The TV show “Barrack O’Karma 1968” fueled debate online. To many Filipinos, it was about racism and classism. Other viewers jumped to the actress’s defense.
HONG KONG — The Hong Kong supernatural anthology TV series has an eye-catching name, “Barrack O’Karma 1968,” and an eyebrow-raising plot.
A Filipino domestic worker, navigating deceit, discrimination and accusations of voodoo, is transformed by her seemingly well-intentioned employers into a Cantonese-speaking surrogate daughter.
The TVB series not only chose a Chinese Canadian actress, Franchesca Wong, as the main character for a two-episode subplot. It also cast her in brownface. On the show, her skin grows lighter and she gains a new fluency in the dominant language of the city.
After the first episode aired on April 12 and backstage footage emerged of Ms. Wong affecting a singsong accent — presumably meant to be Filipino — as she brushed dark makeup onto her legs, some viewers said they could not believe their 21st-century eyes.
“I was really shocked,” said Izzy Jose, 27, a Filipino performer and educator in Hong Kong. “That morphed into feeling really angry and morphed further into feeling disappointed.”
The footage quickly became a flash point of debate. To many Filipinos in Hong Kong, it was a twinned mockery — racism and classism. To some actors, it was an all-too-familiar dehumanizing and undignified representation, a reminder that minority performers are often locked out of roles that purport to portray people like them. To others, the brownface portrayal was another example of colorism rearing its ugly head.
But another strain of reaction began bubbling up. Many viewers of the show — which first aired in 2019 and which also has elements of romance and drama — jumped to its defense. Chinese-language news media lauded Ms. Wong’s performance and her efforts at a Filipino accent. Others declared it a matter of creative autonomy. Some accused critics of crying racism without understanding the full context of the plot, which, they argued, portrays Ms. Wong’s character as a victim.
It all boiled down to a clapback that asked: What’s the big deal?
TVB defended Ms. Wong in a statement saying she had “successfully portrayed her character” with “professional performing techniques and sophisticated handling of role-playing.”
Eric Tsang, an actor and general manager of TVB, further denied that racism played any part in the show and insisted that brownface was crucial to the plot.
“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.
Asian countries have had a history of perpetuating colorism, in which the preference for lighter skin is imbued in cultural and social mores. Cosmetic companies have been criticized for selling skin-lightening creams. In Pakistan, the TV series “Parizaad,” about the struggles of a dark-skinned laborer, the lead actor appeared to have darkened his face to play the role, drawing criticism from some social media users. But the show was a big hit when it debuted last year.
“Brownface is always wrong because it constructs a racist stereotype. The underlying racist premise of brownface is that the essence of a person is embedded in their physical features, not in their character or actions,” said Jason Petrulis, an assistant professor of global history at the Education University of Hong Kong who studies race and politics in U.S.-Asia relations.
“An actor who performs in brownface is suggesting that she can portray the inner character of a Filipina domestic worker by embodying her, by mimicking her skin color or speech patterns or hair texture,” he added.
About 203,000 Filipinos live in Hong Kong, forming the largest non-Chinese ethnic group in the city, according to a 2021 census. About 190,000 are domestic workers. In the past two years, as Hong Kong has doubled down on Covid restrictions, the domestic workers have been singled out for mass testing and have been slapped with fines for violating social distancing rules that often exceed their entire monthly salary.
For Filipinos who find work as actors in the city, the roles are often limited to clumsy maids, gangsters or bit players in ads for cleaning products.
“I’ve always felt that our ethnicity and skin color is used as props to add creative value on set,” said Ray Yumul, a 29-year-old Filipino actor and headhunter. “It’s something that needs to stop and change.”
Mr. Yumul said he once responded to calls seeking a Filipino actor in a commercial, only to learn that he would be playing a germ.
Ricky Chu, who leads Hong Kong’s anti-discrimination watchdog, the Equal Opportunities Commission, said brownface cannot be the sole measure in determining discriminatory behavior. The watchdog would also have to consider whether the makeup is “very exaggerated” with accompanying “speech and gestures,” he said in an interview.
As for whether Ms. Wong’s affected accent in the behind-the-scenes footage constitutes offensive behavior, he said a formal complaint would have to be filed before the commission could judge. (The commission, citing confidentiality, declined to say whether it had received complaints.)
Mr. Chu did say that as a viewer of the TVB show, he was more concerned by dialogue that used phrases like “all you domestic helpers” that reinforced “negative stereotypes.”
TVB, a 55-year-old broadcaster known for variety shows and serial dramas, has faced boycotts from pro-democracy protesters who accuse it of a pro-China bias. It has also drawn complaints for using racial epithets in a historical drama.
The latest controversy intensified after the two episodes in which Ms. Wong appeared in brownface. The broadcaster has since removed those episodes from its streaming site, saying it would review their content.
Ms. Wong, who did not respond to a request for comment, apologized on social media last week, saying that she had learned that trying to “analyze, interpret and act” was only part of the job.
Many of her supporters responded that she had nothing to be sorry for.