Canadian actress apologizes for darkening skin to play domestic worker in Hong Kong drama series

A Hong Kong television series is being criticized for having a Canadian-born Hong Kong actress darken her skin to play a Filipina domestic worker.

In an episode that aired last week, Calgary-born Franchesca Wong wore brownface makeup to portray Louisa on Barrack O’Karma 1968, a supernatural drama on the Hong Kong broadcaster TVB.

According to the South China Morning Post, Louisa works for a couple who suspect her of using voodoo, calling her “spooky.” Wong also imitates a Filipino accent for the role.

The portrayal, which was both panned and praised by Hong Kong media, has inspired discussion of discrimination against migrant domestic workers. Critics have called Louisa a “caricature,” and noted the use of dark make-up and hiring a non-Filipina performer are disrespectful to Hong Kong’s migrant worker population.

Most domestic workers in Hong Kong are from the Philippines, Indonesia

There are about 340,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, according to Reuters. The New York Times puts the figure at 370,000, adding that these workers make up 10 per cent of Hong Kong’s total working population. Most are from the Philippines and Indonesia.

A 2017 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that the domestic worker population in Hong Kong experiences exploitation, inhumane treatment and abuse at the hands of their employers.

On Tuesday evening, Wong shared a written apology on Instagram for her depiction of Louisa. An earlier video of her applying skin-darkening makeup, joking that she was “sun-tanning,” was widely shared on social media.

“I genuinely apologize to all who have been negatively affected in any way by the 7th chapter of ‘Jei Jei’ of the Barrack O’Karma 1968 drama series, and my role in it,” she wrote.

“I genuinely have no intention to disrespect or racially discriminate any ethnic group, please forgive me for getting it wrong.”

In a statement to CNN, broadcaster TVB said that Wong’s portrayal was a success, and praised her for using “professional performing techniques” to play Louisa.

“We wish to emphasize that it was never our intention to show disrespect or to discriminate any nationality in any of our programmes,” they wrote. The broadcaster has pulled the episode for changes.

‘Downright ignorant, insensitive and totally disgusting’

Consul General Raly Tejada, the Philippine envoy to Hong Kong, said in the South China Morning Post that the show is “downright ignorant, insensitive and totally disgusting,” adding that TVB’s statement was a non-apology.

The use of brownface and blackface is considered a racist and dehumanizing act, with historical origins in minstrelsy and vaudeville. White performers would often wear dark makeup to imitate Black or brown people, using exaggerated gestures and accents for comedic effect.

WATCH | Canadian-Chinese actress applies brownface, uses Filipino accent in video:

The practice flattens racial identity into the colour of one’s skin and other physical features, reducing entire communities into one-note stereotypes.

Wong’s portrayal of a Filipina worker on Barrack O’Karma 1968 demonstrates how non-white, light-skinned people can employ the practice to depict and even denigrate darker-skinned people.

Sometimes, the term is used to describe white or light-skinned actors who play another race, regardless of whether they use makeup or not. In the film Aloha, Emma Stone plays a character who is said to be a quarter Chinese and a quarter Hawaiian.

Other high-profile examples include Johnny Depp, who played the Native American character Tonto in The Lone Ranger, and Robert Downey Jr., who wore blackface in Tropic Thunder.

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