Art and culture

Vocal minority: The domestic helpers who performed at Clockenflap

How one filmmaker found hidden talent and secret sorrows in Hong Kong’s walkways and parks. By PAUL KAY

It’s a sight that will be familiar to anyone who has ever crossed Central or Causeway Bay’s Victoria Park on a Sunday afternoon: thousands of Southeast Asian women gathered in groups to sit, eat, talk and dance.

For first-time visitors it can be a perplexing spectacle – and so it was for Joanna Bowers, a British filmmaker who worked in LA for several years before relocating to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong people, filmmaker. Joanna Bowers, domestic helper

‘I knew that these women weren’t homeless, even though they were sitting on cardboard boxes, and it wasn’t a protest. But I just couldn’t figure out why there were so many people that couldn’t integrate and spend their Sunday like the rest of Hong Kong,’ she recalls.

These women had left their homes and families to work as domestic helpers, in many cases to carve out a better life for their children back in Indonesia or the Philippines. And so, the idea for The Helper – a documentary chronicling the stories and sacrifices of domestic workers in Hong Kong – was born.

After raising US$86,000 (HK$675,000) to finance the film on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, Bowers started to research the issues faced by Hong Kong’s 340,000-strong domestic helper community, and a handful of stories began to stand out.

A video of a performance by domestic helpers choir Unsung Heroes convinced Bowers that they had to be part of the film; while Liza Avelino, a domestic helper who had saved up two years’ salary to fund a three-week trek in the Himalayas, and Nurul, a new mother wrongly accused of theft and facing deportation with her young daughter, rounded out her cast.

Hong Kong writer and director, Joanna Bowers, The Helper documentary

The film finale? The Unsung Heroes’ performance to an audience of several thousand at Clockenflap, Hong Kong’s biggest music festival, in 2015. The choir were also invited to perform at this year’s Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens.

Two years on from its conception, The Helper premiered at The Asia Society Hong Kong in May 2017. From an initial run of five showings, interest in the film snowballed, resulting in more than 30 sold-out screenings in Hong Kong.

As word spread, requests for private showings began to roll in, leading to the launch of a corporate screening programme and another for schools in Hong Kong, as well as interest from distributors around the world. This in turn led to life-changing events for the film’s stars. Private kindergarten group Woodland Pre-Schools offered Nurul’s daughter a scholarship, ultimately adding eight further scholarships for the children of asylum seekers. Avelino has become an in-demand public speaker, including hosting a local TED Talk. And the film’s soundtrack was released on Sony Music’s The Orchard label on 18 December – International Migrants Day – bringing the songs of Unsung Heroes to music streaming platforms around the world.

Bowers adds: ‘Every day, I get messages from people saying how much of an impact the film has had on them, how they just didn’t know what these people’s lives were like, and how it’s changed the way they look at the women next to them on the bus or on the MTR in really lovely ways.’

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