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Hong Kong actor apologizes for ‘brownface’ TV role

Franchesca Wong darkened her skin to portray a migrant worker from the Philippines, prompting debate about on-screen representation of the Chinese territory’s ethnic minorities.

A Hong Kong actor has publicly apologized for her portrayal of a domestic worker from the Philippines in a local television series, after it raised allegations of racism and prompted debate about responsible on-screen representation in the Chinese territory.

Franchesca Wong, a Canadian-born actor of Chinese ethnicity, darkened her skin for a role in an episode of “Barrack O’Karma 1968,” a drama series on the public broadcaster TVB. Her character, a woman named Louisa, is a mysterious foreign domestic worker newly hired by a local family.

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A video posted on Instagram to accompany the episode’s release last week showed Wong applying tan makeup on her legs on set, saying she was “suntanning” and “transforming into someone else” in an affected Filipino accent. The footage was taken offline after a backlash from migrant rights groups and Filipina actors working in the city, who questioned TVB’s decision to cast an ethnically Chinese actor in the role.

“The brown face act will only strengthen the stereotypes and stigma around migrant domestic workers,” the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions said in a statement in response to the episode.

“There is plenty talented Filipino actress in Hong Kong and no one think of contacting one of them?” it asked.

Critics were further incensed by the character’s portrayal in the supernatural series: practicing voodoo, drawing a smile on a voodoo doll in blood, and keeping a hidden fetus in a jar in her bedroom before eventually being accepted into her employer’s family.

Local media coverage of the episode was largely positive and hailed Wong’s performance as convincing. But critics said it was insensitive and reflected a broader system of discrimination against foreign domestic workers in the city.

Franchesca Wong, a Canadian-born ethnically Chinese actor, darkened her skin to play a domestic worker from the Philippines.
Franchesca Wong, a Canadian-born ethnically Chinese actor, darkened her skin to play a domestic worker from the Philippines.via TVB

Wong’s performance even drew criticism from the Philippines’ envoy to Hong Kong, Consul General Raly Tejada, who called the episode “downright ignorant, insensitive and totally disgusting” in a statement to The South China Morning Post.

In a statement Wednesday, Wong, 32, apologized to those who had been “negatively affected” by the episode and her performance in it.

“I genuinely have no intention to disrespect or racially discriminate any ethnic group, please forgive me for getting it wrong,” she said. “It has been a challenging experience to be at the center of a lesson that art reflects deeply entrenched social attitudes.”

Although her apology was welcomed by the show’s critics, some felt it was just the beginning of needed change in social attitudes toward Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities.

“I personally felt that I was able to accept and also appreciate what she had to say,” Izzy Jose, a Filipina actor in Hong Kong, told NBC News on Thursday.

“But that’s not to say that this issue is finally done and that all of the problems that this issue has shed light on will magically disappear.”

Hong Kong’s 340,000 foreign domestic workers, the majority of whom are from the Philippines and Indonesia, are one of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in the city, and are subject to strict visa rules that rights groups have criticized as discriminatory.

Under city regulations, workers must live with their employers and are not allowed to engage in any work other than the employment they are contracted for when they arrive in Hong Kong. The minimum monthly salary for six days of work a week is around $590.

TVB said it had no further comment on the matter Thursday, referring to a statement last week that praised Wong’s performance.

“Through her professional performing techniques and sophisticated handling of role-playing, the character Louisa was successfully portrayed,” the earlier statement said.

“We wish to emphasize that it was never our intention to show disrespect or to discriminate any nationality in any of our program. We would like to express our concern to anyone who might be affected in this matter,” it continued.

Eric Tsang, general manager of TVB and a veteran actor, also defended Wong’s casting, describing the controversy as a “misunderstanding.”

“If we were producing a show about aliens, we wouldn’t be able to cast an alien, we can only cast someone to act as an alien. That wouldn’t count as racism against aliens, right?” he told reporters Sunday.

Jose criticized TVB’s response as severely lacking. 

“They need to do better. Not only should they address the fact that many people have been negatively affected by this, but they need to do better in creating roles for Filipinos and ethnic non-Chinese locals that do not perpetuate prejudice and negative stereotypes that are damaging and harmful to people that have brown skin,” she said. 

“They should be writing stories about us that show audiences the realities of what it means to live as a person with brown skin in Hong Kong. And they need to put an end to writing roles and stories that minimize us to that of a caricature.”