“Monday Without a Wheelchair”: A Look at Home Away from Home for Taiwan’s Migrant Workers

by Brian Hioe

Photo courtesy of Minsik Jung

New Bloom/No Man is an Island’s Brian Hioe spoke to South Korean writer and photographer Minsik Jung about the art project “Monday Without a Wheelchair”, detailing the lived experiences of Filipino migrant workers in Taiwan.

Brian Hioe:  Could you introduce yourself for those that don’t know you?

Minsik Jung:  My name is Minsik Jung. I’m a writer and photographer from South Korea, interested in social issues, migrant workers’ rights and climate change.

BH:  So where did the idea for “Monday Without a Wheelchair” come from?

MJ:  Growing up in Korea, it wasn’t until my early twenties that I had my first chance to go abroad. So I was very much a homeboy. Then over the last decade I started traveling overseas – which then led me to moving to Taiwan – Since then I have been struggling a little bit, understanding where my home is.

The video of Monday Without a Wheelchair

So it was with the idea of seeking what it means to be a diaspora and questioning the concept of home that I started making this project.

And then I started seeing these other diaspora communities in Taiwan – Indonesian migrant workers and Filipino migrant workers. Particularly it was the caretakers that stood out to me. You can see them in the streets pushing the Taiwanese elderly along in their wheelchairs. I wanted to cover their stories.

BH:  Could you talk a bit about the project and how it came together in terms of the process?

MJ:  I was given a grant to work on an art project by Innovation for Change (I4C), where I created a poem and a complementary short film. Originally, I planned to interview some Indonesian migrant workers because I knew Indonesian migrant workers are the largest population of migrant workers in Taiwan. However, due to the language barrier, it was very difficult to communicate and conduct interviews, person to person.

So instead, this led me to seek out the Filipino community here.

Minsik (right) and Che (left). Photo courtesy of Minsik Jung

There is an area in Taipei, in Zhongshan district called, Little Manila, where Filipino migrant workers gather on Sunday. So I spent maybe more than ten Sundays visiting the area, speaking to the community there, figuring out what stories I could focus on. I was lucky enough to meet a Filipino lady selling Filipino cosmetics on the street, Che, who gave up a lot of her time to tell her story, she then became my main inspiration for the project and I wrote a poem and made a short dance film with her.

Through this poetry and short film project I got to know an organization called Taiwan International Workers’ Association (TIWA), the first NGO in Taiwan dedicated to serving migrant workers. They campaign for their labor rights and help empower migrant workers in Taiwan. And then I also found out TIWA used to have a tour program around Little Manila. Where Filipino migrant workers would give a tour of the area to local students. Showing them around Little Manila, sharing where they find home away from home –how they find their joy in this area amongst these messy struggles and hardship they face as migrant workers.

Workshop for map-making. Photo courtesy of Minsik Jung

I joined the tour. It was the first tour since the pandemic happened. I was really impressed. And then I realized they had nothing, but a piece of paper. It was just like a note.

I thought, “Oh, if they had a map, a proper map, that would be nice. So students can take it, and then they can exhibit it, or they can show other people.”

A person from TIWA then told me, they used to have a map, but it was like 10 years ago. No one knows where it is. Also, the map would need to be updated because there are so many things on there that aren’t anymore.

I suggested, oh why don’t we make a new map now? So I made a map with the Filipino migrant workers. It was a project that took around three months. We did a couple of workshops, drawing maps and taking pictures, writing, and all that.

Photo courtesy of Minsik Jung

The first part of the project was mostly about me telling their story, writing a poem and making the short film, it was my creative vision. But the second part was more like, “I put these people right in the center and let them tell their stories.” To me, that is very meaningful.

The map they drew is something you cannot really see on Google Maps. It’s their lived experience.

BH: Can you tell me about the poem and dance?

MJ: “Monday without a Wheelchair” was poetic to me. The poem was inspired by Che, who I first met on a Monday after her last patient passed away, since she was a caretaker. For migrant caregivers, once their patient has passed away, they have to find another job within a few months. They have to find their next job, otherwise they have to leave Taiwan.

Photo courtesy of Minsik Jung

That’s the situation she was in. And she couldn’t find any job at that moment, so she just was selling cosmetics in the streets. She was really open about her story.

It was on Monday that we first met, a day she would usually be working on, so she didn’t know what to do on Monday when she had nothing to do, no patient to look after.

There was a poetic aspect to that – What do you do when you have no wheelchair to push on Monday. In fact, she had the suitcase of cosmetics to wheel around instead.

I translated my poem in Tagalog, and I shared that with Che. I asked her to record the poem in her own voice, which then became part of the film.

Photo courtesy of Minsik Jung

BH:  Who was the dancer you collaborated with?

MJ:  My collaborator, was a Taiwanese dancer and actress named Stella. I actually met her on the street as well. She was doing a street performance, wearing pajamas, and had a big board on her front and back saying some ironic thing how expensive Taiwanese housing is. She was doing a lone protest in Zhongshan district to raise awareness of the issue.

I was curious, so I just asked her, “Hey, what are you doing? I don’t know how to read Chinese, can you tell me what you’re doing?” That’s how I met her. And then I found out she’s a dancer and actor who is also interested in creating art around social issues. So, I ended up inviting her to join the project. She was also very interested in migrant worker’s rights. She was kind of in the same mood, in the same process, and up for collaborating on something.

I met lots of Filipino people through this project, so I shared the results as much as possible. And then every time I showed them they’d realize that this suitcase is their life. It’s something they had not thought about themselves.

When we were creating the map together – they would draw each place and then they would discuss and share why that place was important to them, why it was an important landmark in Little Manila and to the Filipino community here. And then they think, okay, this place, when do I go to this place? And what do we do at this place? What does this place mean in my life in Taiwan? But before, I guess they didn’t really question what these locations meant to them, they would just go to them and enjoy their time with their friends there on their precious one day off. I think the process of making the map together made them think about what home is, what Little Manila is.

Photo courtesy of Minsik Jung

For the pictures on the map, I asked them to take them. Of course, as a photographer, I could probably have taken better pictures – better quality, better angle, better composition, whatever. But I wanted them to tell their stories and be in control of how it’s told, so I just gave them my camera. I gave them a quick introduction on how to operate the camera. They hesitated in the beginning, but as we went through the process, I would say “Oh, feel free, feel free, you can break it. Just use it however you want. And frame it as you want it.” They then became more confident and I could see they were enjoying it.

Photo courtesy of Minsik Jung

Once they started enjoying it, it showed me that maybe this process was helping them. Helping them take control to create something and tell their stories, share their voice.

Once we had a physical product of the map, they seemed very proud of themselves. This is how we have created something. This is how we found our home away from home. They wanted to send it to their family back in the Philippines, and they wanted to share it with their friends.

That was really touching to see how people reacted to this project. After the project, TIWA decided to continue their Little Manila tour with the map, so I used some of my grant to print a lot of them and gave them to them to use for the tour.

The cultural map of Taipei’s Little Manila. Photo courtesy of Minsik Jung

BH:  It seems like there’s a kind of advocacy part to it too, right? Because the work brings up how workers can only stay in Taiwan for fourteen years.

MJ:  Definitely. I hope more people can become aware of this issue. That migrant workers exist, and if you want to know more about them, they’re really open to share.

BH: Thank you so much.