Who s the Fairest of Them All? Television Ads for Skin-whitening Cosmetics in Hong Kong

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1 Asian Ethnicity, Volume 7, Number 2, June 2006 Who s the Fairest of Them All? Television Ads for Skin-whitening Cosmetics in Hong Kong SOLOMON LEONG (City University of Hong Kong) This paper explores the notion of fair skin and its relationship to the construction of a Hong Kong racial identity by Hong Kongers. It examines a local television advertisement for a cosmetic product named UVWhite whitening softener. Based on the interpretations of focus-group participants in Hong Kong and the UK, and his own in the role of analyst, the author explores three different perspectives on the advertisement. A triangulation of these three perspectives reveals a number of possible meanings and symbolic functions of fair skin in forming identities of self and other, and their relationships with class, gender and, above all, race in various sociocultural contexts. These perspectives, and the differences between them, also closely reflect the sociocultural backgrounds of the participants and provide clues to an understanding of the ways in which skin colour operates as a visual agent in defining the boundaries of cultural identity, and in identifying a person s place in a local social hierarchy, if not an increasingly global one. Keywords: skin-whitening, whiteness, Hong Kong, racial identities, self/other, racial discrimination White is not anything really, not an identity, not a particularizing quality, because it is everything white is no color because it is all colors. This property of whiteness to be everything and nothing is the source of its representational power... (Dyer, 1992, p. 45). Context It is not new in Asia or the west to associate fairness of skin with comparative wealth and desirability. In China, the possession of a fair complexion is perceived as a desirable quality in a woman (Johansson, 1998). As the old Chinese saying goes: One whiteness can cover three kinds of ugliness. Being fair-skinned or, as often used interchangeably in the Chinese language, being white skinned is effectively the symbol of elegance and nobility, and white jade is often used as a metaphor to describe such fairness. As early as in pre-qin China, labourers were labelled the black-headed people, illustrating the association between class and skin colour (Diko tter, 1992, p. 10). These attitudes to skin colour naturally led to all sorts of treatments for achieving a desirable skin colour or improving an undesirable one. For example, a traditional Chinese myth claims that pearls can lighten one s complexion, and a small intake of pearl powder mixed with hot water every day will improve the radiance of one s skin. Pregnant women are advised not to drink too much chocolate milk, or their children will be born dark skinned, just ISSN print; online/06/ Ó 2006 Taylor & Francis DOI: /

2 168 Solomon Leong as it is believed that consuming too much soy sauce will gradually turn fair skin darker (Lilley, 2001, p. 140). Similarly, in the west we see aristocrats and rich burghers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries guarding the whiteness of their skin by applying lead oxide powder to their faces to differentiate themselves from the working masses. Less obviously related to a preference for white skin is the expression blue blood to denote members of the aristocracy, as their skins are assumed to be so fair that the blue veins are clearly visible (Bonnett, 2004, p. 452). It was not until the twentieth century that the development of the so-called bronze skin phenomenon challenged the notion of whiteness in the west. Instead of prizing the paleness of skin, bronze skin celebrated the possession of a sun-tanned complexion. This sun-kissed complexion originally signified wealth, since only wealthy Europeans or Americans could afford expensive escapes to exotic, far-away places to indulge in sunworshipping (Featherstone, 1982). Similar to the earlier phenomenon of whiteness (in the west), the phenomenon of tanning was tied in with connotations of an exclusive and expensive lifestyle until mass tourism in the 1950s and 1960s made a holiday in the sun possible for the working classes. Instead of connoting the wealth needed to enjoy a lifestyle of leisure if not idleness, a tan came to connote beauty and good health. Yet medical knowledge has turned the latter connotation on its head in recent times, with the growing awareness that pale-skinned people are highly vulnerable to skin damage, including skin cancer and premature ageing, from over-exposure to the sun s rays. While the bronze skin phenomenon reversed the value of pale skin in the west, and is beginning to emerge in Asia as well, the deep-rooted belief in the intrinsic virtue of whiteness still prevails in Asia. This is especially the case in locations such as Hong Kong, where traditional values of the Cultural China (Lock, 2003) coexist and sometimes collide with modern, westernized standards of beauty, presenting a fragmented picture that is tied intrinsically to issues such as gender roles, a globalized economic system and, above all, race. Signs of this preference for white or fair skin are noticeable and common in modern Asian societies. In India, for example, a significant part of many Sunday newspapers is dedicated to personal advertisements by men seeking fair-skinned brides (see, for example, Classifieds, 2003). And in Mainland China, global photoprocessing companies compete with each other to produce photographs that make human skin look whiter (Anon, 1996). In Hong Kong, a casual walk around the city will reveal the presence of fair-skinned models in most advertisements for expensive products. These models are usually Caucasian, but fair-skinned Chinese models and celebrities are also very common. 1 The recent surge of skin-whitening products and advertisements for them are also good examples to illustrate this phenomenon. It is estimated that in Asia skin-whitening 1 According to a report by Asia Market Intelligence (AMI) (cited in Schwartz, 2002), AMI conducted a survey of people s skin colour preferences, questioning 2,350 people in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Korea and Malaysia. A majority of Hong Kong men (68 per cent) thought their partners would be more attractive with lighter complexion. This phenomenon also applied to their preference in men, though to a lesser degree. Many Hong Kong women also expressed preference for their partners to be whiter, though to a lesser extent than men (45 per cent). Malaysian men were the most likely to want their partners to have a pale complexion (74 per cent), while Taiwanese men did so somewhat less but still constituting a majority (55 per cent). Hong Kong men ranked third among the five countries surveyed. Among women, it was Indonesians who were most likely to find whiter men attractive (65 per cent), while Taiwanese women were not too keen on the idea at all (27 per cent).

