Amplifying the city’s neglected voices, photojournalism project Hong Kong Shifts seeks to expose the vulnerability, resilience, and humanity of the shift workers that make their city tick.
How many times have you walked past a security guard, a construction worker, or a car park attendant? Lost in a vast population of over seven million, these individuals, so often forgotten amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life, keep the city humming smoothly, their efforts left unacknowledged. “I realised that I was saying hello to the security guard in my building every day, but I actually didn’t know anything about her life,” Maxime Vanhollebeke, co-founder of Hong Kong Shifts, shares. “Mei Fung sits there for 12 hours in her little booth and most people just pass her by or completely ignore her. Surely, these people deserve to be put in the spotlight because they contribute to our wellbeing, but we just don’t take the time to see them and connect with them.” Partnering with co-founder Cynthia Cheng, the duo launched a photojournalism project called Hong Kong Shifts in July 2019, featuring a different shift worker every week on Facebook and Instagram, whether that’s a caretaker, a cobbler, a mechanic, a postman or a street cleaner. Together, they seek to connect with a wider, often unacknowledged, part of Hong Kong’s community. Hive Life sat down with them to chat through their driving vision – to “build connections and bridges between the different strata of society,” as Cynthia explains – and how they’re planning to achieve it.
Both lawyers by trade with nearly two decades of legal experience between them, Maxime and Cynthia met at the same international law firm. What started off as a photography and writing side project has since evolved to become a more meaningful social impact initiative to raise awareness and spark discussion around issues of social inclusion and diversity. “I grew up here,” Cynthia shares, opening up about her personal perspective. “And, I’m only just realising there are so many areas, so many neighbourhoods and communities I’ve never even heard of because it’s so easy for us to just live in this little bubble.”
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Starting close to home, she began to reach out to a broader community together with Maxime, speaking to people irrespective of their genders, ages, or social, cultural, ethnic or religious backgrounds. “There’s an egg vendor in Happy Valley where I grew up. I’ve always known this guy in the neighbourhood. He just walks around singing really loudly when he’s doing deliveries,” Cynthia explains of one interviewee, Hung (雄, ‘hero’). “We approached him and, at first, he was quite reluctant. ‘Why interview me? Interview someone else.’ But, once we started talking to him, he had so many stories to share. He has such a lively personality – just a very colourful and happy guy. He’s someone I’ve known or seen around for over 20 years. As it turns out, when we shared the story, a lot of people in Happy Valley also felt the same way. They knew a piece of this guy, just from being around the neighbourhood, but they didn’t know all the things he was sharing with us.”
Engaging their subjects on a deeper level, each story in Hong Kong Shifts captures a moment in time. Yet, Hong Kong remains a city in perpetual flux – one where the status quo is transient and liable to shift with little notice, not least in recent turbulent months. Recalling an interview with Han (嫻, ‘elegance’), a lady who worked 12-hour shifts as a car park booth attendant in Sai Wan and had been in the industry for the last two decades, Maxime relates, “I passed by again two or three weeks ago and she was gone. It’s now a ticketing machine. You could still see a trace of the booth she used to be in.” Her feature on Hong Kong Shifts, now a reminder of times past, records quite simply, “I am 70 years old and plan to work here until I retire.”
Although the stories borne out of these genuine connections might resonate with people across Asia’s world city, both Maxime and Cynthia feel a need to do more to give back. Maxime explains, “These people give us their stories, their time. What do we give them in return? Yes, we get back in touch with a nice photo and we invite them to our events, but still, the circle is not yet complete. We are still trying to figure out how we can give back in a very practical way to these people, and all the people they represent.”
Now seven months on from Hong Kong Shift’s inception, Maxime and Cynthia are looking to step up their project with a bilingual exhibition scheduled next month in partnership with ImpactHK and the Centre for Refugees. With plans to showcase their stories in public spaces, schools, and selected venues, they hope to spark a much-needed, wider discussion, raising visibility about Hong Kong’s often understated social diversity and inequality. Above all, these stories are about recording the humanity, individuality and essence of people many barely acknowledge as they go about their daily lives. That’s not always an easy or comfortable thing to do – but it’s important. As Maxime puts it, “Some of these stories are quite heavy. Many of these people don’t have easy lives. But, at the same time, we want this to be a positive project. Our project is about highlighting the energy, strength and resilience of individuals who have shared with us their touching and humbling stories.”
Hong Kong Shifts Opening Exhibition
Date: 5 March 2020
Location: 29/F Wyndham Place, 40-44 Wyndham Street, Central