By JM Arrow
‘I’m from Singapore, but people wouldn’t believe it when they look at me.’
Muhammad Faizul Abdullah, Siapa Yang Bawa Melayu Aku Pergi? (Who Took My Malay Away?)
Walk the streets of any South East Asian country. You’ll see different shades of skin tones ranging from Brown, tanned and light. Our hair textures differ from silky black tresses flaunted proudly by LeFil on Rupaul’s Drag Race, to gorgeous dark waves and beautiful black coils. We wear Sarongs and Cheong Sums and fabulous national dress in varied body shapes better than any Prada piece on the catwalk. This is the tip of the iceberg on what keeps us SEAs proud.
Yet fire up the term South East Asian people on Google Images and it’s mostly the same formula- light skin, straight black hair, slim body frames and for some reason, teeny and triangular slender noses. Hardly a Brown face in sight.
And that formula is used for South East Asian characters on films, TV and stage, who already have a massive problem with the archaic Yellowface. I don’t see many of the tanned and Brown faces from South East Asian countries when it’s a TV show or film allegedly set in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar or Singapore. Instead I see actors of ESEA heritage yet again squeezed into the image of the white gaze. Crazy Rich Asians, whether unintentional or not, featured a purely Sino centric cast, in Singapore which is known to be multicultural. Out of the three main races in Singapore (Chinese, Malay and Indian) two of them are Brown. CRA failed to show this. Even in cartoons like Raya and the Last Dragon, set specifically in South East Asia, not one of the voice actors were Brown, whereas a majority of the animated characters were. The cartoon itself was more racially realistic than the casting. The King and I remake, based in Thailand starred Hong Kong actor Chow Yun Fatt. Legend that he is, as are the actors in these films, there are so many missed opportunities to use Brown ESEA actors it is difficult to ignore.
And it’s not as if there’s a lack of SEA talent of Brown heritage out there. Tony Jaa, Jake Zyrus, Nico Santos, Phoebe Cates, Yayan Ruhian - heck even Anggun, APL.D.AP and Van Halen when he was still with us could’ve banded together for a cartoon about SEA dragons. There are so many actors, musicians and performance artists of Brown SEA heritage and we hardly see them in roles related to their race. Dave Bautista ended up literally playing someone from another planet instead of being given the chance to rock some Filipino pride onscreen. It is nothing short of frustrating to see brown skin, wavy hair, curves and flatter noses to be constantly replaced by fair complexions, skinny bodies and slender features. We are not being given a chance to tell our stories and with the limited media ESEA representation that we do have, this isn’t helpful.
Reasons for erasing Brown skinned ESEAs in the arts are complicated and honestly, a large part of the blame is not just on racism but on our cultures and their preference for fair skin. The indifference to when someone feels the need to slather on ‘skin fairing’ cream just because especially in SEA countries, the magazines, the tv shows and posters all fail to show anything darker skin tone than a really, really light beige. Beauty apps and filters always lighten the skin which insecure youngsters use to imagine what they’d look like with whiter skin and elf like features instead of accepting their own appearance. The largest consumer market for skin whitening products in the world is in East and South East Asia. This is nothing to be proud of. This is embarrassing and downright concerning , because it shows just how many people are ashamed of their natural skin tone. So what do we get? A lack of positive Brown ESEA representation in everyday media which heavily influences our societies, because the message is clear - there is no space for us. And most ESEA communities shrug this off as an everyday quirk of Asian culture dismissing it as a mere ‘preference.’
It is not a preference to be asked in the middle of family gatherings ‘why are you so dark, when your cousins are so fair.’ It is not a preference to be hurtfully told, time and time again, in books, adverts and beauty parlours that fair skin equates to attractiveness. It is not a preference when a salesperson shoves a skin lightening treatment package in your face costing half a pay packet thinking you’d have that much insecurity in your own skin tone to spend that much on it (and sadly there are those that do). It is not a preference to see the term mixed race limited to half white and half Asian, when Blasians, Chindians and other mixed Brown/Asian communities exist and yet are treated like they don’t or are looked down upon thus hide their ESEA heritage as a result. It is not a preference to be treated like you don’t exist, with a narrative that doesn’t tell your story and many others. It is not a preference to see that your own community is lagging behind Black and South Asian representation as they began to embrace their darker skinned artists while we do not. The insistence of choosing white skin over dark is not a ‘preference’- it’s a result of continuous submission to manipulative colonisation, Anti Black and Brown racism and colourism which also leads to massive bodily insecurities.
And this is what will never change, every time fair skinned models, actors and performance artists are solely chosen over their Black or Brown kin to represent SEAs.
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