3 Who s the Fairest of Them All? 169 products account for 60 per cent of sales of skin-care items ( Cosmetics sales, 2003). In Hong Kong, one-third of all women have used products of this sort. To give a general impression of the sheer size of this phenomenon in monetary terms, it is estimated that the Hong Kong market alone is worth over HK$300 million ( Asia market intelligence, 2003). Most of the advertisements and packaging for these whitening products claim that the products can whiten and improve the quality of skin. They solicit through a wide array of expressions, mostly in English, ranging from fine fairness (Neutrogena), true white (Za), snow (Christian Dior), white refiner (Ultima II), whitist (Kose), white perfect (L Oreal), skin lightening (Pond s) and white radiance (Olay), to whitening cream for fairer skin (Nivea), pinky white (Kio), blanc expert (Lancome) and double white (Pond s). These terms serve as both the product names and descriptions of the results they are supposedly able to achieve. To tout these products, advertisements for them are usually expensively produced, featuring ultra-pale celebrities and models, and presenting (and mixing) both traditional and westernized visual signifiers to evoke atmospheres of purity, cleanliness and sophistication. Methodology In this paper, I consider the different perspectives provided by three types of informant on the case of the advertisement of Shiseido UVwhite whitening softener. The three types of informants comprise two focus groups, one in Hong Kong and one in the UK, and the writer himself, as both a Hong Kong resident and the analyst. I chose the case advertisement from a corpus of 10 skin-whitening advertisements in August 2001, and conducted two focus groups of five participants each during December of that year. Case Advertisement I collected the 10 different television advertisements that formed the corpus from which I chose for this case study on four consecutive Saturday evenings between 8 pm and 11 pm in August On average, there were three to four advertising breaks each hour, approximately minutes apart, during each of which about 10 advertisements were shown. In any of these 48 advertising breaks, on average three of the 10 whitening advertisements were shown, representing approximately 30 per cent of all advertisements featured on a Saturday night. This is a significant proportion of skin-whitening cosmetics to be advertised on prime-time television. It was partly due to timing; I recorded the corpus at the height of summer, when fair skin is most likely to tan easily. Nonetheless, this extent also reflects the strength of the skin-whitening trend. I observed that other popular media such as radio, magazines and newspapers also frequently featured advertisements for whitening products during this period. Although advertising for these products was therefore not confined to television, I chose television as the medium for the sample advertisement because of the interesting dynamics that television generates between visual and audio elements. A transcription of the chosen advertisement for Shiseido UVWhite whitening softener appears in Appendix 1. Informants I sought to investigate skin whiteness as a concept presumed to operate on different levels of the symbolic order, as well as the ways in which this whiteness becomes

