Xyza (pronounced „Seisa“) Cruz Bacani doesn’t have much time. She snaps whenever she leaves the house to run errands. The 27 year old’s professional occupation is ‚domestic helper’ as it is known here in official jargon – which, in Xyza’s case, is an utter understatement. She gets up at 5.30 am, makes breakfast for her employer (toast or congee). She then cleans the kitchen and tidies up the apartment while her mother cooks lunch. Cooking is one of the few things Xyza can’t do. Other than that, she does almost everything. The afternoons are particularly busy as she minds the six grandchildren of her employer – two till 14 years old, half a kindergarten. She plays ball with them, puts puzzles together, reads books. She even teaches the oldest boy computer games. „I’m like an older sister to him,“ she says one Friday evening, in a coffee shop in Central. True, from the outside she could pass for 17 too. She wears a brace and street wear. The lower half of her thick plait sports an outgrown henna dye.
Six days a week she grafts, often until 9.00 pm. Once a week, usually on Sundays, she has her day off. She earns the minimum salary for domestic helpers, 450 Euros per month, plus board and lodging. Yet cleaning toilets will soon be a thing of the past: in May Xyza will start the life she has always dreamt of, as a professional documentary photographer. She will be studying for six weeks at Tisch school of the Arts, New Yorks’s prestigious art school, closely coached by Magnum veteran Susan Meiselas.
Her accomplishments as a self taught domestic helper sound like a modern, urban fairy tale, save that its protagonist announces” I’m not a princess, I’m a rockstar” on her sweatshirt – paired with black jeans and chunky Doc Martens boots. Her outfit is evidence of a healthy portion of self-confidence. And she needs it, because Hongkongers tend to treat their Filipino, Indonesion or Sri Lankan helpers like people from a lower caste. Wealth means status. And if you don’t own anything and your work comes so cheap – they look down on you.
Xyza can get really agitated about this arrogant behaviour. She has been in the city for almost a decade now, yet she still does not feel quite at home. “Domestic helper” is often used as an insult, she says. A stale thanks for her and all her peers’ efforts to keep Hong Kong families running. With her brash pose, she strongly reminds us of the singer of a girl’s band. Openly she admits that she would rather spend her time outside on the streets instead of answering these questions. Her only intention to do so is to make her family happy. And they always react in such an excited way whenever she appears in the news. Funny enough, she is really good at talking about herself. The same goes for her blog and various social media channels where she chronicles with a wonderful liveliness whatever happens in her life. She gets her phone to show a picture of herself and her family – Xyza in the centre, framed by brother and sister, and again, she looks like the natural leader – being half a head taller than her sister and the same height as her younger brother. She always wanted to be an artist, she admits, even as a teenager, though she didn’t know in which field. Brushes and paints were unaffordable for her family. Thus she started observing everything around her, collecting images in her head. And she read a lot of fantasy stories with which she managed to dream away her reality. One of her most treasured possessions is the first edition of Tolkien’s “Hobbit” which she discovered and bought from a shoe cleaner for the equivalent of 3 Euros. In such moments she loves her adopted city.
She grew up in one of the poorest provinces of the Philippines, Nueva ViZcaya, which doesn’t even have an airport. If she wants to go home, she has to take the bus from Manila and go 9 hours up north. Her dad, her younger brother and the family of her younger sister still live there, on a farm that actually consists of two huts. When Xyza was seven years old, her mum left for Hong Kong like many other women of her generation in order to earn a living for the family back home. Since that day it was on Xyza to look after her then five-year-old brother and three-year-old sister – as their father was out on the fields all day. “That was really tough for me, all day alone with the little ones,” she sighs. “I think I don’t need my own kids later on. I had my share…”
But her parents didn’t have a choice. And she never doubted their decision. “My mom is the real super woman of our family,” she says about her. Although the mother had only a few years of school education, she speaks Cantonese fluently – self-taught! And only thanks to her mum’s monthly allowances could Xyza and her siblings attend high school. Afterwards the family council decided for Xyza to train at a nursing school. However Xyza hated the lections and memorizing body parts. Since they didn’t know what else she could do, her mum’s employer decided to bring her to Hong Kong as well, where it was on her now to make money for the education of her siblings. Xyza was fine with this plan, especially since it meant a reunion with her beloved mother whom she had missed dearly. She always saw herself more as a city girl than a farm cat anyway.
As another pro, she even got her own room that she has meanwhile transformed into a photo lab. “It’s a bit chaotic”, she admits, “like in a djungle.”
Nowadays, her mum keeps the elderly employer company while Xyza does the hard household chores. But Xyza would never criticize this division of work. Her boss wants it that way – fine! She always calls her “my boss” and you can’t get any bad word about this boss out of Xyza’s mouth. Xyza even protects her privacy. Only this much can be given away: “The boss” has worked half of her life in Australia where she made a lot of money. She is also very smart, says Xyza.
In fact, she was the first who saw the artist in her young housekeeper.
Xyza had dreamt of a professional camera for quite a while – without ever having the money. But after five years of duly carrying on her tasks, the boss gave her money for her first Nikon D 90. She had to pay back a little amount every month. And the camera has truly changed her life. Before she regarded her weeks as fairly meaningless series of activities: work, lunch, work, dinner, TV, bedtime – and on her days off she would go shopping.
