Meet Us in the Margins: Hong Kong’s Ethnic Minorities Make Space

Marginalia (notes from the peripheries) opened on a cloudy Sunday afternoon to live music and a busy kitchen at Current Plans, the art space founded by Eunice Tsang. At the opening, musicians Edward Reyes, Beda Azur, Albert Paner, and Jerwin Valeri — friends and former bandmates who performed every night at the Pussy Cat Disco in Wan Chai in the 1990s — reunited for the first time in more than a decade to activate artist Arnel S. Agawin’s multi-part, ongoing research-based project titled Rock Backs & Roll Overs: Browsing Filipino Music and Life in Hong Kong.

One part of Rock Backs & Roll Overs is a large-scale canvas hung at the centre of the room; “Altered States of Music & Exiles” depicts an enlarged 1898 photograph of Filipino revolutionists sent to exile in Hong Kong by the Spanish government. Agawin had manipulated the image by overlapping a few faces of the Hong Kong Junta with those of Filipino-Hong Kong musicians, drawing loose connections between these two distant histories through the lens of migration. As the musicians, later joined by Hong Kong Musicians Union chair Lito Castillo and his keytar, played nostalgic covers and personal originals in front of the canvas, Agawin’s work was brought to the present, where music in Hong Kong’s few live venues still play to the beat of Filipino artists.

An exhibition such as marginalia — which itself is a collaboration between more than 20 artists and collectives — requires people to breathe life into it. That Sunday was rich and abundant and so much more vibrant than we could have ever hoped for. It was a day where the long threads of our histories tightly interlaced with our lived experiences as migrants and immigrants of colour in Hong Kong. We shared generously, sang loudly, and felt unapologetically. We saw ourselves not only through the works shown but in each other. 

Scenes of eager activation permeated every corner of the exhibition. Across Agawin’s installation were more than 30 watercolour paintings by artists Reyka, Melina, Gusta, Jepy, Yuli, Nana, Arsih, Lyan and Leni of the Indonesian Migrant Domestic Workers Union (IMWU) and United Indonesians Against Overcharging (PILAR), which comprised the installation “Sundays at Victoria Park” (2024). Created across three Sundays of gathering at Victoria Park in February and March, their paintings depicted the park as they observed it through their eyes, as well as imagined landscapes and images of their hometowns. After seeing their work exhibited for the first time, the artists and their friends headed to the kitchen and filled their plates up with falafels and pita bread homecooked by chef Nana with the support of Grassroots Future, and settled comfortably on the installation of embroidered pillows, shelter (2024), by the residents of the community-driven emergency shelter for women migrant workers in crisis, Bethune House.

Food and practices that surround its cultivation and preparation was central to marginalia’s curation as not only an exhibition but a community space. Chef Nana and Grassroots Future’s vegetarian spread invited people to the kitchen, where they were surrounded by the multimedia works of self-taught Filipino migrant artist collective Guhit Kulay and the self-published zines by Gwo Bean, a self-described group of “creatives, artists, writers, gardeners, teachers and dreamers” based in Hong Kong. Friends shared food and caught up with each other; they rested underneath crochet blankets by Guhit Kulay members Cecil Eduarte and Lyn Lopez, while some took the time to read the selected collection of books and zines. Sporadically throughout the day, a soundtrack curated by artist Ani Phoebe, From the outside in and the inside out: Hong Kong music in the 1960s–70s (2024), played a mix of music that highlights invisibilised regional connections throughout these two decades in Hong Kong.

On both sides of the main exhibition space, works that draw from spiritual objects cast a protective blanket across the room, enveloping us with safety. “Silam Sakma” (2024) by textile artist Begha Nanda Kumari presents eight of the eponymous symbols glistening in vibrant colours against the windows. Associated with the Limbu people indigenous to the Himalayan region, the silam sakma is believed to stop the path of death. There are varying stories about the symbol’s origins. The story that has been passed down to Kumari’s family tells of how the silam sakma began as a way for a young boy to formally lead his deceased mother’s spirit out of the living realm and into the otherworldly. At present, when the silam sakma is seen in a space, it indicates the presence of a Limbu person there. 

Opposite to the silam sakma is a cabinet of small found objects, from glass fish to toy cars, collected by artist Katrina Leigh Mendoza Raimann. They reference the protective and comforting properties of the Filipino anting-anting or talisman. “Little pockets” (2024) encourages visitors to take their time and select one object from the cabinet to accompany them throughout their walk around the exhibition, allowing them to feel the object’s presence in their hands. For Raimann, it is often the beliefs we imbue into the object that give them their power.

Visitors contorted their bodies to fit underneath artist Xyza Cruz Bacani’s quilt, “Care/Giving” (2024). Smaller than most blankets, the quilt is made out of found fabric and cyanotype prints of Bacani’s photographs, which portray the hands of different migrant mothers clutching objects that remind them of their homes. Referencing a Filipino proverb on resilience (“Habang maliit ang kumot, matutong mamaluktot,” meaning, “When the blanket is short, learn to curl up under it”), “Care/Giving” also stands-in for the presence of a loved one who is working or living far away. 

