Canadian actress apologizes for darkening her skin to star as a domestic worker in Hong Kong drama series

A Hong Kong TV series is being criticized for making a Canadian-born Hong Kong actress darken her skin to play a Filipino domestic worker.

In an episode that aired last week, Calgary-born Franchesca Wong wore brown makeup to portray Louisa on O’Karma Barracks 1968a supernatural drama on Hong Kong broadcaster TVB.

According to South China Morning Post, Louisa works for a couple who suspect her of using voodoo, calling her “creepy”. Wong also impersonates a Filipino accent for the role.

The performance, which was both criticized and praised by the Hong Kong media, inspired discussions about discrimination against migrant domestic workers. Critics called Louisa a “caricature” and noted that the use of dark makeup and the hiring of a non-Filipino artist is disrespectful to Hong Kong’s migrant worker population.

Most domestic workers in Hong Kong are from the Philippines, Indonesia

There are around 340,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, according to Reuters. The New York Times put the figure at 370,000, adding that these workers make up 10% of Hong Kong’s total labor force. Most come from the Philippines and Indonesia.

A 2017 report of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that the domestic worker population in Hong Kong suffers exploitation, inhuman treatment and abuse at the hands of their employers.

On Tuesday night, Wong shared a written apology on Instagram for his portrayal of Louisa. A previous video of her applying skin-darkening makeup, joking that she was “tanning in the sun”, was widely shared on social media.

“I sincerely apologize to everyone who has been negatively affected in any way by the 7th Chapter of ‘Jei Jei’ from O’Karma Barracks 1968 drama series and my role in it,” she wrote.

“I really have no intention of disrespecting or racially discriminating against any ethnic group, please forgive me for misleading.”

In a statement to CNN, broadcaster TVB said Wong’s portrayal was a success and praised her for using “professional acting techniques” to play Louisa.

“We would like to emphasize that it was never our intention to disrespect or discriminate against any nationality in any of our programs,” they wrote. The broadcaster pulled the episode for changes.

“Flatly ignorant, insensitive and utterly disgusting”

Consul General Raly Tejada, the Philippine envoy to Hong Kong, mentioned in the South China Morning Post that the show is “downright ignorant, insensitive and utterly disgusting”, adding that TVB’s statement was no excuse.

The use of brownface and blackface is considered a racist and dehumanizing act, with historical origins in minstrel and vaudeville. White performers often wore dark makeup to mimic black or brown people, using exaggerated gestures and accents for comedic effect.

WATCH | The Canadian-Chinese actress applies brownface, uses a Filipino accent in the video:

The practice flattens racial identity into skin color and other physical characteristics, reducing entire communities to one-note stereotypes.

Wong’s depiction of a Filipino worker on O’Karma Barracks 1968 shows how light-skinned non-white people can use this practice to portray and even disparage darker-skinned people.

Sometimes the term is used to describe white or light-skinned actors who play another race, whether or not they wear makeup. In the movie AlohaEmma Stone plays a character that would be quarter Chinese and quarter Hawaiian.

Other high-profile examples include Johnny Depp, who played the Native American character Tonto in The Lone Ranger, and Robert Downey Jr., who wore blackface in Thunder in the tropics.