Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Asia embraces blackface-style ads. Get ready to cringe

Asian TV is enduring a disconcerting fad — for a laugh or to sell soap.

BANGKOK — In the US, appearing on television in crude face paint to mock a darker race is an excellent way to kill your career, lose friends and perhaps get spit on by strangers.

But in Asia, ads and TV shows that recall blackface-style minstrel routines stubbornly persist.

The latest offender: a Hong Kong bank advertisement that dabbed brown paint on fair-skinned Chinese male actor to depict “Maria,” an inept maid from the Philippines. In the ad, the immigrant Maria bumbles about — mopping and scrubbing for the well-to-do Hong Kong boss played, sans face paint, by the same actor.

On screens across Asia, it’s not terribly uncommon to see commercials or soap operas that display milk-skinned actors painted brown. Sometimes they try to depict a character with African ancestry. Sometimes they intend to show an Asian bumpkin from the countryside.

Article continues after advertisement

Either way, the portrayal is unflattering. The character’s darkness is inevitably cause for pity or laughs.

But in more recent years, these cringe-worthy performances have also drawn waves of complaints on social media.

Filipinos — who fill the ranks of a laboring underclass in affluent Hong Kong — were predictably unhappy with the “Maria” ad. The immigrant rights group Asian Migrants’ Consulting Body called it “very racist”and told the ad makers, “You are making comedy out of someone, out of a community.” The commercial has since been nixed.

The Philippines, however, isn’t immune to its own domestic blackface controversies. A soap opera called “Nita Negrita” has been derided for depicting a half-black Filipina character with an absurdly crude make-up job. In the now-cancelled series, the dark-skinned girl is cursed and tormented from birth.

The US is, of course, still haunted by its own legacy of slavery and the apartheid-like policies that plagued black America long after the American Civil War.

In the American mind, racism is considered one the worst moral offenses. Donning “blackface,” which typically refers to performers painting themselves in a grotesque approximation of African features, was common before the gains of the 1960s civil rights struggle. Today, it is considered cruelly obscene.

Asian nations are also riven by race and class. But they are not burdened by the specific horrors of America’s racial history. Crude racial depictions that would ruin an actor’s career in the US can pass as merely risque in much of Asia.

Asian ad agencies are also unapologetic in promoting snow-white skin as a beauty ideal — one that suggests cosmopolitan elegance in contrast to the lowly life of a sun-baked field hand.

Performances that Americans would interpret as blackface aren’t always meant to depict a character with African roots. In Thailand, a soap opera series titled “From the Country to the City” presents its Thai starlet in smudgy brown paint and overalls.

Article continues after advertisement

She’s meant to look like a peasant, which in Thailand could mean someone with ethnic Cambodian blood — a contrast to urbane city dwellers with lighter skin and Chinese blood. Either way, the depiction is tasteless.

There are plenty of commercials, like the “Maria” ad, that deploy blackface for cheap laughs. Yet another Thai ad implies that a skin lightening tonic is so potent it turns a girl of African descent into a light-skinned Thai woman.

In the before shot, she’s seen in blackface, posing with her family, in youthful years that pre-date her discovery of the whitening concoction.

In the after shot, she embodies that impeccable pale ideal, thanks to a candy-pink powdered drink mix. (Yes, this is a real product. It sells for about $10 per box.)

There is little to indicate that domestic audiences in Asia are grappling with a major crisis of conscience over blackface-style ads.

But in the era of social media, the ads are more likely to reach an international audience that will flinch at light-skinned actors painted black. Online backlash to “Maria” ended the ad’s run prematurely. A recent Dunkin’ Donuts ad that depicted a Thai woman in charcoal-black paint was also pulled and the corporation apologized. Filipino bloggers roundly derided Nita Negrita and the show didn’t last six months.

But despite the obvious risks, advertisers and TV producers in Asia have yet to abandon blackface gimmicks. Case in point: the blog “Gusts of Popular Feeling” has dutifully catalogued South Korea’s most egregious blackface incidents in the last three decades — along with plenty of public apologies from offenders. But the tacky performances keep coming.