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Art, Migration & Representation Mapping Ethnic Minority Migration and Exhibitions in Hong Kong, 1933–2020

Author's Statement 

Hong Kong is a product of human movement. It is a city built, cultivated and developed by migrants and it continues to rest on their labor. This project looks at Hong Kong art through the lens of migration. Exhibition history is presented in parallel with the history of Indian sailors, Gurkhas, African businessmen, Vietnamese refugees, Southeast Asian migrant workers and other non-Chinese Hong Kongers in the city. The result is a juxtaposition that shows the impermeability of Hong Kong art to its non-Chinese communities of color and provokes dialogue about the invisibility of ethnic minorities from the Global South in the making of Hong Kong culture. The causes of this absence lie in discourses on ethnicity, privilege, labor and mobility. Decisive factors include colonial privileges that benefited Euro-American Caucasian communities, restricted access to education, employment and community support for non-Cantonese-speakers, migration policies imposed on migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees, as well as the elitism of Hong Kong’s art world.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] These have all played a part in the invisibility of minorities in Hong Kong culture, not merely as artists, but as curators, researchers, scholars, critics and collectors. This project centralizes communities that have been written in the margins to encourage us to reflect on the barriers that have placed them there, whether those barriers exist in our institutions, through our policies or within our own collective ideologies. It is a recognition that minority art histories are Hong Kong art history and our understanding of Hong Kong art and Hong Kong would not be complete without them.

Installation view of Vivan Sundaram's A Scroll/Map and flag for Hong Kong (1997) in Being Minorities. Courtesy of the Ha Bik Chuen Archive and Asia Art Archive.

Between 1933 and 2020, there were eight non-profit local exhibitions on ethnic minorities of color: Still Lives: Art by Vietnamese Boat People in Hong Kong (1990), Being Minorities — Contemporary Asian Art (1997), C.A.R.E.: Local Vietnamese Community Art Re-encountered (2008), Afterwork (2016), A Collective Present (2017), Beyond Myself (2018), We Are Like Air (2018) and Nàng Tự Do: The Archive of “Art In the Camps” (2020). While Being Minorities was curated as a reflection on the further displacement of ethnic minorities during the Handover in 1997, the remaining seven exhibitions were either about Vietnamese refugees or foreign domestic workers.[6]

Still LivesC.A.R.E. and Nàng Tự Do were exhibitions of the same body of work created by Vietnamese refugees under the Art in the Camps program organized by Garden Streams — Hong Kong Fellowship of Christian Artists, which ran from 1988 to 1991 at Whitehead Detention Camp.[7] This enduring reemergence of the art by Vietnamese refugees at Whitehead suggests the city’s particular interest in this specific history and minority community but it could also reflect its tendency to forget them so quickly that it constantly needs their reiteration. Exhibitions about Art in the Camps are concentrated within one or two years before disappearing into invisibility until it reemerges yet again as a topic of interest in the next decade, effectively making Vietnamese refugee art history in Hong Kong circular and lacking in stable development due to its constant repetition.

"The process of women weaving artworks inside the detention camp." At Nàng Tự Do. Courtesy of The Chinese University of Hong Kong Communications and Public Relations Office.

The interest and research in foreign domestic workers, however, has a different trajectory. Exhibitions focused on domestic workers have steadily grown since the 2010s. One could identify Para Site’s major group exhibition, Afterwork, as the landmark show which increased interest in the domestic migrant community. It sought to explore “issues of class, race, labor and migration in Hong Kong, its surrounding region and beyond” by showing artists whose work has been a part of, related to or driven by migrant labor.[8] Yet, as ground-breaking as the exhibition was, it only showed one Hong Kong ethnic minority artist of color, the Filipino-born photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani, among thirty artists and art collectives exhibited. Bacani’s singularity as an artist representing her own community in an exhibition of Afterwork’s scale illustrates the scarcity of minority makers in Hong Kong and further attests to the art world’s impermeability to certain communities.

Screen capture of a video of artist Xyza Cruz Bacani giving a talk at Para Site in conjunction with the Afterwork exhibition, 2016. Courtesy of Para Site, Hong Kong.
In an interview with Bacani conducted for this project, we discussed her experience as an ethnic minority maker in Hong Kong, from her background as a migrant worker to her emergence as a professional photographer after her discovery by The New York Times in 2014 and her solo exhibition We Are Like Air.[9] While she cited socio-economic status and Cantonese proficiency as defining hurdles for minority communities to become makers in the city and shared the importance of meeting the right people in her success, we also talked about the language the media has used to talk about her accomplishments.[10] Despite being a full-time photographer for years, articles have continuously stressed Bacani’s previous employment as a domestic worker in their headlines. Bacani theorized that the emphasis on her background is partially due to the exoticizing and tokenistic allure of a “rags to riches” story, but it also reflects the writers’, and perhaps the greater public’s, need to apply repetition to convince themselves that a Southeast Asian woman and a former domestic worker, could attain success as a Hong Kong artist.[11] It is almost as if that feat is impossible as the systems in place were not built to grant someone like Bacani such an accomplishment.

The circularity and repetition of minority histories shown in exhibitions, the lack of minority makers and the bewildered response to Bacani’s success point towards a system unsure of how to include minorities into its canon. Exhibitions like Afterwork, though their motivations and effects are largely positive, exemplify how the ethnic minority is recognized as art’s subject but not its maker. We are embodied by the ceramic bottles of shampoo in Joyce Lung’s Susan (2016), the pixelated videotapes in Elvis Yip Kin Bon’s If You Miss Home (2016), the toy grenades in Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Hong Kong Intervention (2009), but we cannot be the gears that push the field forward.[12] Our representation rests on the shoulders of one in seven million artists like Bacani, with which we should be content.

I was the only Filipino-Hong Konger Art History graduate in my class and I am now the only Filipino-Hong Konger in my museum’s Curatorial Department. While one person alone could initiate ripples, she cannot make waves. Without ethnic minority presence across the sector, both as artists and as decision-makers within our institutions, Hong Kong art will remain exclusionary regardless of how many exhibitions about us are shown. It will stay impermeable not only to ethnic minorities of color but to most at the socio-economic margins who cannot attain the field’s prerequisites of higher education and a network of influential people. This project is a reminder that we are all migrants to this city and we should all have a voice in its culture and history, regardless of where we come from and where we go next.

About the author 

Nicole Martin Nepomuceno

Born in the Philippines, Nicole graduated with a Bachelor of Art History from The University of Hong Kong (HKU) in 2020. Her undergraduate research focused on pre-modern European art, but she is at present most interested in researching themes related to Hong Kong art, Southeast Asian art and migration. She is currently the Curatorial Intern of Visual Arts at M+, Hong Kong’s museum of visual culture, where she is leading their ethnic minority research project.