Since she has received her ‘babe’, she really wants to make the most of each day, of every second. Whenever her boss sends her out, she feels happy because she can bring her camera along. It’s also a great protection against the hostile prejudices. “When I have the camera with me, people look at me with different eyes. I’m not the little domestic helper anymore.” Also, she doesn’t squander her money anymore but saves it for photo-films and better objectives. What other people study for many years – that happened to her over night. She became a photographer. “Probably meant to be”, she says, without any pathos.
In the early day, she shot mainly for her mum who chooses to stay in on most days in order to save every cent for her loved ones at home. Xyza’s idea was to show her mum Hong Kong through her pictures. The first ones were simple yet pretty architecture shots. She posted some on Facebook and soon she had her first fan club. From there she thought about little series for each of her Sundays. For example she documented a little outing to the working class area of Yau Ma Tei, where old barber shops still can be found. She is always full of excitement when she leaves the house. “It’s a bit like getting out of prison when I can go shooting for hours independently.”
Unfortunately she strongly objects my idea to follow her – even only for half an hour: “That’s probably the artist in me, but I prefer doing my job on my own. Sorry!” Photography is a kind of meditation for her, always with her headphones on. Does she like Hong Kong now? Yes and no. “It’s modern and has some good corners with a lot of street credibility. But the overall atmosphere is hard and not exactly kind. “It’s a city with many shades of grey,” she explains vividly. That’s why her photos sport so many white and black hues. Again and again she juxtaposes single humans with extra large buildings. Bacani’s Hong Kong is a city in which everyone fights for himself. Where even kids forget to smile because they do have to pass assessment centres before they can enter a kindergarten.
One thing is clear: Bacani’s images can be recognized immediately. They all have a certain melancholy. And with her masterpiece, a series on abused domestic helpers in Hong Kong, she even won Magnum over. It’s a long-term documentary about the women’s shelter Bethune, actually an apartment of 90 square meters in an anonymous residential building in the city’s Jordan district. 24 women are currently living there in 20 beds because they need a roof. Some of them were misused or abused, beaten, scalded with hot water or in other ways exploited. Almost all were treated like slaves. Xyza’s pictures want to draw attention to their forgotten cases. The women still wait to be proven right and get some compensation for their plights and sufferings. But that process takes time. The exploiters typically try to postpone their court case by all means. After a while the typical domestic helper would give up because she can’t afford to live without an income in the expensive city anymore.
Unlike her other pictures, Xyza needed a lot of time for this kind of photography. Time to win the trust of the maltreated ladies and time to accompany them: to the doctor, the lawyer, to court. The idea was inspired by Rich Rocamora, a seasoned Filipino photographer from San Francisco who had seen some of her pictures on the internet. Rick plays the role of the fairy godmother in Xyza’s tale. He became her mentor, organised her first exhibitions in the Philippines – and never got tired of beating the publicity drum for her. Thanks to him, she had her first exhibition at the Filipino consulate in Hong Kong. And one day even the New York Times got interested and published a story on the street photography of the young helper in Hong Kong.
“This article has profoundly changed my life,” says Xyza. She got mail from a guy called Jonathan van Smit, “the king of Hong Kong’s street photography”. In his mid-sixties, he is meanwhile one of her best friends. So impressed was Smit by the works of his young colleague that he gave her his old Leica after their first date!
Furthermore, Sim Chi Yin came forward, an acclaimed documentary photographer from Beijing who herself had won the Magnum Scholarship of Human Rights in 2010 and invited Xyza to apply for the same course. Xyza had tons of photos from the women’s shelter – however she didn’t know which ones she should send in. So she printed all images out as post cards and asked her models to select their favourites. This afternoon was probably the best with “her” Bethune friends: “It was simply wonderful to see how proud they were of themselves – and of me. We laughed all day long.”
“Xyza has an unusually great eye” was written in the official eulogy, read to her via Skype in early January when she had finally won, “even her snap shots have magical qualities.” Ok, she is proud of that hymn. But the most important for her is the fact that she can leave Hong Kong. She will dive deep into the visual culture of New York. She will work with professionals and she will fully concentrate on her discipline.
According to Hong Kong laws, she can’t work here as photographer because she has only a helper visa. It’s ridiculous! Only recently her pictures were auctioned, one for 1700 Euro, “my monthly salary times four!” Xyza however didn’t see a penny. All went to a charity that helps domestic helpers in distress. “Haha, I’m actually a helper in need as well,” she jokes for her boss has just fired her – in her own interest, two months before her move to New York because she believes that Xyza could make much more money with her pictures than in her penthouse.
Xyza knows that her boss is right, as usual. She has even lined up an assignment for a magazine in Dubai. And yet, to take the metaphor further: She is currently Cinderella on her way to the ball. Her happy end is not far – but going makes her a bit queasy.
PS: While putting on her coat, she gets the camera out of her bag and places it carefully in front of her tummy. A few steps further, outside of the café, she spots a few girls in a building entrance, smoking; pretty girls, dressed up for a Friday night. She hasn’t said good-bye yet, when she presses the shutter button again. Just like that, from the hip. The picture is, well, pretty perfect and fit to print in any glossy magazine worldwide.