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Hong Kong TV series sparks ‘brownface’ controversy after actor darkens skin


Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Contributors Lizzy Yee

A Hong Kong TV series has sparked controversy over the use of “brownface” after one of its actors darkened her skin with makeup to play a Filipina domestic worker.

In a video that was widely shared online, actor Franchesca Wong is seen applying makeup with a brush while saying she was “sun-tanning” and “transforming into another person” for her role in broadcaster TVB’s supernatural drama “Barrack O’Karma 1968.”

In the series’ seventh episode, which aired Tuesday, she plays a domestic helper hired by a couple who suspect her of practicing voodoo. Besides accusing the actor of “brownface” and adopting a Filipino accent for her scenes, some viewers took issue with the show’s casting of a Hong Kong actor over a Filipina one and reinforcing negative stereotypes.

A promotional still from “Barrack O’Karma 1968.” Credit: TVB

Writing on Facebook, the Philippines’ Consul General in Hong Kong, Raly Tejada, described the show as “downright ignorant, insensitive and totally disgusting.”

“It cannot be denied that the portrayal of the Filipino helper and use of brown face reinforces negative stereotypes that characterize the ‘Ban Mui,'” he added, referring to an offensive Cantonese slang term for young Filipina women.

While ethnic minorities account for just 4% of Hong Kong’s population, the city is home to an estimated 200,000 Filipino domestic workers, many of whom face discrimination, poor working conditions and significant challenges gaining residency rights. A 2019 survey of more than 5,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong found that fewer than half were provided with a private bedroom, while 44% reported working more than 16 hours a day.
Several media outlets in Hong Kong have praised Wong’s performance. Local news site HK01 wrote that the actor had delivered a “great performance,” adding that “she is actually a beautiful woman.”

On Wednesday, the actor, who was raised in both Canada and Hong Kong, shared a promotional image from the show to Instagram. The post has since attracted over 1,700 comments, many of which criticize her performance and “brownface” as being culturally insensitive.

“How are some people so blind to blatant racism lmao,” read one of the most “liked” responses. “Really disappointing.”

A promotional poster for the series, posted to Wong's Instragram account on Wednesday.

A promotional poster for the series, posted to Wong’s Instragram account on Wednesday. Credit: TVB

“You do not deserve to play a role of a person who goes through so much to support their family overseas,” read another. “It’s a hard job which you portrayed as a joke.”

Wong did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

In a statement to CNN, TVB defended the storyline as “purely fictitious” and “simply a dramatic story plot based on creativity.”

“Through (Wong’s) professional performing techniques and sophisticated handling of role-playing, the character Louisa was successfully portrayed,” the statement added. “TVB has always strived to provide top-notch entertainment experience for our viewers and we wish to emphasize that it was never our intention to show disrespect or to discriminate any nationality in any of our programme. We would like to express our concern to anyone who might be affected in this matter.”

The broadcaster did not respond to CNN’s request for comment about whether attempts had been made to cast a Filipina actor for the role. The episode has been removed from TVB’s online platform following the backlash, but TVB said it would be made available “after further content amendment,” without specifying further details.

In the show, Wong's character is suspected by her employers of using a voodoo doll.

In the show, Wong’s character is suspected by her employers of using a voodoo doll. Credit: TVB

According to Manisha Wijesinghe, executive director of the Hong Kong charity Help for Domestic Workers, the decision to cast a non-Filipina in the role was “emblematic of the erasure” faced by Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities.

“If a little bit more thought had been put into it, the episode would have been able to give a much more authentic voice to the character ad struggles being portrayed,” she said over the phone. “Even if it’s not a true story or a documentary, we would expect a certain level of authenticity. It’s not like Hong Kong doesn’t have those voices, so it’s a shame that opportunity has been lost.”

“There’s a tendency that (Filipinos and ethnic minorities) get pushed into these simplistic stereotypes where they either domestic workers or are untrustworthy, and that really doesn’t encourage open discussion,” she added.


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