A lens into the hidden lives of Hong Kong domestic workers

Story highlights

Filipino domestic worker captures Hong Kong's street scenes with black and white photographs

Xyza Cruz Bacani's work was recognized by a well-known documentary photographer

Bacani recently hosted her second solo photography exhibition

Hong Kong CNN  — 

Xyza Cruz Bacani has lived in Hong Kong for nine years and still doesn’t feel like she belongs. But that changes every time she reaches for her camera.

Bacani, 27, is a migrant domestic worker or “helper” who moonlights as a photographer. She spends six days a week cooking, cleaning and babysitting for an affluent Chinese family. On her day off, Bacani wanders around the city capturing black and white scenes.

“When I’m wearing my camera I’m not a helper anymore, I’m an ordinary girl.” Bacani says.

“It’s a way of protection because when you’re a helper here, there is a kind of stereotyping that they do,” referring to Hong Kongers.

Lately, Bacani has been documenting a group of women at Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, a shelter for abused migrant workers.

“When I see the girls, I talk to them, I absorb all their emotions and I can’t really believe that some people can do that to other human beings,” Bacani says.

“We’re the same. We’re migrant workers. But I have a boss that treats me with respect and like a human being but these people — they were treated badly.”

Bacani dropped out of college in the Philippines to work as a maid when she was only 19 so her younger brother and sister could stay at school. She began shooting street scenes four years ago, after asking her boss for a loan to buy a Nikon DSLR camera.

Bacani’s outsider status helps her to capture the city differently. She often peers at her subjects through a glass window or mirror and plays with lighting to create dramatic, melancholic contrasts.

She posts new images on Facebook or her blog almost daily. That’s how she caught the attention of Filipino documentary photographer Rick Rocamora who introduced her to a community of mentors. Soon after, doors began to open – first, a profile in The New York Times’ Lens blog, then a Fuji Film sponsorship and an exhibition at the Philippines Consulate General in Hong Kong.

In December, Bacani walked into the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong where her prints were hanging in 20 x 29 inch frames against a yellow, brick wall.

It’s easy to see why Bacani gets mistaken for a tourist or just another 20-something visitor on the streets of Hong Kong. She sports a blue hoodie, braces and side-swept bangs.

It’s Bacani’s second solo exhibit in a year but the first time she had seen her images enlarged. As she approached the back wall, Bacani couldn’t quite hide the thrill of seeing her photos displayed.

She pulled out her smartphone and snapped a picture of the gallery to send to her mom and dad.

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