4 170 Solomon Leong meaningful in different sociocultural paradigms among a highly educated population with high levels of cultural and social capital (Bourdieu, 1984). 2 As mentioned above, I enlisted three types of informant to provide their own perspectives on the chosen advertisement: two focus groups and one single informant, i.e. myself in the role of analyst. I chose this method on the likelihood that these three types of informant a HK group, a HK analyst, and a UK group would provide differing perspectives on the chosen advertisement. Triangulating perspectives can help to reveal the social values that skin tones signify for different audiences and the different identities within these audiences such as age, class and gender (for examples, see Hall, 1978; Davis, 1982; Yuval-Davies, 1986; Miles, 1989). I conducted both focus groups, in Hong Kong and in the UK, in December Each focus group consisted of five participants, the Hong Kong group of three females and two males, and the UK group of two females and three males. All the Hong Kong group participants were local Chinese and all the UK participants were local English. All participants were university educated, employed in different professions, and aged between early twenties and mid-forties. See Appendix 2 for demographic details. All interviewees in this research participated voluntarily with informed consent and were recruited through the strategy of snowball sampling (Bienack & Waldorf, 1981; Krueger, 1994). For the Hong Kong focus group, I began the snowball sampling with a few of my acquaintances who satisfied the recruitment criteria and who I considered could contribute insights into the discussions. I then asked them to introduce or refer me to more people who could join the focus group. For the focus-group discussions, I adopted the free focus group approach, inviting participants to express freely their understanding of the advertisements. I also designed a set of basic guiding questions as a standby in case the interviews become static, but generally the result of using the free focus group method produced a lively flow of ideas without the need to resort to the standby questions. Most of the time, the participants were able and willing to express their opinions and perspectives in the free-talk research environment I had created. They were relatively relaxed, even though they were unfamiliar with both the practice of focusgroup discussions and being part of a discussion that involved expressing personal opinion with strangers. I audio recorded both the Hong Kong and UK focus groups and subsequently made transcriptions. All participants in both focus groups were fully aware of the presence of the audio cassette recorder. However, it did not draw negative reactions from the participants, as I had assured them that I would not use or disclose their name for any purpose, since I would treat them anonymously in this study. I typed the data from the UK focus groups directly from the cassettes. However, as all of the Hong Kong focus groups were carried out in Cantonese, I translated these data first before recording for the analysis. 2 I refer here to the definition of Bourdieu (1984, p. 120) that habitus are schemes of thought, perception, appreciation and action. Constituting the varieties of habitus are various social resources that he called capital : economic capital is constituted by material goods such as money and stock, cultural capital by education, skills and knowledge, and symbolic capital by recognition and class. Since these varieties of capital are not evenly distributed in society, the power and accessibility of the audience are constrained by their relative wealth of these varieties of capital, which invariably relates to social or socio-economic factors such as class, gender, age, generation and education.

5 Who s the Fairest of Them All? 171 Participants from both focus groups verified the data I collected before I proceeded with transcription. I also asked the participants to validate my summaries of the discussions during and after the focus group meetings to avoid misinterpretation. Analysis The perspectives of the Hong Kong focus group members are the primary focus of this analysis, since the objective of the study is to explore how a Hong Kong identity is articulated through the consumption of the sample advertisement. The perspectives of the UK focus group members serve as a second source of interpretive data, being the outsiders perspectives on the original data, which allow us to triangulate the Hong Kong focus group findings. The UK focus-group data provide an extra cultural dimension that contrasts with the perspectives of the Hong Kong focus group in so far as the UK data are foreign, while the Hong Kong data are local and, for this reason, can reveal the cultural specificity of racial notions such as skin tones and whiteness and their relationships with class and gender. A third perspective to continue with the assumption that one perspective each can be attributed to the HK and the UK groups, respectively, i.e. that each group essentially speaks with one voice is provided by myself as analyst and as another Hong Kong resident, one who is presumed to add to the analysis of the advertisement by looking at this advertisement with the analyst s critical and informed eye. Several themes pertaining to this advertisement and its interpretations are common to all three analytical perspectives. These include the identification of self and other in terms of skin tones, gender and class, and their related social connotations. However, although these issues are addressed in all three perspectives, the ways in which they are addressed, and the emphasis given to them, vary considerably. Nonetheless, these variations and differences can be seen not only as indicators of the sociocultural specificity of skin whiteness, making it a sociocultural notion per se, but also as exposures of the differences in awareness of the notion of race in general in various social and ideological paradigms. The Analyst s Perspective: Myth and the Other According to Roland Barthes (1972), myth is the product of a process of secondary signification. During this process, visual signs (the signifiers) bond with ideological, preexisting assumptions and notions (the signifieds) to form new signs, and these are known as myths. For Barthes, this process of signification is inevitably ideological. Consequently, being a product of the secondary signification process, myths perpetuate and reinforce the values and preferences of the dominant ideology in society. From the perspective of the analyst utilizing the analytical tool of myth, the dominant logic of the discourse of this Shiseido advertisement is that of the myth of whiteness (see Appendix 1 for the full transcript of the advertisement). Throughout the plot of the advertisement, there are many signs, textual and visual, working together to convey a sense of purification, and to convey that whiteness is the ultimate result of such a process. Visual signs such as rain, open space and a woman s face, as well as the action of rain falling on the woman s face all connote purification. They also suggest cleansing as a way to achieve purification, which in turn produces skin whiteness. Manifestations of these presumptions of what signifies purification and whiteness are found also in the spoken and written texts of the advertisement. Almost all the written and spoken utterances of the advertisement are expressions of purification and

