Maria Editha Garma-Respicio fondly recalls her teenage years writing for her school newspaper, reading in the library and penning poems about love. Growing up in Tuguegarao, a city in the northern Philippines, she sought solace in the written word when all else seemed to be falling apart.

Ingat anthology poetry
Maria Editha Garma-Respicio’s poem, Diaspora Spirit, published in the anthology Ingat. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“I wrote about everything,” Respicio, as she asked to be called, said. “I wrote about my emotions, being in love, everything.”

Decades later, writing continues to play a central role in Respicio’s life. The 45-year-old domestic worker in Hong Kong writes poems about life as a migrant worker, her two children back home and whatever inspires her in the moment.

“Writing is a kind of therapy for me,” Respicio told HKFP. “It’s healing.”

Respicio’s poetry has been published in a number of literary magazines. Most recently, two of her poems found a home in Ingat, a new anthology of poetry, photographs and sketches by the city’s migrant workers.

Released last Sunday, Ingat – meaning “take care” in Tagalog – is a collaborative effort by Migrant Writers of Hong Kong, photography non-profit Lensational and independent publisher Small Tune Press. It features the work of dozens of domestic workers telling stories about family, hardship, love and sacrifice.

Maria Editha Garma-Respicio
Maria Editha Garma-Respicio, a member of Migrant Writers of Hong Kong. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

All the works in the book are accompanied by Chinese translations with the aim of making it more accessible to Hong Kong readers. The anthology’s dusk jacket pays tribute to balikbayan boxes, or large cardboard boxes stuffed with food, clothes and other gifts that domestic workers send home to their families.

The city’s 340,000 domestic workers, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, are the backbone of many Hong Kong families. Research has shown that domestic workers contribute significantly to the city’s economy, freeing up parents from childcare and other duties so they can enter the workforce.

Migrant worker activists have long campaigned for their rights, citing cases of domestic workers being denied rest days, food or their salaries.

Respicio wrote two poems for the anthology: Diaspora Spirit and Adios. The first is a tribute to the courage of migrant workers, while in the second, she described a tearful farewell to her family in the Philippines.

Ingat anthology poetry
Ingat, an anthology of poems, photos and artwork by domestic workers. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“Goodbye’s a torture, my tears shedding / I’ll no longer witness my baby’s milestone / Others children I will be caring / Making me numb like an ice stone,” she wrote in Adios.

Christine Vicera, one of the leaders of the project and co-founder of be/longing, an initiative supporting ethnically diverse communities, said the book aimed to carve out space for work that is “often forgotten or not as visible” on Hong Kong’s creative scene.

Born in the Philippines but having moved to the city as a toddler, Vicera – who co-edited the anthology – said she always wished there was more diversity in the literary scene.

“Growing up, I’ve always wanted to see works by people in our communities on bookshelves,” she said. “People from Hong Kong, people who are Filipino and of course, people who are migrant domestic workers.”

‘A very powerful story’

Established in 2021, Migrant Writers of Hong Kong unites domestic workers with a common love for the written word. The group partners with universities to organise writing workshops, poetry exhibitions and arts events on Sundays, the sole day off for most domestic workers.

ingat domestic workers book
“Ingat,” an anthology by domestic workers in Hong Kong. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Maria Nemy Lou Rocio co-founded the group after being inspired by Migrant Writers of Singapore. Noting an absence of such a community here, the 42-year-old set out to create a safe, inclusive space for domestic workers in Hong Kong to share their creations and hone their craft.

“Migrant workers are very talented. Every poem they write is a very powerful story,” Rocio, who came to Hong Kong as a domestic worker six years ago, told HKFP.

Shortly after establishing Migrant Workers of Hong Kong, Rocio told Vicera that she wanted to produce an anthology to showcase the writing of domestic workers. The idea was soon expanded to spotlight not just written work, but photos, art and other mediums.

Kristine Andaya Ventura’s contribution to Ingat is a sketch of a couple paddling a boat under the full moon. The 36-year-old Filipina has been working overseas as a domestic worker since she was 19, first in Lebanon and then in Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Malaysia. She came to Hong Kong at the end of 2022.

Kristine Andaya Ventura
Kristine Andaya Ventura, a member of Migrant Writers of Hong Kong. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“[My sketch] is about two hearts saying goodbye. No matter how happy they are today, tomorrow they need to say goodbye to separate, to have a good future,” she told HKFP.

Ventura is as much a writer as she is an artist, having penned dozens of poems over the years. She published a book of her poetry called She is a Lioness in 2021, telling stories about heartbreak over a failed marriage, battling depression, and life as a domestic worker in a foreign land.

Her main writing inspiration, she said, was her two children aged eight and 17.

“I want to dedicate [my poems] to them [to show] how I love them and miss them,” Ventura said. “When I miss them, I will express that I need to work outside the country for them… to give them financial support.”

Kristine Andaya Ventura poem
A poem that Kristine Andaya Ventura dedicated to her daughter called “Please Let Me.” Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“Writing helps me ease the pain,” she added.

Besides poems, Ingat also features around two dozen photos taken by members of Lensational, a non-profit that supports domestic workers interested in photography.

Felicia Xu, a volunteer at Lensational who curated the photo submissions, said photography was a powerful tool for migrant workers as it transcended the barriers of language.

Years ago, Lensational ran an event inviting domestic workers and their employers to view their work, she told HKFP. Some of the employers became emotional when they talked to their domestic workers.

“When [one of the employers] saw the photo, it raised her interest and she started asking questions,” Xu said.

Kristine Andaya Ventura writing
Kristine Andaya Ventura, a member of Migrant Writers of Hong Kong, showcases her writing, including her published poetry collection “She is a Lioness.” Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“She got to know the struggles of the domestic worker that she basically spends every minute with, but she didn’t know anything about her emotions… and that photo broke the ice.”

Defying stereotypes

For the migrant workers who contributed to the anthology, writing poems and taking photos is a way for them to express their emotions. But more than that, they hope their work can prompt society to see a different side to them.

“I want [our] messages to be read by the locals… and I hope they can appreciate their domestic helpers more,” Rocio told HKFP, adding that she believed the anthology could be an “eye-opener” for many Hongkongers.

A study by researchers at Lingnan University last year found that domestic workers were unfairly represented by the city’s media outlets. According to an analysis of almost 400 reports about the mistreatment of domestic workers in Chinese-language media, outlets tended to use language that highlighted the “positive personality traits” of employers.

domestic workers protest
Domestic workers staging a protest outside the Labour Department on March 20, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The anthology’s launch also comes as the government continues to crack down on what it calls domestic workers’ “job-hopping,” or prematurely ending their contracts to change employers. Lawmakers have alleged that domestic workers are induced to “job hop” by employment agencies offering them financial incentives, a claim activists deny.

The government is slated to announce new rules by July that could make it harder for domestic workers to switch employers.

Vicera said influencing policy-making was tougher nowadays as the legislature lacked lawmakers who campaigned for domestic workers’ rights.

See also: Without an opposition, Hong Kong’s ‘patriots only’ Legislative Council leaves marginalised groups behind

Since authorities overhauled the electoral system in 2021, only people deemed “patriots” by the government can run in leadership races. During previous legislature terms, when there was still an effective opposition, pro-democracy lawmakers worked with NGOs and activists to lobby for domestic workers’ interests.

Under these circumstances, visibility – through projects such as Ingat – is more important than ever, Vicera said.

“These stories are able to challenge certain stereotypes and at the end of the day, make people realise that beyond their identities as domestic workers, they are mothers, daughters, writers, photographers, and storytellers too,” she added.

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.