A conversation in three parts with Professor Petula Sik Ying Ho, Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong. Next to being an educator, Ho is an author, researcher and videographer specialised in gender and sexuality qualitative research and cross-cultural comparative studies. The interview was broadly based on Ho’s lecture for TC participants titled “Alternative Knowledge Processes for Transcultural Collaboration”.
Petula Sik Ying Ho, thank you so much for having me here in your office at HKU. I would like to base our conversation on three major projects that you introduced during your inspiring lecture for our programme. The first one will be the Second Spring project in the course of which you delved into the intimate lives, fantasies and desires of middle-aged Hong Kong housewives. How did you approach the research? Qualitative research is first and foremost about in-depth, ethnographic interviews. I’ve always used recorded interviews as a main research tool but at some point, I felt that video taping would broaden the work. Therefore, I hired a creative media student as research assistant. I’ve always been inspired by the feminist idea of subverting the relationship between the researcher and the researched. In a similar sense, I aim to treat research assistants as collaborators. Our kick-off video project was called 22 Springs and told the stories of 22 women—each shot in an experimental, short film format. Many viewers were amazed at how much these women told me during our first encounter, at how I won their trust to tell me very intimate things. This reaffirmed me about the new method even though I might technically not be savvy enough as a videographer. As a researcher, my expertise is engaging people, helping them articulate themselves and make meaning of their own experience. And that was what this project was all about. Ever since, I video taped my interviews. That is how filming became a crucial part of my research process. Also, I noticed how the presence of the camera makes people talk. In a sense, the camera turns their stories into history—they are being documented, taken seriously, and there’ll be other people knowing about them. That has, in my view, encouraged many to articulate things that they wouldn’t have been willing to talk about otherwise. People find it paradoxical, but the camera is enhancing and creating the intensity for people to share their thoughts and emotions knowing that not just you are listening, but that the camera is watching. On another level, I have always worked with young video artists in an effort to establish an intergenerational collaboration. I make use of their technical skills, they make use of my research experience and from there we produce something quite unique even though it may not be the most refined film making.
When you say that you help people make sense or meaning out of their experience, what do you mean by that? I found that it’s not about asking questions but about engaging them in a conversation. That’s why I call it dialogic filming. Moreover, they know that I am very interested in their lives. That’s the whole point. If they know that there is an attention, that they are listened to, they open up. And if they tell me about hardships and see that I acknowledge them, they become even more expressive. Why? Because here is someone who understands their point and their difficulties. Someone who gets why they were angry or disappointed in their marriage, their sex life or their relationship with their children. I am sympathetic to them and they feel heard. The validation of people suffering is crucial. If people keep denying your suffering, trivialise your problem and give you the impression that your story is not worth listening to, you’ll feel worthless. But if you feel that your experience is being seen as important and useful for others to hear, not just for other women but for students and researchers who are interested in Hong Kong livelihood and history, then you will think that your life is more worthwhile to hear about. You know, they always begin by saying that their life is worthless and boring. But once reassured that their stories are interesting and unique, they start talking. This behaviour is based on a specific feminine logic.
What do you mean by that? Women have another way of understanding their own investment. It’s not about money. Sometimes it’s not even about romantic love. It’s about trust, about expressing my care to the world, about feeling good by demonstrating my capacity for love. This is a very feminine thing. And a feminine thing is sometimes considered unwise or stupid, because it’s not instrumental in the conventional sense. But we have our instrumental purposes in emotional and affective expression and in our outlook of the world. Everyone has a way of managing one’s life. If you don’t judge you will always find a logic or a function behind a certain action.
Were you yourself expecting them to be so open about their intimate private lives? I always assume that people are open, it’s just about waiting for the right person and the right moment. I think all these people have waited and longed to tell their story. It’s just that often nobody is interested or patient enough to listen to them. I always assume that people will say yes and answer. And if she says no, I will try to understand, ask about it and probably she’ll answer that she doesn’t find her life interesting enough to talk about. And then I’ll tell her my impression of her and why I think she has a story to share. Everyone has a story worth telling. In that sense, I am not surprised. Often, however, I’m surprised at their courage and perseverance.
Do you have someone particular in mind? For example Virgin Mary, an old colleague of mine. One day, I ran into her after not having seen her in twenty years. When asked what she was up to, she said she had a kid now. You know, she never had sex or married but she’d enrolled in an adoption programme. In Hong Kong, single woman can adopt kids but aren’t given a high priority in the allocation process. Virgin Mary was likely to get a kid with health issues or a more complicated background. And she was very brave to accept that. Impressed by her story, I told her about my project. First, I invited her to HKU, but then I asked whether I could visit her in her home on Lamma Island. At first, she refused. But I travelled to the island anyway and suggested to meet in a café. All of a sudden, after I’d arrived and called her, she invited me to her house to meet her kid. Of course I wanted to, but I never forced it on her. And when we started recording, she even started sharing another intimate story. All these parts came about one by one. I didn’t expect much. I just know people have stories and that I have to be there and go as far as I can to let them know I’m ready to listen to them. Besides, I trust that people are basically nice. It has to be the foundation for my work. If you assume that they won’t do this, they won’t say that, well then they won’t. In my life, it there’s nothing I can do but keep up this interview practice—I’ll be okay. I always derive pleasure and gain something from talking to people and listening to their stories rather than indulging into my own mystery. That’s a good way to live one’s life. To be there for other people and lend your ears if nothing else. That’s what I can do and it’s the least I can do. Of course, it’s a research methodology but, in fact, it is also a life philosophy.