6 172 Solomon Leong whiteness. Phrases such as cleanses skin cells, cleanses thoroughly, infuses you with whitening beauty, pure beautiful white and true beautiful whiteness begins with purification are textual signs that serve, in the words of Barthes (1972), to fixate and anchor the myth of whiteness. Consequently, the discourse of these signs narrates the need to be whitened. It serves to fixate and confirm, in Stuart Hall s (1980) terms, the preferred readings generated under the presumptions of the myth of whiteness. Complete with the music soundtrack, which also connotes a process of purification by charting a graduation from unruly sounds (an orchestra tuning its musical instruments and occasional natural sounds and thunder at the beginning), to the grand finale of big band jazz music at the end, this reinforces the myth that whiteness is desirable and pure. Given that the discourse of the advertisement bases its presumptions on the myth of white skin, it is loaded with ideological presuppositions that lighter skin tones are not only more beautiful, but also superior to darker ones. This is my interpretation as a Chinese male who grew up in a Hong Kong Chinese context. However, my response that critiqued the discourse, its ideological presuppositions and intended impositions was generally quite different from the responses of members of the Hong Kong and the UK focus groups. Hong Kong Focus Group Findings and the Scale of Whiteness Although the Hong Kong focus group participants were similarly highly educated, their responses to the advertisement were relatively diverse regarding the notion of whiteness and its entanglement with aspects of various social domains including gender, age and race as well as the cultural context. Perhaps more importantly, while many of the participants in both focus groups were aware of skin whiteness as a major notion in the discourse of the advertisement, not all of them perceived it as problematic, let alone did they challenge it. Even among those who perceived the notion as problematic, some still recognized the skin-whiteness notion as an accepted agent for social classification. The seemingly unproblematic nature of the advertisement is well illustrated in the case of the Hong Kong focus group, whose members articulated a clear, coherent and systematic mental image of a scale matching the class and status of different races to their skin colours and tones. According to this scale, Japanese and Northern Chinese women generally have the whitest skin and enjoy high status. Other Asian women, such as Filipinas and Indonesians, were described as coarse and not elegant enough because they have darker skin. Consequently, the Hong Kong focus group members positioned the latter women from Southeast Asian lower on the scale than Northern Asian women. The following excerpt illustrates the preciseness of participants mental image about who belongs where on the scale of whiteness. Participants pursued this line of discussion when I asked them whether they thought that people from other races would need to use whitening cosmetics, as well as Hong Kong people. My question sparked a discussion about which race, or rather the women of which race have the fairest and finest skin. Quote 1. Hong Kong focus group comments on women from different races (P stands for participant s number, prefixed by either HK (Hong Kong) or UK) HKP 2: They (Filipinas and Indonesian women) are less beautiful than the Orientals (referring to the Chinese and Japanese). You will find that they are coarser. They

7 have less fine facial contours. Even if they have pale skin, their facial features such as eyebrows and nose are still quite coarse. They re different from us. HKP 4: Their face shapes are less... HKP 1:... Not as delicate as we are... HKP 3: (laughs in slight disagreement) HKP 4: I think it s that their facial contours are less prominent. HKP 3: I think so... HKP 5: HKP 2: Who s the Fairest of Them All? 173 I think so too because I see a lot of Indonesians (domestic helpers). In fact if you look more closely, their skins are actually quite smooth. But they still don t look as elegant, because they re dark. Not elegant enough. They look like they can do a lot of work. If you put a Hong Kong woman next to one of them, even if their skin is just as pale, the Chinese woman will still come across as more elegant because of her face shape. Although the crux of the above quotation focuses on different facial shapes and complexions of various ethnic groups, both of these features are directly related to the colour of skin and were central to the participants perception of the scale of skin whiteness. In trying to explain why she thought that Filipino and Indonesian women were less desirable than Chinese or Japanese women, HKP 2 (an entrepreneur in her early 30s), claimed that it was primarily due to their facial features. Although having pale skin could help to improve their appearance, it still could not compensate for the coarseness of their facial features completely. HKP 5 shared the view expressed by HKP 2 that the facial appearance of Filipino and Indonesian women was not delicate. However, as the owner of a foreign domestic helper agency, she maintained that the reason for their appearing coarse was not their facial features, but the fact that they were dark skinned. The rest of the Hong Kong focus group made no attempt to address or resolve this contradiction about the cause and effect relationships asserted to obtain between facial features and skin tones, and the contradiction did not seem to challenge their firm and negative perception of Filipinos and Indonesians. As we shall see, throughout the Hong Kong focus group discussion, participants made similar circular arguments concerning skin tones and social factors such as class and age, where being dark skinned was at once held to be the cause and the effect of being poor and old (see quote 3). Compared with the Filipinos and Indonesians, the paleness and whiteness of westerners or of Caucasians complexions occupied a less distinct position on the scale of whiteness. While the participants acknowledged the positive aspects of being white, they maintained that the whiteness of Caucasians could not be compared to that of the Chinese, an assertion directly related to the notion of race. Below is another excerpt from the same conversation as quote 1, where the participants extended their discussion on whiteness to include Caucasian people: Quote 2. The Hong Kong focus group comments on the whiteness of Caucasians HKP 2: They re different... HKP 4: It s difficult to compare them (Caucasians) with oriental people. HKP 2: How do I put it... they are pale, but their skin often shows many blood vessels and they often have freckles...

