Justin Cheung's Documentary Shifts The Narrative On Hong Kong’s Domestic Helpers
Being the eldest son of Hong Kong film director Alfred Cheung, 23-year-old Justin Cheung’s knack for storytelling should come as no surprise, though the speed with which he threw himself into his first project—and its subject—may to some.
Just over a year ago, having graduated from the New York University Tisch School of the Arts with a major in film and a minor in political science, Justin and six fellow former film students started production on Yaya, a 30-minute documentary that explores the “intimate and complex relationship” between a Filipino domestic worker and her employers, with funds raised through crowdsourcing.
Yaya is a Philippine English noun for a woman employed by a family to look after a child or sick or elderly members.
Through asking hard questions and presenting an intimate portrayal of Justin’s own Filipina Yaya, Teresita Lauang, who has spent 34 years away from her family, the issues of the mistreatment and marginalisation of the domestic labour force are placed centre stage in an effort to spark an overdue conversation in the community.
When we met, Justin, with Teresita by his side, spoke about empathy, family, and the emotional and physical journey involved in this compelling project.
What inspired this documentary?
It started with a sense of injustice about someone I cared for very much. I remember at 10 years old having lunch at a membership club where domestic workers were not allowed to sit with us and thinking this is absurd. They are treated as second-class citizens.
Returning from the US, it was jarring to realise how abnormal it is to have [a domestic helper] live in your home. I tried to explore the issue as intimately as I could. [The film] is really about our relationship.
Did you learn anything new about Yaya in making this film?
The most fascinating part was her love story with her husband, whom she met at 17. That grounds her story. I cannot imagine how hard it is to live 30 years at home while your wife is away.
I was also surprised at how much she loved working with us. At a certain point, we started seeing each other as family—a complicated version of a family. Sometimes she is more comfortable in Hong Kong than in the Philippines.
What were the biggest challenges in making the film?
We took a special trip to her home village in Nueva Vizcaya, where I met the whole family, including grandkids she had only seen eight times. Her husband was initially against us filming there. As a documentary filmmaker, you don’t want to step over the line and invade someone’s privacy, so that took a lot of convincing.
Another was interviewing her grandchildren; it is my family taking Yaya away from her own family. There’s still this sense of guilt that hasn’t gone away yet. I don’t think there’s an easy way out emotionally; it hurts to know that they’re missing their grandmother.
Did tackling such a personal subject affect your process?
I had more responsibility because [the film] was portraying family—I felt a lot of pressure to tell the truth but in a way that didn’t hurt anyone. It was difficult to balance respecting their privacy and capturing the essence of this relationship.
What do you hope the documentary will achieve?
To have an impact on the local audience and make them more curious and empathetic. I want domestic helpers to have a voice, to feel empowered, that their job has meaning, and that they contribute to the families and society they live in. I also hope the film gets picked up for distribution. I’ve been submitting it to festivals in the US, Europe and Hong Kong.
What spurred your interest in filmmaking?
I loved making short films in high school and would burn through DVDs my dad brought home from Mainland China. I like taking the mess of the world and creating something that makes sense, which is the story. I still want to be a feature filmmaker, but for this particular story, the only way to tell it was through a documentary.
I try to tell stories, and film is my favourite medium to do that.
This was your first film after graduating. Was the process what you expected?
The documentary process is much more intimidating because you can’t plan too much. Once you press record, you’re at the mercy of what’s happening in front of you. The editing process was the most challenging yet rewarding, because structure was important yet it kept changing up until days before the final cut.
Thankfully, Yaya was with me and I could grab the camera and film her if I was missing a shot.
What would you say to aspiring filmmakers?
In school, we were too focused on making films so that what we created looked pretty but lacked substance. It’s important to have a lot of experiences outside of making films; to be a good listener, a good observer.
Yaya premieres on April 22 at the Grand Cinema, Elements, Hong Kong. Tickets are available at eventbrite.com
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