White out

Pim Wangtechawat

Cris Horwang in the infamous commercial

To say that Asia, particularly Thailand, has an obsession with whiteness is putting it mildly. Whiteness is not just a skin colour in Thailand. It is the height of perfection, the pinnacle of sophistication.

Visitors to our country are greeted with this notion from the moment they step off the plane. Advertising posters and billboards adorn Bangkok, all of them showing people who are extraordinarily beautiful, extraordinarily airbrushed and, yes, extraordinarily light skinned. When you switch on the television, you will see famous actors, who are also light skinned, doing commercials for skin-whitening products for both men and women.

One such commercial, starring popular Thai actress Cris Horwang, garnered global attention when it was released. The commercial showed the pale, petite actress addressing the camera directly, talking of “neglecting to take care” of herself by letting “the whiteness I have invested in vanish” and how, “just being white, you will win”. Her skin colour is then digitally altered until it becomes black, leaving her desolated. It was a modern, tech-savvy way of putting on a “black face” that would put US frat boys to shame. The commercial was eventually pulled, but the fact that it was ever approved and filmed in the first place should force the entire nation to take a look in the mirror.

For as long as I can remember, heroes and heroines in Thai films and soap operas have always been, like Cris Horwang, light skinned. Actors with darker skin are villains, sidekicks or comedic figures. Rarely are they portrayed as desirable, three-dimensional characters. A darker complexion means poverty, lack of education, ugliness. A stranger gushing over how “white” you are is code for how “good” you look. To be white in Thailand is to have it all: sex, money, influence, respect.

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