A Filipina tells the stories of HK underclass through her lens

April 29, 2016 18:54
Xyza Cruz Bacani took up the job of a nanny 10 years ago in order to help support her family in the Philippines. She is now pursuing her dream as a photographer. Photo: HKEJ

Xyza Cruz Bacani, a young woman known for her evocative photographs of Hong Kong streetlife, has plenty of reasons to be satisfied with her work. In 2014, she was presented with the Justice Centre Human Rights award, and last year she won a Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellows award.

Born in Bambang, Philippines, Bacani -- who is now 29 years in age -- arrived in Hong Kong ten years ago to join her mother as a nanny.

The Filipina, who was an eldest child, had to take up employment in order to help support her family back home. Bacani's mother, who had been working as a domestic helper in Hong Kong for years, couldn't possibly afford the college tuition of her children on her own.

Back then, as soon as Bacani would woke up, she would start tidying up her employer's mansion and then busy herself in the kitchen preparing breakfast for eveyone. In the afternoon, when her master's kids came back from school, she would teach or guide them in completing school assignments.

"It was an interesting job, from which I derived much joy and many surprises from taking care of the kids. I learnt a lot from them as well," Bacani says.

The nanny job brought Bacani and her mother closer than ever before. However, it took them a year to get over the feeling of estrangement after being away from each other for so long in the past.

"My mother left home when I was seven. It was unexpected that we would work together under the same roof after over ten years of separation," says Bacani. "I understood that she has been sacrificing so much for our family."

Bacani took an interest in photography when in college, but she could not afford a camera then. But in Hong Kong, she managed to buy a DSLR camera with savings from three years of hard work and a generous loan from her employer who was willing to pay some wages in advance.

The Filipina, who has won accolades for her black-and-white photos of streetlife in the city, is grateful to her employer for being an understanding person and allowing her to pursue her passion.

The employer would allow her to take a day off during the week, instead of the standard practice of a holiday during weekends. That allowed Bacani to take her camera and capture everyday life in Hong Kong.

The interest in photography was so great that Bacani would sometimes carry her camera even when she was doing grocery shopping for the employer’s family. 

Asked what drives her passion for photography, Bacani cites at least three reasons.

First, the work allows her to channel her emotions. While absorbing herself in taking black-and-white photos in the streets, Bacani says she has discovered her power of imagination. Meanwhile, it is also her way of taking a break from her routine worklife.

Second, Bacani says she is doing it for her mom, whose world centers only on the family, work and boss. The daughter hopes to showcase the world to her mother through her pictures.

Last and most importantly, Bacani has been pondering over a social role as a photographer, especially after serving as a volunteer at Bethune House, where a 900-square-foot flat housed nearly 30 homeless maids who had faced ill-treatment from their employers.

Having heard many horrific tales from the maids, Bacani attributes the problem of domestic helper abuse in Hong Kong lies in conditions such as the live-in rule for the workers and a two-week buffer period for new employment contracts.

Bacani's early photography work centered on capturing images of domestic helpers and trying to tell the story of their lives, a topic which she says has largely been underreported.

Right now Bacani, working full-time as a freelancer, is aspiring to take up a project related to human trafficking.

Though she admits that photography may not be able to bring about instant change in society, the Filipina has lot of faith in the art form, believing that it can influence people's thinking and help pave way for a better world.

Para Site, a contemporary arts centre in Quarry Bay, is hosting Afterwork, a major group exhibition that seeks to explore issues of class, race, labor and migration in Hong Kong and the surrounding region. Bacani's early works are on display at the exhibition, which runs through May 29.

Filipino maid wins New York photography scholarship (Jan. 27, 2015)

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 27.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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"Parenthood in Macau": Bacani loves to capture images of people in the streets in their unguarded moments. Photo: Bacani
"Keep reaching for your dreams": Bacani took this picture while doing voluntary service at Bethune House, a temporary shelter for abused maids. Photo: Bacani
"A child looking at HK skyline in Tsim Sha Tsui HK": The overcast sky deepens the emotional content of Bacani's work. Photo: Bacani

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal