Photographer and artist Xyza Cruz Bacani knows what it is like to grow up without a mother present; hers was overseas working in the home of a Hong Kong family to provide a better life for Bacani and her siblings, who remained in the Philippines.

Years later, Bacani joined her mother to work in that same Hong Kong household as a migrant domestic worker, a move that proved fateful for the young Filipina, as she discussed in the latest episode of the HKFP Yum Cha podcast.

A migrant domestic worker walking with high heels in Hong Kong, September 10, 2017. Photo: Xyza Cruz Bacani.
A migrant domestic worker walking with high heels in Hong Kong, September 10, 2017. Photo: Xyza Cruz Bacani.

Now based in New York City, Bacani spoke to HKFP during her first trip back to Hong Kong in years after being kept away by a whirlwind work schedule and, later, Covid-related travel restrictions. She was in the city to promote an exhibition of her work, which was organised by NGO Pathfinders Hong Kong to coincide with the release of a report on the impact of migration on children.

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  6. Vaudine England – A City Between East and West
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“We have to include children in conversations about migration because most mothers migrate because of their children… because they want to give an economic stability for their children,” Bacani said.

“In an ideal world, no mother should be separated from their children, ever.”

When Bacani arrived in Hong Kong in 2006, aged 19, she said she “sensed the [city’s] kinetic energy,” and was “fascinated” by it.

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“It was an adventure, you know. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, but at that moment, I was like: ‘Oh my God, this city is beautiful’.”

That first impression of Hong Kong played an integral role in shaping Bacani’s future. She soon began travelling across the city with a camera on her days off, shooting what would become her signature intimate black and white scenes. Her impetus at the time was sharing what she saw through the lens with her mother, who despite having lived in Hong Kong for years had seen very little of it.

Photographer and artist Xyza Cruz Bacani. Photo: Supplied.
Photographer and artist Xyza Cruz Bacani. Photo: Supplied.

“My mom… chose to work on her holiday to send money to the Philippines, and she has not really experienced Hong Kong,” Bacani said. “So I thought, through my photographs, at least she can see it.”

She continued: “It’s a very interesting city, the light is beautiful… like if you look at it, it’s different shades of grey, so when you do a black and white photo it really pops out… once you capture the energy in a frame, you can almost feel it jumping out to you.”

Bacani posted her photographs to Facebook, and they were seen by a journalist in San Francisco, in the US, who sent them to The New York Times, which published them.

Bacani described what happened next as “like a rollercoaster.”

“I didn’t ask for it, but I think the universe pushed it,” she said, saying that she had been happy in Hong Kong, with her mum and Mrs Louis, their employer.

Bigger things beckoned, though, and Bacani began working as a street and documentary photographer for major international media, including National Geographic and America’s National Public Radio.

In 2017, she produced a book called We Are Like Air, celebrating migrant workers and their complex identities as women, mothers, individuals. Explaining the title, Bacani said: “Migrant workers for me are like air. They’re important, a necessity, but… they’re unseen, like air.”

A migrant worker in Hong Kong cleans the window of her employer's home. Photo: Xyza Cruz Bacani.
A migrant worker in Hong Kong cleans the window of her employer’s home. Photo: Xyza Cruz Bacani.

Her mother, and their family’s story, is integral to the book, which, Bacani said, positions “migrant workers as champions.”

“[Migrant domestic workers] are the axis that carry both sides of migration; they’re actually carrying their families, and the families they serve,” she continued.

“It’s always easy to celebrate people like me, who broke the ceiling. But often we forget that in everyday lives we have these women that are working, holding everything together holding everything together, they’re like glue… for me their champions. They’re not just victims. They’re champions.”

HKFP Yum Cha

New episodes of HKFP Yum Cha are published on Saturdays. The first season features a diverse range of voices, from artists to scientists, who share their perspective on Hong Kong as it is today through the lens of their industry.

Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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Mercedes is a British journalist who has been based in Hong Kong since 2012. At Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered a number of local environmental issues, including climate inequality and marine biodiversity, and explored how Hong Kong's arts scene reflects a changing city. She has contributed to the Guardian and BBC Travel, and previously worked at the South China Morning Post, where she wrote a weekly column about the social and environmental impact of tourism in Asia.