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“The Filipino Rockettes” is one of the images featured in Gretchen So’s “Hidden Narratives” exhibition, in which the photographer shows a different side to the lives of Hong Kong’s domestic workers, captured on their weekly day off. Photo: Gretchen So

‘A loving spirit and energy’: domestic helpers in Hong Kong photographed on their day off dressed up, letting their hair down, and catching up with friends

  • Photographer Gretchen So wanted to tell a different story about the city’s foreign domestic helpers to common narratives about discrimination and loneliness
  • Her ‘Hidden Narratives’ exhibition shows them making the most of their down time by dressing up in costumes, learning and teaching new skills, and sharing food

At the Lumenvisum arts space in Shek Kip Mei, Hong Kong, Gretchen So busily adds the final touches to photos that adorn the walls.

“Hidden Narratives: Portraits of Resilience in Hong Kong’s Migrant Domestic Helper Community”, So’s latest exhibition, is bold and colourful, each image full of life. That was the aim.

So was aware of the challenges faced by the city’s estimated 340,000 domestic helpers, most of whom hail from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Thousands of miles away from their homes, some have left their own children to look after other peoples’. They also clean and care for the elderly.
Hong Kong photographer Gretchen So at her solo show “Hidden Narratives” at Lumenvisum, in the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, in Hong Kong’s Shek Kip Mei neighbourhood. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Low wages, cramped accommodation and discrimination are often exposed in the media.

But So wanted to show a different side.

“Soul Food” is among the images in So’s exhibition, showing a domestic worker in religious dress laying out food. Photo: Gretchen So

“The media is focused on the struggles domestic helpers face but I wanted to capture this wonderful community during their fun, leisure times,” she says.

One of So’s favourite shots is The Filipino Rockettes, taken in 2020 at the Zoological and Botanical Gardens in Hong Kong’s Central neighbourhood.

“On this beautiful Sunday afternoon, a group of Filipino domestic helpers had rented costumes and booked professional photographers,” she says.

“Quadruple Delight” features aspiring make-up artist Wyna (right) from Indonesia. Photo: Gretchen So

Sunday is the only day off for most helpers, who gather in public spaces around the city to connect with friends, eat, dance or learn a new skill.

“Migrant domestic helpers view photography as an almost theatrical and performative art, always infused with a playful and festive attitude and the models in this photo radiate a loving spirit and energy,” she says.

Some photos, such as one of Rike Tata Rias, who runs her own beauty school, or the image of a woman selling goods from a suitcase and those showing fitness instructors hosting classes, capture the entrepreneurial spirit of the women.

“Beauty Queen” shows Rike Tata Rias, a domestic helper who runs her own beauty school. Photo: Gretchen So

Kindness and sacrifice are also on show.


In the image Birthday Feast, taken in 2021, Kathy from the Philippines, who arrived in Hong Kong 18 years ago, leaving behind her then four-year-old son, is seen in her tiny boarding house space, where she has prepared a celebration meal for friends.

“I’ve been taking pictures of the streets for 30 years and I’m not used to taking pictures of people,” So says.

“Birthday Feast” shows Filipino domestic helper Kathy with food she’s prepared for a gathering. Photo: Gretchen So

“I’m quite shy and sometimes people turn away or yell if I try to photograph them, but I think the reason I was able to pull this off is because Indonesians and Filipinos are very friendly.”

“Hidden Narratives – Portraits of Resilience in Hong Kong’s Migrant Domestic Helper Community” is showing at Lumenvisum, L2-02, Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, 30 Pak Tin Street, Shek Kip Mei, until September 24. For more information, visit