IMW from Taiwan’s Story “Expressing Art, Living Up Kitchen”

This story is a series of memories about my observation during my Indonesia-Taiwan Trans/Voice Project residency for 4 months, with an ethnography research method and focus on Indonesian Migrant Workers (IMW)’s artistic expression in Taiwan. 

This memory stems from the story of a friend named Tony Sarwono, an IMW from Yogyakarta, a factory worker. Starting from a casual conversation at the SPA Shelter in the Zhongli district, Taiwan, from his cell phone screen, he showed his painting in an abstract style. “I was painting semi-consciously,” he said. He acknowledged the “cathartic” moment that artists often feel when making works. It is like a whisper from within that makes him easily paint every thick line with a mix of colors that tend to be somber. Seeing Tony’s work and stories makes Deden Bulqini–who is familiarly called Bul–an artist from Bandung, immediately invited Tony to collaborate in an exhibition in the form of video art and installation works called “Ruang: Antara dan Sementara” (“Space: Between and Temporarily”) at the Open Contemporary Art Center (OCAC), Datong district, Taipei on June 15-16, 2019.  

Bul revealed that he was interested in seeing shelter in terms of its relation to space and the body of the migrant workers. As a temporary space, Bul sees the shelter as a transient house that functions as a stopover for troubled IMWs. Bul’s curiosity about the relationship between space and body were experimented in an art workshop. The result is in the form of four figurative body paintings. On the bodies of the paintings, videos of their activities while at the shelter were shot, such as: chatting, video calling with family/partners, fishing, to Mandarin language courses. 

That is also what happens to Tony who paints his friends who live in the shelter. He painted figures with expressions and activities of daily life.

“We are provided with food, bed and entertaining ourselves, well, it looks good but actually our minds are complicated, like a hope that is unclear,” said Tony, representing the feelings of his friends.

“Kita disediakan makan, tempat tidur dan menghibur diri, yah, kelihatannya enak tapi sebenarnya pikiran kita ruwet, seperti harapan yang belum jelas,” ungkap Tony mewakili perasaan teman-temannya. 

Moreover, he felt that his involvement in this exhibition resurrects said “inner whispers”, after both his body and soul became a factory machine for so long. “With this exhibition, I feel my artistic soul is back and able to be expressed,” Tony explained.

Tony Sarwono’s work, “Ruang: Antara dan Sementara” in Open Contemporary Art Center (OCAC), Datong district, Taipei. Doc.: Selvi Agnesia

Why do IMWs do art?

In the first week, when I was doing my residency in Taiwan, I faced an impediment while observing the community and artistic expression of migrant workers. The knowledge that obtaIned from reference books that I read is always about IMW’s activism in fighting for the rights of foreign exchange heroes, demands for workers’ justice to their employers, as well as their motivation to become IMW with an emphasis on reasons to support the kitchen and pay debts. Sima Ting Kuan, a Taiwanese friend who has been in the world of migrant workers for a long time, said that IMW’s dream was simple, “their dream is only for the family”. 

Furthermore, the problem of migrant workers in Indonesia is closely related to global migration. A number of international institutions have identified three main determinants that drive international labor migration: first, “attraction”, in the form of changing demographics and the demand of the labor market in high-income countries. Second, “repellence”, in the form of salary differentials and pressures in developing and poor countries. Finally, the network between countries based on family, culture and history (Irianto, 2011:7). Migration is a survival strategy considering that most migration is done for economic reasons. (OSCE, IOM, and ILO, 2006: 18). 

Economics is indeed considered to be a basic need for survival for oneself and their family, but as a whole (holistic), humans verily, according to psychologist Abraham Maslow, in the pyramid of human needs, do not only need physiological needs and a sense of security. More than that, the top of the pyramid of human needs according to Maslow are “esteem needs” and the need for self-actualization. With this in mind, I want to know what makes them feel happy and get life satisfaction. Therefore, I think art among the Taiwan IMWs will be interesting to study and research, especially communally in the form of an art community. 

The position of migrant workers is often considered a minority in the country where they work, but in 2019, there were 270.997 Indonesian migrant workers in Taiwan. The number of Indonesian migrant workers can be considered as the majority compared to other Southeast Asian countries. In addition, when compared to Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Singapore, which are favorite destination countries for IMWs, Taiwan itself, apart from Hong Kong, is more open to IMW’s artistic expression and literature activism of migrants. 

My view is increasingly open to IMW’s artistic activities after receiving an invitation to the 2019 Indonesian Independence Day Cultural Arts Festival with the title “Sensasi Kebebasan” (“Sensation of Freedom”) on August 18, 2019. More interestingly, the poster of this event displayed an abstract image from Tony Sarwono with a series of art performances that would be performed by various IMW art communities in celebration of Indonesia’s 74th Independence Day. 

This event started in the morning in the form of a cultural parade of PMI friends. They walked from the courtyard of the Taipei Main Station (TMS) to the National Taiwan Museum. In the courtyard of the Museum, there is already a stage where I watched various art performances, ranging from traditional dances, music, theater, pencak silat, Taiwanese singo barong/reog, Indonesian cultural fashion show, poetry recitals and such.

At this moment, my social network with friends from the art community began to develop. Almost every week, not only did I receive invitations to watch performing arts elsewhere, but invitations to karaoke, meals and get-togethers in the TMS hall, discussions, and even clubbing invitations were also sent via WhatsApp or LINE. I physically was in Taiwan, but I felt like I was still in Indonesia.

