Canadian Architect

Feature

Making Space

In Hong Kong, migrant domestic workers squeeze into tiny living quarters for six days of the week, then claim the city's public plazas on their day off.

November 14, 2016
by Ruth Jones

Migrant domestic workers socialize in Hong Kong’s former Central Market, opposite an exhibition that includes 1:1 drawings of the tiny spaces in their employers’ apartments that they live in during most of the week. Photo by Eddie C.Y. Lam

Migrant domestic workers socialize in Hong Kong’s former Central Market, opposite an exhibition that includes 1:1 drawings of the tiny spaces in their employers’ apartments that they live in during most of the week. Photo by Eddie C.Y. Lam

Hong Kong pushes people together, with tiny apartments Tetris-stacked into high-rise buildings and a steady flow of traffic streaming into every available transit space. For migrant domestic workers (MDWs)—women mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, who keep the city running by taking over house, child and elder care for a large percentage of its residents—the compression is even more dramatic. Legally required to live in-house, MDWs occupy whatever space their employers can spare: a bed in a room with a member of the employing family, a bunk rigged up over a toilet or a washing machine, a converted closet, a cot in the hall. Rarely does a woman employed as a MDW have a room to call her own, and even then, all the domestic space she touches is part of her place of work.

In the exhibition How to Make Space, which ran over the summer in Hong Kong, Canadian curators Jennifer Davis and Su-Ying Lee assembled work that addresses the lives of the city’s domestic workers and the spaces they occupy. Filipina-Canadian Stephanie Comilang’s video Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso / Come to Me, Paradise uses a combination of drone and cell phone footage to imagine a science fiction-like view of migrant workers’ lives, while Quebec artist Devora Neumark addresses the personal and particular lives of MDWs with letters of gratitude solicited from employers, and by organizing the women themselves to nominate their employers for a newly created “Best MDW Employer Award.” Trained in architecture, Tings Chak undertook analytical research into accommodation, and articulates the spatial consequences of labour law, restricted space, and the idea of “suitable accommodation.” Her 1:1 scale drawings based on women’s descriptions of their living conditions stretched up the walls and along the floor of the gallery, while conceptual “advertisements” borrowed their style from Hong Kong’s exclusive real estate market. They “promote” (with more than a little irony) the kinds of spaces ac-corded to the city’s maids, housekeepers, nannies and caretakers.

The Oasis Gallery itself is located in the city’s former Central Market, situating the artists’ commentary in the singular area where the women do have a physical and social presence. On Sundays, their one day off, MDWs descend on this section of Hong Kong, making space for themselves by constructing makeshift structures of cardboard, umbrellas, sheets and blankets. In parks, along the causeways that connect downtown buildings, in the halls of Central, and in the open plazas of corporate buildings, groups of women eat, nap, visit, do each other’s hair, and play cards and other games.

As curator Jennifer Davis noted in a talk at Brooklyn’s Asia Art Archive in America in August, architects account for and accommodate users in the abstract when designing buildings and cities. But those same users are rarely seen as having an active role. Architecture stops when construction does. Yet without altering structures in any permanent way, MDWs in Hong Kong affect patterns of movement, program, ambience, and divisions between public and private in the spaces they occupy. Making Space tracks the invisibility of domestic workers against their Sunday visibility, juxtaposing the limits imposed on them with their spatial agency. By making the public city not only private but also domestic, the women, despite their vulnerable position, challenge the urban conventions of Hong Kong. One day a week, the hypermodern centere of global capital is home to rooms with cardboard walls—inside, laughing women paint each other’s nails.

How to Make Space was on display from June 25 to July 23 at Oasis Gallery in Hong Kong. Ruth Jones is a Toronto-based writer and editor. She teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.