8 174 Solomon Leong HKP 3:... And their skins are usually quite coarse... they are not as smooth as ours... HKP 5: Oriental skin is finer. HKP 2: It s difficult to compare... Our skin pores are much finer than theirs. Theirs are covered in blond hair... HKP 5: That makes their skin look very coarse. HKP 4: I think it has to do with their race. It is surprising, perhaps, that notwithstanding their explicit comments on other races, the participants never explained clearly the position of Hong Kong Chinese women on this scale. However, drawing on their comments that Hong Kong women s skins were better than those of Filipinos and Indonesians, and based on later verifications obtained from individual participants, the position of Hong Kong Chinese on this scale would be somewhere close to the highest, alongside Northern Chinese and Japanese. As the discussion continued, the participants extended their theory on skin tone and whiteness further into the realm of age and class. Being dark now not only signified working class, but also being aged. Here is another excerpt from the same discussion. Quote 3. The Hong Kong focus group comments on the relationships between age, class and whiteness HKP 2: HKP 4: Darker skinned people usually look coarser and rougher. This is a fact. Darker skin people usually give the impression that they are older or aged. Paler skin people look younger and more energetic. HKP 2: It (pale skin) looks smoother. Moderator: Would paler people give you the impression that they have a higher status? HKP 5: I think they would. HKP 2: Yes. I think if you are pale, the general impression is that you don t have to work much. (Laughs) Like you don t have to be in the sun for very long...and older people tend to be darker anyway. I mean it is natural. HKP 4: That s why darker people look more aged and older. HKP 5: It looks like they (referring to darker people) have to travel a lot. HKP 1: Yes. HKP 2: Farmers and fishermen are not generally pale. HKP 3: Those are more extreme cases. I mean they really are working people. HKP 5: If there are two women, both the same age and with the same office job, the darker one always looks older. It seems obvious that, for the Hong Kong participants, whiteness was the norm and they personally would prefer being pale rather than being dark; dark skin was the personal feature the participants stigmatized most. Stigmatized as being coarse to being old and being lower class, social groups such as the Filipinos and Indonesians were the target for much of the participants biases throughout their discussions of whiteness and skin tones. It is unsettling that, given the highly educated backgrounds of the participants, their unawareness of, or indifference to racial issues in the sense that they ignored the

