Brownface in Hong Kong TV Show Draws Outrage and Shrugs

“Actually the main character is Filipino, and then she turns pale,” Mr. Tsang told reporters at a TVB event last week. “That’s the tricky part,” he added. “You can’t find a Filipino to paint white, so you can only paint an artist black first, so that she can turn pale again. If we’re making movies about aliens, and we can’t find an alien to the play the part, are we discriminating against aliens? This is what the plot calls for.” TVB’s publicists said that Mr. Tsang was unavailable for comment.

Using brownface in this way for a plotline and assuming that all Filipinos are a certain color perpetuate odious stereotypes, critics say.

“It essentially is an exercise of privilege,” Christine Vicera, a Filipino filmmaker and researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said in an interview. “Franchesca, at the end of the filming, is able to remove the brown skin. Whereas, Filipinos or Southeast Asians or South Asians in Hong Kong, we don’t have that privilege of removing our skin color.”

Jan Gube, an assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong who studies multicultural education and diversity, said that many local viewers lacked the historical context to understand why brownface is offensive. Professor Gube said that most students in Hong Kong’s public schools do not grow up interacting with peers who look different from them. Local schools did not teach cultural respect — let alone the context for brownface — in an in-depth way, he said.

“You’ll see a lot of comments from social media and local media saying that the actress is being faithful to her role,” he said. “Not a lot of people are looking at it from a cultural point of view, which means they may not necessarily be aware that donning that kind of makeup means something else to other people,” he added.

Brownface (and yellowface — imitations of brown and Asian people by light-skinned performers) evolved from the racist vaudeville tradition of blackface, a staple of American minstrel shows in the early 1800s. Mostly white actors applied dark makeup to play mocking caricatures of Black people. With few other representations of Black people onstage — and later onscreen — blackface performances helped reinforce dehumanizing tropes.

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