across Asia, but this is the first to focus on migration. Why have you chosen to document this situation in Hong Kong?

Because these Filipino migrants are creating new habitats for the city. They have to run all their errands on Sundays, like going to the bank to send money to the Philippines, doing shopping, and making jumbo boxes to send goods to their families. On Sundays, this downtown area of Hong Kong becomes a post office. Delivery trucks sit in a line in the middle of the buildings; boxes are being filled with goods to send home to families. This situation is very, very unusual; it doesn’t happen in any other part of the world.

I want to document how the Filipino women are transforming the use of the city. I photographed the HSBC Main Building on a Monday and in the photograph you can see that the streets around it are empty, but on a Sunday they are filled with people. When the government in Hong Kong protested about this ‘invasion’, the Filipino government retorted that they would bring the women home.

The women are treated like servants, but in many cases they are even more qualified than their employers. I interviewed many woman during the course of this project and many of them have university degrees, some of them are dentists, others are teachers, nurses… now they are taking care of babies…

Were you able to speak to anyone who employed a domestic helper from the Philippines? 

No, I didn’t get the chance. It was very difficult to meet the employers of Filipino domestic helpers. The reality is that many of these women sacrifice their own lives for up to 25 years to put their children through university, but what for? These Filipino women are university educated, however they have to come to Hong Kong to earn enough money to support their family. Will the next generation have to do the same?

Marisa González, 'Alone Waiting', 2010, photograph.

Do many of these women consider their life in Hong Kong to be permanent?

No, they don’t see it as permanent, but many have been here for 25 years or more. They extend their contract for two more years or four more years, and after 25 years, some of them come to the decision that it is time to think about themselves and their own future. They have already paid for their children’s university education, their fathers’ operation…. As a woman and a feminist, I am very conscious of the sacrifice that these women are making.

This is quite a personal issue then?

Yes, and also, as I said, many architects and sociologists that have seen my project agree that the situation is very, very unusual. In many other cities around the world, Filipino and other migrant workers mainly congregate in the church or in parks. There you see women, men, and children, the whole family. In Hong Kong they are not allowed to bring the families to live with them.

Marisa González, 'HSBC Bank', 2010, photograph.

Have you looked at other places in Asia, Taiwan, for example, to compare the situation there with what you have been documenting in Hong Kong?

Yes, I have looked at other places and this does not happen there. It only happens in Hong Kong. Why? Hong Kong is a big city, but the downtown area is very condensed, concentrated, and because there are so many Filipino women working in Hong Kong, [the streets in the financial district become very crowded].

During the week, the women are alone, isolated, working in a small apartment. Many don’t even have their own room; some women told me that they sleep in the kitchen. It’s a new kind of slavery. The salary that these domestic helpers receive is below the Hong Kong minimum wage.

I have so many testimonials that really get under the skin. The sacrifices that these women have made for their children and for their families are amazing. Most have a strong sense of family and when I asked them what brought them to Hong Kong, in many cases, the wider family, when they are in financial difficulty, meet together and choose the family member who best fits the description given in the employment advertisements. It’s a huge project that really touched me.

You can pre-order Critical Cities, Vol. 3 here.

[Ed. note – the views expressed in the interview are the artist’s and do not represent the opinions of Art Radar or its editorial board. Facts and statements were reproduced as given by the artist and have not been checked for accuracy by Art Radar. Art Radar acknowledges that the issue of migrant workers in Hong Kong is a complex one with many facets and causes.]


Related Topics: documentary art, art and migration, photography, interviews

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Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong recreate urban spaces – ARCO interview with Marisa Gonzalez — 3 Comments

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  3. Filipino Migrants in Hongkong…Interview with Marissa Gonzales

    I read this interview with much enthusiasm. I am a Filipino living in Uk for over 30 years now.

    I have visited Hongkong few times and took several photos of the Filipino gatherings in Hongkong. I have also spoken to some Filipinos during my trips and told me the same information collected by Ms. Gonzales. I am very pleased that she wrote and documented this project , and has been published because this is a good social event which I hope other countries will immitate with many improvements.

    In addition to Ms. Gonzales interview,according to Filipinos I have spoken with in Hongkong,the Sunday gathering is officially recognised by the Hongkong government. Every Filipino I spoke to is happy for having this special day accorded to them by the government.

    This Sunday event has become an attraction…indeed a tourist attraction for Hongkong. I was there again last January,2012. Apart from the usual gatherings and errands as accurately documented and clearly photographed by Ms. Gonzales, it was beautiful to see the Filipino community put up a stage show ..,singing,dancing, beauty contest,etc. There was also a parade showcasing traditional attire of different regions in the Philippines. These activities were organised to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

    It is sad to read that many women are isolated, have no room on their own and receive less than the Hong Kong minimum wage. This needs further investigation. Something has to be done in a peaceful way. I am not happy with the word ‘slavery’. It is too strong !!. The Filipinos are tolerant and can settle discontentment amicably. What one should avoid is making them being treated like a slave by their employer. I believe that they see or feel being treated like a slave. One should avoid igniting a fire…a protest that could lead to violence . Most of the Filipinos are just happy to earn a living ..,to provide good education to their children which is one of the basic needs of nearly every Filipino.

    I support ( whatever I can ) Ms. Gonzales project. I am happy to provide her with information and photos I salute her for doing this project. I think it is a great project.

    Thank you,
    Mr C. Castillo

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