9 Who s the Fairest of Them All? 175 contradictions expressed in their arguments (see quotes 1 and 3 and the discussions of them) contrasted starkly with the perspective of the analyst, who although also a native of Hong Kong, interprets the advertisement in ways that are very different from those of the Hong Kong group participants. The sociocultural backgrounds of the Hong Kong participants, their lack of exposure to a multiracial cultural environment, and the influence of their society s dominant discourse might partly account for this difference. For instance, while the analyst himself had the chance to live in a multiracial environment for a number of years and was made aware of racial issues, the Hong Kong participants, even though highly educated, derived their perception of darker people from media such as advertisements and films. Their contacts with and observations of dark-skinned people were often limited to the context of Hong Kong, where most such people, namely Filipinos, Indonesians, Thais and certain Indian groups, occupy jobs at the lower rung of the socio-economic ladder, usually as foreign domestic helpers (women) or in construction or the provision of security services (men). Participants HKP 1, HKP 2 and HKP 3 had no acquaintances in any of these ethnic groups. The only contact that HKP 4 had with a dark-skinned person was with a Filipino domestic helper in the context of her brother-in-law s household. None of the focus group members had occupations that brought them into contact with Filipinos, Indonesians, Thais or Indians. HKP 5 was the only participant who had come into direct contact with these populations. Nonetheless, as the owner of a foreign domestic helper agency, HKP 5 s work had also reinforced the relationship between skin colour and class she admitted during the later data verification stage that employers would usually prefer to employ domestic helpers with paler skin because they appeared cleaner. Similarly, the Hong Kong participants opinions on the whiteness of westerners and its position on the scale of whiteness also conformed to the sociocultural and even historical contexts of Hong Kong, where white people have consistently belonged to higher social classes, both in the colonial era and now as expatriates. This could be seen not only in the participants preference for western style advertisements, but also for products with English names, seemingly signifying sophistication. (In later verifications, HKP 1, HKP 3 and HKP 4 all expressed their preference for and trust in cosmetic products with names in English language.) Consequently, being immersed in the dominant social discourse of race intersecting with class, the stereotype of whiteness that the focus group participants held to was to a certain extent confirmed by their experiences and sociocultural backgrounds. Whiteness and Darkness in the UK Focus Group Coming from a more racially diverse context and being foreign to Hong Kong culture, the UK participants displayed a high level of self-awareness and reflexivity. This reflexivity not only accentuated the deeply rooted myth of whiteness observed in the Hong Kong participants, but also their unawareness of, or indifference to, issues such as racial political correctness. For instance, in contrast to the Hong Kong participants, who saw whiteness as an indicator of social status and femininity, such associations were not immediately apparent among the UK participants. Although one female participant, UKP 3, expressed a preference for darker, sun-tanned complexions, she did not associate these with particular races. Likewise, the rest of the group did not express any explicit preferences associated with race. Even though the participants

10 176 Solomon Leong made strong associations between females and cosmetics, the participants did not assign any clearly defined roles to either sex in terms of their understanding of the notion of whiteness. This was also the case in their understanding of being tanned, which participants did not consider as gender specific. Instead, they were more concerned about the suitability of using women in cosmetics advertisements and particularly about the age and class range to which the product may appeal. The participants considered the target audience of the advertisement to be females in their twenties to thirties. They believed that the advertisement was promoting an expensive product that only women in this age range will have the spending power to purchase. This strong tie between the participants perceptions of age and class was evident when they attempted to compare the age and class of people who purchased tanning products to people who would purchase whitening products. Participants thought of tanning products as a western thing for young women and whitening products as an Asian thing geared towards rich and older women. However, while the participants were fairly certain about the connection between the age and class of the target audience, the notion of whiteness and its social meanings was apparently foreign to them. This could also partly explain their particular emphasis on age and gender instead of race. Consider the following quotation, which illustrates the participants sense of alienation in regards to the Hong Kong cultural context. The passage makes it apparent that the participants were conscious of their lack of knowledge about the Hong Kong context of the advertisement: Quote 4. The UK focus group comments on target audience UKP 1: It depends on what the objective of the product is. If the objective of the product is to clean and to soften the skin whatever, in which case yes, I would say that the middle-aged woman is your target. But if the objective of the product is the whitening aspect then I would, as a total outsider not really knowing much about Hong Kong and where this is being aimed, I would have said it was more likely aimed at the younger woman. UKP 3: I would say that it s more what a younger woman would want. UKP 1: Because younger women... people are more susceptible to fads and fashions and whatever than the middle-aged women who are more interested in staying young. UKP 1: s reaction was shared by the rest of the group at various points throughout the discussion. But in this case, the participant s alienation from the advertisement has not only reinforced his preconceptions about the notions of age and class and how they are significant in his interpretation of the advertisement, but also the specificity of the otherness of the Hong Kong cultural context over the issue of whiteness, which he was not able to access. As a result, his interpretations of class and age were in effect more reflections and projections of his knowledge and imagination about the other and its relationship with whiteness rather than true representations of Hong Kong culture. The following is another quotation further illustrating this point: Quote 5. The UK focus group comments on being tanned and on whiteness UKP 2: One thing I must say though, because this is a product the English probably would never dream of looking at because we re all looking at fake tans and, you know,... stuff that makes you blacker, it s a bit hard to say exactly what you...

