In a society consisting of archetypes, stereotypes and shallow perceptions, you can notice a lack of diversity in our representations. Thanks to the media’s simplified portrayal of different communities in our society, there is a superficial view of each person based on their religion, gender, sexual orientation, lifestyle, class, status—and let’s not forget ethnicity.
Case in point? Asian-American representation.
According to Hollywood portrayals of Asian characters, the Asian-American community is commonly comprised of East Asians (generally Japanese or Chinese) with pale skin, jet-black hair, and a knack for Kung Fu or samurai skills. If you look at the map of the entire continent of Asia, what else can you see apart from Japan or China? You’ll notice that there are also scores of other countries, among them Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia and the Philippines.
Thanks to those kinds of East Asian-centric stereotypes in Western films, Southeast Asians are facing a lack of representation. As a film fanatic, I watch a lot of films. The only mainstream film from the past few years which has prominently featured Southeast Asian actors was The Bourne Legacy, which was set in a few locations in the Philippines. The director, Tony Gilroy, praised the film’s Filipino actors: “There’s a really rich talent pool there.” Even so, those actors played only minor roles in the film—which only further feeds into the overarching pattern of overwhelming invisibility faced by Southeast Asians in media.
And the dominance of East Asia in the Western consciousness has consequences that go far beyond a lack of Hollywood representation—consequences like prejudice, racism and even colorism towards the Southeast Asian community. The lack of inclusive Asian representation in the West also filters back into Asian society: because Southeast Asians don’t fit the image of “Asianness” created by the West, we often aren’t regarded as “Asians”—even by other Asian-Americans.
Perhaps the dominance of East Asian representation in the West has to do with the perception that East Asian countries are well-developed nations with strong economies. Given the perception of South Korea and Japan as techno-paradises, I can see why “math nerd” or “science genius” stereotypes dominate East Asian portrayals. On the contrary, you don’t hear many stories about Malaysian valedictorians or Khmer engineering experts; in my experience, I’ve noticed that people tend to perceive Filipinos as “nurses” or “beauty queens” because the Philippines is best-known for its beauty queens and for the families immigrating to countries like the UK or the US to attain a “better life” (most notably through the NHS Trust scheme whereby they recruited nearly 40 000 foreigners to work for the NHS).
As such, the Philippines and other countries in Southeast Asia are generally seen as “third-world countries” awash in poverty. But the Philippines is more than just a poor country with Miss World glamour girls: it is a nation with a very rich and diverse cultural history, a nation which fought for independence for centuries during the 300-year Spanish colonization and which in 1986 became the first Asian country to have a female president.
Additionally, Southeast Asia is also known for its tropical and humid climate, hence the reason why the countries are popular tourist destinations and why Southeast Asians are generally dark-skinned. However, due to a East Asian belief in pale skin as a symbol of purity and status, Southeast Asians have faced censure and dissatisfaction with their tanned skinned tones. Growing up, I’d always see my mother applying Pond’s whitening cream all over her tanned olive skin, and I would ask her why. “White skin is beautiful,” she’d tell me. But I never understood why: born and raised as a pale child, I envied my sisters for being dark and thought they were more beautiful than I was. My closest friend, who is also Filipino, has a gorgeous golden-brown shade, but she always hides it away with paler makeup. “White skin looks nicer,” she’d explain. My mother and my friend hated their dark skin—a feature that defines them as a Southeast Asian—because if white skin symbolized purity and cleanliness, well, that must mean darker skin represented something “dirty” and “poor.”
I didn’t know there was any harm in a Southeast Asian desiring a lighter skin colour like mine. I thought it was just another beauty trend—until a stranger asked me if I was Japanese. When another person I knew mistook my ethnicity for East Asian, I realized that my pale skin made me look more Oriental than Southeast Asian: not once have I met a person who guessed that I was Filipino without knowing my Filipino friends and family. It made me realise that what my fellow pinoys are asking for is to erase the appearance of being Southeast Asian—to overwrite the skin that was created by their country’s tropical sun.
In recent years, I’ve begun doing my part to fight against the lack of Southeast Asian recognition and representation and to combat the colorism we face. Zines and endeavors like Tiger Balm Project, which I worked on last year, have made it their mission to prioritize the voices and art of Southeast Asians. Because let’s face it: if we want to shift the media narrative, if we want recognition for Southeast Asians in popular culture, we have to start shifting the tide ourselves.
And the sooner Hollywood catches on, the better.