“I created this piece during one of the most challenging periods of my life,” says the artist. “In those difficult moments, all I longed for was the comforting embrace of my mother who works as a domestic worker in Hong Kong, thousands of miles away. We are growing up in a world where separation between children and mothers is all too common and the simple act of a hug has become a rare occurrence. I find myself questioning: How much resilience can we continue to muster? What is the toll of providing care from a distance on an entire generation?”

Objects bridging the distance between the diaspora and the people they love also inform the process-based collaboration by artist Sharu Binnong Sikdar and writer Dhafney Dela Cruz Pineda, “Hand2Hand” (2024). Simulating a courier company, the artists collected items from people in Hong Kong by hand and packed them into two big balikbayan boxes, large packages that the Filipino diaspora fills up with gifts, hand-me-downs, and essentials for loved ones back home. On June 1, the artists completed the work by inviting participants to collectively open and unpack one of the boxes, an experience that is usually shared by many relatives of overseas Filipino workers. By allowing the Hong Kong public to experience this process shared by many Filipinos, Sikdar and Pineda reflect on the methods of bridging distance and processes of showing care and love from afar. 

Children’s energetic spins and jumps to the live band’s songs mirrored the celebratory movements by dancers of the Panay Overseas Workers Association (POWA), whose rendition of a festive number for the annual Ati-Atihan Festival on Panay Island, Philippines, played on a continuous loop on a black-and-white television in the video work “Ati-Atihan” (2024), directed by Fashiel Tamimi. In abstracting the choreography from markers of a specific time and place, “Ati-Atihan” positions its dancers in a liminal space of possibilities where they can both be in the Philippines or in Hong Kong, in the past or in the future – or somewhere else entirely.

Likewise, marginalia occupies this expansive space in the peripheries. With a name that refers to notes written in the margins of a text, marginalia strikes parallel between these intensely personal annotations to the centre and our voices and perspectives as migrants and immigrants. It references an exhibition staged in February 1997 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre: Being Minorities — Contemporary Asian Art, curated by Oscar Ho. In Being Minorities, Ho addressed the “minority” in two-fold: Asian art “as a minority culture within the global art world dominated by the Western world” and the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, who are subject to “cultural dislocation” with the incoming handover. It was the first exhibition to talk about the experience and position of being a minority as one that is shared. In different contexts, any one could become a minority. 

Marginalia extends that conversation of minority positioning to that of marginalisation: an active undervaluation, exclusion, isolation of a person or certain groups of people by a group that possesses more power. Not all ethnic minorities are marginalised and our experience of marginalisation differs from one another. What does it mean to be marginal? Whose margins are we speaking from? 

Four years in the making, this exhibition needed nuance. Because while it is a celebration of our practices, it is also a space for our voices – whether they be joyful laughs, guttural screams and quiet cries. It is to speak in first-person about our widely varied experiences, including but not limited to experiences of struggle, of isolation, of discrimination, of hurt, of prejudice, of pain. Filmmaker Rajat Sharma was rejected by more than 30 racist landlords and agents before finally finding a subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po he could live in. This is not an isolated experience, according to research conducted in 2018. 

Sharma’s film Never Brooklyn (2024) emerged from his time of residence in the neighbourhood, which has a large South and Southeast Asian population. A layered and succinct overview of Sham Shui Po, its history and characteristics, and how it has changed, Never Brooklyn provides a pluralistic insight in the politics of space in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, artist duo Pop and Zebra’s two-part installation made out of pre-used thermocol boxes and tape, “Outsiders” (2024), considers the relationship between these utilitarian storage units found across the streets of Hong Kong and migrants and immigrants who are often understood only through what their labour can provide. Like unneeded mahjong tiles, how often are we discarded when we are no longer deemed productive? 

Marginalia is to see abundance in what we do and where we are, but without forgetting the systems of limitations put in place that prevent us from thriving in the arts and elsewhere. We do not lack artists of diverse ethnicities in Hong Kong. The definitions of what an artist is has simply been too narrow to include us – Hong Kong people with roots from the global south, so-called “underdeveloped” and exploited regions with histories of colonisation and capitalist extraction. So, like Chandramaya Sunwar’sघरको जाँड (Jaad from Home)” (2024), we ferment in the dark. We have created abundance from limitations. We expand, continuously and fervently.

The exhibition is in many ways a mirror of Sunwar’s rice wine; we cultivated it attentively yet quietly in spaces that are familiar to us but hidden to others. But it is now time to engage other communities in this process of sharing and nurturing. Marginalia hopes to be a gathering not of small isolated communities but of larger overlapping spheres that look out and make space for each other. It hopes that people lend their time and attention to think about our shared histories and experiences as people of Hong Kong, from being a migrant to being an outsider looking in. Marginalia is a Hong Kong show by Hong Kong people. This is what Hong Kong looks like. This is what Hong Kong art can be. We have done the work to present them here. It is only a matter of the public meeting us where we are. Our doors are open.

Written by curator Nicole M Nepomuceno/Ning-Ning who organised
Marginalia (notes from the peripheries) together with exhibition manager/producer Faith Monsod. It runs until June 30, 2024, at Current Plans, which is temporarily located inside the former Spring Workshop space in Wong Chuk Hang.

On Sunday, June 9, 2024, multidisciplinary artist Angelique Santos will be facilitating a live drawing event at Chater Road as part of the exhibition. Due to the weather the event is being postponed to June 16, 2024.

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