11 UKP 1: It s doing the same thing, the fact that it s a parallel in the opposite direction... doesn t matter. UKP 2: Do you think it s a parallel though? By drawing a parallel between tanned-ness and whiteness, the UK participants interpreted the myth of whiteness in ways radically different from those of their Hong Kong counterparts. Whereas the Hong Kong participants viewed pursuit of pale skin as an acceptable social practice, to the UK participants the concept was largely alien, owing to the differences in cultural contexts. However, by identifying such a concept as foreign, whiteness as a notion automatically became part of another myth about the cultural and racial otherness of Hong Kong. Given this perception, the UK participants did not define the issue of the self and other within the interpretive paradigm of whiteness and its relations to the notions of age, gender and class, but established it through distinguishing between the paradigms of whiteness and nonwhiteness and their respective significance in relation to age and class. Being highly educated professionals, the UK participants showed more reflexivity than their Hong Kong counterparts in reading the advertisement. Nevertheless, since none of them had travelled to Asia, they were strongly influenced by their own sociocultural backgrounds and contexts, not only on a conceptual level where they othered the notion of whiteness as essentially non-british, but also on the level of the form and style of the advertisement itself, where its supposedly less sophisticated other visual language was materially manifested. This could partly be explained by the fact that UKP 5 was a professional advertiser, who was keen to judge the advertisement against his perceptions of the ideal advertisement in the UK. As such, it was evident from his criticisms of the quality of the advertisement that for him a process of self - reaffirmation through imagining the backward other had taken place. Conclusion Who s the Fairest of Them All? 177 To conclude, I sum up the major implications of whiteness discussed in this paper. The Hong Kong focus group considered whiteness not as a discriminatory practice, but as an essential categorizing mechanism alongside other social stratifying agents such as class, gender and age. In this respect, the group s opinions reinforced the myth of skin whiteness with their almost instinctual preference for a pale complexion and its associated social connotations, be it in positive admiration or damning stigmatization. However, it is important to point out that by whiteness the participants were referring to a particular kind of whiteness that was specific not only to the construction of the identity of the participants self, but also to the socio-economic milieu or habitus of Hong Kong. The scale of whiteness, which mirrors the way different populations are located hierarchically in the minds of the participants, exemplifies how this implicit structure comes to be reinterpreted into practical guidelines for gauging social capital in everyday life (for instance, to identify the social class of certain individuals). According to this scale, the whiteness of the Chinese was associated with the whiteness of the Caucasians, but more with the whiteness constructed by comparing Hong Kong Chinese to other East Asian populations, who were considered less white, and inferior. Such precision in categorizing whiteness indicates and reflects the deep-seated enculturation and naturalization of skin colour or race in formulation of the self / other dichotomy. It reflects the social groundedness of whiteness as a source of social capital on

12 178 Solomon Leong the one hand, and the distribution of power in terms of gender and social class on the other. This comes in stark contrast to the UK focus group s perspective. Here, even with the phenomenon of the tanned complexion which the participants considered to be the equivalent of whiteness in terms of its desirability the associations of age, class and gender with dark-skinned people that participants made in their comments were much less structured and coherent than those of their Hong Kong counterparts. This demonstrates not only the cultural specificity of whiteness in the Hong Kong context, but also the significance of being white in the cultural paradigm prevailing in HK. Given this, the meanings of skin-whitening cosmetic products are complex, as they imply not only simple aesthetic preferences, but also racialized (Miles, 1989) statements when considered in a wider sociopolitical context. Fusing traditional and modern ideals of beauty, these advertisements are, on the one hand, effectively equating fairness of skin or whiteness with modernization (Johansson, 1998) and, on the other hand, they are racializing the aesthetics of beauty. Whiteness is becoming a complex notion that transcends class and wealth and now extends into the realm of race and ethnic identities. White skin no longer signifies class and wealth in a domestic context but is now also used to construct identity in a globalized culture. Instead of signifying identity in relation to an internal other, it now constructs a difference with an external other, namely the west. The quest for beauty is made into an international beauty contest where western women, whose pale skins are supposedly admired by Chinese women, in turn are said to admire the tenderness and smoothness of the skin of the Oriental woman. (Johansson, 1998, p. 64) While much of literature on the identity of Hong Kong (e.g. Ma and Fung, 1999) has concentrated on the binary relationship between Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese, where the Mainland Chinese were perceived as the significant other, this paper has explored the same issue of the Hong Kong identity but in terms of race. Through triangulating three different perspectives on the notion of whiteness, we are able to observe that sustaining the Hong Kong identity has depended as much on identifying the racial other as realized by skin tones, as it has on identifying the cultural other of the Mainland Chinese. References Anon (1996) Photo opportunity. Kodak, Fuji face off in neutral territory. China s vast market, Wall Street Journal Europe, 29 May, pp. 1, 7. Asia market intelligence. Available online at (accessed 21 July 2003). Barthes, R. (1972) Mythologies (London, Cape). Bienack, P. and Waldorf (1981) Snowball sampling: problems and techniques of chain referral sampling. Sociological Methods and Research, 10, pp Bonnett, A. (2004) Whiteness. In Ellis Cashmore (Ed.) Encyclopedia of race and ethnic studies (London and New York, Routledge), pp Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction (R. Nice, Trans.) (London, Routledge). Classifieds (2003) The Standard, 4 July. Cosmetics sales (2003) Shanghai Daily, 23 July. Davis, A. (1982) Women, race and class (London, The Women s Press). Diko tter, F. (1992) The discourse of race in modern China (California, Stanford University Press). Dyer, R. (1992) Only entertainment (London, Routledge). Featherstone, M. (1982) The body in consumer culture, Theory, Culture and Society, 1(28), pp Hall, S. (1978) Racism and reaction. In Commission for Racial Equality (Ed.) Five year views of multi-racial Britain (London, Commission for Racial Equality), pp