At the Indonesian Cultural Arts Festival, I got to know one PMI who has been active in the arts for more than 9 years better. Dwi Surwani, fondly called Emak, is the head of the Tresno Budoyo Studio. Emak as the director, together with the actors performed a theatrical performance entitled “Xiao Lei Kondang”, an adaptation of the folklore of Malin Kundang with the version of IMW’s life. Not only adapting a popular Indonesian folklore story, but Emak witnessed firsthand in her village about families who were abandoned by their children, or parents who left their children but never returned to the homeland. “The message from the story is, never forget your family and homeland,” said Emak.

Tresno Budoyo Studio rehearsal for the performance of “Xiao Lei Kondang”, July 2019 Doc.: Sima Ting Kuan Wu

In a conversation during a meal together, she revealed that the main reason for establishing Tresno Budoyo was “to free the soul of art”. Oftentimes, her job as a domestic assistant requires her to work 24 hours at her employer’s house. When it was time for holidays, Emak came to TMS with a big suitcase, filled with costumes and food. For the performance of “Xiao Lei Kondang”, she and the actors from different cities did rehearsals in the park. The difficulty in arranging the schedule for rehearsals is an obstacle for many IMW arts communities.  

Like the Tresno Budoyo studio, the reog art community “Singo Barong Taiwan” has a similar problem, apart from the problem of regeneration. One month before Singo Barong Taiwan performed in Pingtung, at the end of June 2019, I had the opportunity to visit their rehearsal site at the Indo Cen Cen Store in the Zhongli area, Taiwan. 

At that time, the personnels were rehearsing, on the top floor of the Indo Cen Cen Store. While waiting for the rain to stop, the personnel were seen sitting in a circle and having fun talking in Javanese. Meanwhile, the others, Lorena and Dinda, two jathilan dancers, were dressing up and getting ready to wear costumes. 

“We have been renting this place since a long time ago to meet up and store costumes, but for rehearsals, they are usually done in the park on the third week of every month,” said Heri, one of the Singo Barong Taiwan administrators. 

Two Singo Barong head masks decorated with peacock feathers look dashingly adorning the walls of the room. It is not an easy matter to bring both masks to Taiwan. The first masks were brought in in 2014 when the Singo Association was first established. Furthermore, in 2018 the second mask was imported. It took 1 million Taiwan dollars, or around Rp. 500 million to bring the Singo Barong mask. Where does the cost come from? Heri firmly stated that the cost was purely from the help of friends of Indonesian Migrant Workers. 

Entering the third generation and the fifth year of the establishment of Singo Barong Taiwan. The Society has toured in cities such as Hsinchu and many times in Taipei. Their presence is always awaited by IMW friends and the interest of the Taiwanese community in Indonesian arts and culture is also quite large. However, to date, the group’s problems are funding and player regeneration. “For us, spectators are numerous. The players are troubled”.

Singo Barong Taiwan Attraction in the Hall of Gungguan Elementary School, Pingtung County, Juli 21, 2019 Doc.: Sima Ting Kuan Wu

My conversations with Tresno Budoyo and Singo Barong Taiwan—along with other art communities—revealed the main problems experienced by the art community of migrant workers, which when summarized—with the limited number of pages in this article—among them: the problem of regeneration of members/players, sustainability of communities after being left by members whose work contracts have expired, as well as the continuation of art workers after they return to Indonesia. The space and time for rehearsals are difficult because of work, the audience which in fact is still mostly Indonesians only. Management and financial and labor support, the last is the stereotype of art workers with the label of migrant workers.

After I learned about these problems, I returned to the basic question: why, they —IMW arts community—are struggling to keep up with the arts, why is art important? Most of them answered straightforwardly, that: art is expression, art is entertainment, art is identity.

Memories of theatrical performances, dance, singo barong, and karaoke at an Indonesian warung that I witnessed and experienced with them during this residency seem to confirm it all. Art is important not only because they are IMWs, but they are human beings who need actualization, entertainment, catharsis and cultural identity values.


After returning from Taiwan, I and my friends from Trans/Voice and Sunday Screen Bandung, visited Cihonje Village, Gumelar sub-district, Banyumas, Central Java. Cihonje Village is one of the Productive Migrant Villages where around 70% of its residents have been an IMW. From the story of Yulia, one of the former IMW in Hong Kong and Macau who is currently active in Cihonje Smart House: in the past, this village had the potential of cloves as a natural resource until during the New Order era, cloves were capitalized as the main source of income for its residents. It is said that the story was told by one of the president’s children during the New Order era.

As a result, when the natural resources ran out, what was left were human resources who wandered their fate abroad. Initially, their parents worked in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. In recent years, Taiwan and Hong Kong have become the main targets of overseas migration. 

The houses in Cihonje with their bright colored walls, the residents who mostly speak Mandarin and Arabic, as well as our meeting with dozens of IMW candidates in white shirts who attended training in Taiwan. All the memories of the events in Taiwan and Cihonje made me realize that the need for artistic expression and a steaming kitchen, like two sides of a coin, are inseparable. Hopefully my memory archive in this article is not just a story. Moreover, I am unable to fully represent the story of migrant workers because IMWs are also fully human beings. Those who want to do art, also make their family happy.

Selvie Agnesia

Selvie Agnesia

A writer, and art worker from Bandung who lived in Jakarta for a while. A graduate of Master of Anthropology, University of Indonesia. In 2019 participated in the Trans Voice/Project Indonesia-Taiwan Residency to observe the art community of Indonesian Migrant Workers. Her observations were presented at the National Taiwan Museum and Brillian Times (2019) etc. She has also attended a residency for Cultural Activists in New Zealand (2017). Production Manager of TeaterStudio Indonesia at the 2012 & 2013 Tokyo Festival etc. Some of her writings have been published in Kompas, Media Indonesia, Jawa Pos and various print and online media in Indonesia.