Foreign Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong

Reimagining migration

From Calais to the coasts of the Andaman Sea in Southeast Asia, global migration patterns are increasingly feminised and coloured by labels of oppression. In Hong Kong, an estimated 320,000 women from Indonesia and the Philippines come to work as domestic helpers, representing one of the largest migrants group in South-East Asia, and accounting for more than 3% of the city’s population.

Although helpers’ contribution to the local economy in Hong Kong is undeniable, they are still largely isolated from other segments of society, and face unfair treatment in the workplace. Their fragile status proves disastrous for notions of human dignity, equality and empowerment. There is a need to give a voice to the helpers themselves, beyond narratives of alienation and oppression.

In May 2013, we partnered with We Care and the TCK learning centre in Hong Kong to provide photography training courses to a group of foreign domestic helpers originating from Indonesia and the Philippines. During the four-week long training, students were invited to connect with others through images, and channel their creative energy beyond the confined space of home. Behind the camera, the domestic helpers were encouraged to express their emotions and curate their own stories, moving from ‘being seen’ to ‘seeing’, and beyond the usual narratives of victimhood and alienation.

Photographer in portrait : Arumy

27 year-old Arumy comes from Blitar City, Indonesia, and has been working in Hong Kong since 2005. On the side of her full-time helper job, she takes e-courses at the Open University of Indonesia, where she is majoring in Mass Communications.
Arumy believes that good pictures have the ability to tell untold stories without words. The young woman, who dreams of being a writer, hopes that through photography, she can tell the story of her home country, Indonesia.

Impressed with our students’ talent and ambitions, we later partnered with The Photocrafters, a photography collective, to provide fine arts photography training to interested participants. The fruits of our students’ hard work were showcased in Hong Kong and in London at a series of exhibitions. Their photographs provide a glimpse of their uncertain journeys and transitory stories – but also their personal stories, dreams and experiences beyond the workplace.

Beyond the programme

Our Hong Kong programme has made several media appearances, sharing our students’ work but also their experiences as domestic helpers on a global stage, and raising awareness of the migrant voice more generally.

In 2013, two of our participants, Asti Maria and Sina, took centre stage in two Asia Calling features and later in the South China Morning Post and in Digital Rev, where they were able to share their personal stories and present a selection of artworks.
In 2015, when the Syrian crisis was at an all time high in Western Europe, xx of our students shared in the Guardian what being a migrant meant to them.

On 16 September 2015, we held a public discussion titled ‘Reimagining Migration’ to introduce our students’ exhibition at Art Represent gallery. During the event, we invited experts and migrants organisations to discuss how empathy and intersectionality can help individuals to situate themselves in relation to migrant rights debate, in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis. The public discussion highlighted to sore lack of voices from migrants themselves in the on-going migrant debate.


Student Sinna Hermanto’s work was also submitted for the Creative Light and Shadow Contest organized by EyeEm and The Photoblographer, receiving a special mention alongside 29 other runners-up, out of 43,000 submissions.

Our student Jem Guanzon, who has recently moved to Moscow, has also remained involved in photography. Photography, she says, has become a medium that enables her to freely express herself. In a touching poem shared by our co-founder Bonnie Chiu in a May 2015 TED talk, she expressed her gratitude for the skills and confidence that she has acquired through Lensational.


Jem Guanzon

“It’s bringing out the other side of you. It’s letting out of your hidden passion. It’s living in a different world of the everyday life. It’s the fulfilment of a dream.”

Other Lensational students have now returned to their home countries, where they intend to start businesses through photography. Anik, who is back in East Java, Indonesia, wants to become a travel blogger and wedding photographer, while student Asti Maria endeavours to open a photography studio.

Programme Manager: Sunnie Chiu (sunnie@lensational.org)
Programme Officers: Amy Chau (amy@lensational.org), Chloe Cheng (Chloe@lensational.org), Rachel Luk (rachel@lensational.org)






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