13 Who s the Fairest of Them All? 179 Hall, S. (1980) Encoding/decoding. In S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe and P. Willis (Eds) Culture, Media, Language (London, Hutchinson), pp Johansson, P. (1998) White skin, large breasts: Chinese beauty advertising as cultural discourse, China Information, 13(2/3), pp Krueger, R. (1994) Focus group: a practical guide for applied research (Thousand Oaks, Sage). Lilley, R. (2001) Teaching elsewhere: anthropological pedagogy, racism and indifference in a Hong Kong classroom, The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 12(2), pp Lock, G. (2003) Being international, local and Chinese: advertisements on the Hong Kong mass transit railway, Visual Communications, 2(2), pp Ma, K.W. and Fung, A. (1999) Re-sinicization, nationalism and the Hong Kong identity. In C. So and J. Chan (Eds) Press and Politics in Hong Kong: case studies from 1967 to 1997 (Hong Kong, Chinese University). Miles, R. (1989) Racism (London, New York, Routledge). Schwartz, S. (2002) Men find fair skin more alluring, South China Morning Post, 19 March, 6. Yuval-Davies, N. (1986) Ethnic/racial divisions and the nation in Britain and Australia, Capital and Class, 28, pp Appendix 1. Video script with corresponding images of Shiseido television advertisement for UVWhite Whitening Softener Words Images Music sound track Shiseido Narrator (male voiceover): Cleanses skin cells Written words: Cleanses thoroughly A medium shot of a Chinese woman s face with rain falling gently upon it. She is gazing afar with a refreshed expression. The logo of Shiseido is being superimposed onto the foreground of the screen. Alongshotofthewoman standing in an open space with a mountain as background. A flash of light changes the screen to amediumshotofthe woman s face again. With rain still washing her face, she uses her hands to brush back her hair. The camera pans slightly down her face as the screen changes to a black background with the words Cleanses thoroughly written in white. The sound of an orchestra tuning instruments before a concert begins. The sound of an orchestra tuning instruments before the concert begins, with a subtle sound of thunder as background. (continued)

14 180 Solomon Leong Appendix 1. (Continued) Words Images Music sound track Narrator (male voiceover): Infuse beauty whitening factors for you Written words: Pure beautiful white Both written and spoken (male voiceover): UVWhite whitening softener Narrator (male voiceover): Shiseido Written words: True beautiful whiteness begins with purification The screen dissolves back to the woman s face in the rain. The screen dissolves again to blackness with the words pure beautiful white written in white. The screen dissolves into a medium shot of the product. A woman s hand places on a bed of dried branches a bottle of Shiseido UVWhite whitening softener misted with water droplets. A close-up of the woman s face in the rain as she closes her eyes. At the bottom of the screen in white is the sentence True beautiful whiteness begins with purification. The orchestra tuning turns into an orchestrated piece of grand big-band jazz music. Big band jazz music. Appendix 2. Demographics of the Hong Kong and UK focus group participants Name Gender Age Education Profession Hong Kong focus group HKP 1 Male 27 University Data analyst in international financial firm HKP 2 Female 31 University Small trading business owner HKP 3 Male 29 University Web developer HKP 4 Female 26 University Solicitor HKP 5 Female 42 University Owner of foreign domestic helper s agency (continued)

15 Who s the Fairest of Them All? 181 Appendix 2. (Continued) Name Gender Age Education Profession UK focus group UKP 1 Male 35 University Accountant in city law firm UKP 2 Male 31 University Mechanical engineer UKP 3 Female 28 University Editor UKP 4 Female 24 University Shop manager UKP 5 Male 30 University Advertiser

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