Cover Still from Stefanos Tai's debut film, 'We Don't Dance for Nothing'

First-time director Stefanos Tai discusses his feature ‘We Don’t Dance for Nothing’: premiering in Hong Kong on June 5, it underscores the hopes and dreams of one of the city’s most marginalised communities

When Stefanos Tai first saw domestic workers dancing in Central on Sundays in 2017, he was immediately captivated.

“Where I’m from, we don’t have this sort of phenomenon,” the filmmaker, who moved from his native New York City to Hong Kong five years ago, tells Tatler. “I thought it was incredibly special to see the city transform every Sunday.”

It didn’t take long for friendships to be formed. “They offered me food,” he says. “I joined their dancing—poorly—and we laughed constantly.” 

It became clear to Tai that the workers’ dancing wasn’t just an expression of joy. Through their twirls, Tai also saw “regret and longing”—dance was a way to escape their troubles.

“These women so publicly grappled with their emotions—literally and physically, through dancing out in the open,” he says. “It was an inspiration that anybody could relate to, and I knew I needed to capture it on film in the most gorgeous way I could.”

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Tai, who has been working as a filmmaker since 2009, then began planting the seeds for We Don’t Dance for Nothing.

Described by Tai as a “photo-montage love letter to the Filipina domestic workers of Hong Kong”, the film follows the story of a young domestic helper, H, portrayed by Miles Sible, who longs for freedom and independence. 

We Don’t Dance for Nothing, which took four years to produce, marries still images shot in 16mm film with scenes of high-octane dance numbers—a combination that Tai says is “the first of its kind in the world” in filmmaking. 

The goal, he adds, is to create something different and risky. “Rather than create a film that ‘talks’ about how the OFWs [overseas Filipino workers] might feel, we wanted to pull the viewer into the material, and create this visceral feeling of being ‘trapped’—which was so often described by our subjects,” he says.

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Authenticity and Representation

Tai had wanted to hire domestic workers to play the film’s lead roles—a move that’s in direct contrast to Hong Kong television network TVB’s decision to cast Canadian Chinese actress Franchesca Wong to portray a Filipino domestic worker in the 2022 Cantonese-language drama Barrack O’Karma 1968. Wong’s portrayal, which involved her wearing “brownface”, sparked intense backlash.

It is, however, illegal for domestic workers in Hong Kong to work outside of their employment contracts.

Along with the movie’s producer Rae Hu and casting director Kate Sullivan, Tai then turned to the pool of Filipino talents in Hong Kong—a group that is often overlooked and underrepresented in mainstream media in the city.

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“There was no option other than casting Filipino performers,” Tai says. “We were telling a nuanced story, and the demands of the roles were much deeper than ‘skin colour’ or ‘accent’.”

The actors were free to improvise and change lines. Sometimes, they changed entire scenes. “I was blown away by the level of talent in these folks, whom the industry might call ‘amateur,’” says Tai. 

“They had something to prove to Hong Kong,” he adds. “They were tired of the OFW stereotypes and the assumptions made about them, simply based on their nationality.”

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Spotlighting a Marginalised Community

As of 2021, there are about 340,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, according to the Immigration Department.

The conditions faced by domestic workers in Hong Kong have been scrutinised by human rights groups and are sometimes likened to modern slavery. The minimum wage of Hong Kong domestic workers is HK$4,630 (approximately US$590) per month. They are excluded from the city’s policy that allows foreign nationals to become permanent residents after seven years of residency.

Full-time domestic workers must live with their employers—a system that leaves the former vulnerable to abuse. In 2020, the non-governmental organisation Mission for Migrant Workers reported that seven out of ten domestic workers experience ill-treatment, which includes physical abuse and sexual harassment.

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“It was an inspiration that anybody could relate to, and I knew I needed to capture it on film in the most gorgeous way I could”
Stefanos Tai

In We Don’t Dance for Nothing, Tai wanted to focus on providing fair portrayals.

“We didn’t shy away from showing the ugliness of H’s experience in her employer’s home—but also didn’t want to paint all the working mothers of Hong Kong as evil,” he says. “The truth is always nuanced, and we tried our best to reflect both H’s pain at being forced to live with her boss, but also the beauty in H’s love [for] her employer’s children.”

Many of the film’s scenes were directly lifted from stories Tai had heard from domestic workers.

Beneath the portrayal of the workers’ struggles, Tai also wants to shine a light on their hopes and dreams. He recalls conversations with friends who are domestic workers, where they had readily shared their dreams. “The culture had deemed their dreams irrelevant, and told them to remain quiet and continue bringing others’ dreams to fruition.” 

The erasure is a “massive cruelty”, says Tai.

“These women became my heroes and friends, and I hope people can gaze upon them as they see themselves: human,” he says. “It sounds so simple, but it’s profound—and this is the most I can hope for as a filmmaker.”

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‘We Don’t Dance for Nothing’ premieres in Hong Kong on June 5 via Asia Society Hong Kong

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