Pan-Asian Beauty Battle

While Singapore Airlines has spent 35 years building its brand around the Singapore Girl – whose sexy-chaste figure, clad in a clinging floor-length dress, has become almost the emblem of Singapore itself – modeling agencies across Asia have spent an equal amount of time trying to come up with an Asian face that doesn’t look like any particular nationality whatsoever.

It’s called the pan-Asian face, and it usually means olive skin, black hair – and probably a Caucasian parent. That sticks in the craw of Zainuddin Maidin, Malaysia’s information minister, who in January demanded that the number of pan-Asians be reduced on local television and replaced with ethnic Malay faces. Already, two government-owned television stations are forbidden to use anything but Malay models in their advertisements.

Malaysia is a particularly difficult case. The country’s uneasy racial balance has been sensitive for decades – ever since 1969 when ethnic tensions exploded into violence that took the lives of what are believed to have been hundreds of Chinese and Malays. The country is 60 percent Malay, 25 percent Chinese and about 7 percent Indian. Over the last year, ethnic Malays, who control the political dialogue in the country, have become increasingly xenophobic on a wide range of issues.

Beauty now has joined that parade, particularly as a rising tide of mixed marriages, not only in Malaysia but across much of Asia, seems to be creating a new super race of beautiful women. Over the past couple of decades they have taken Asia’s modeling world by storm and changed the very definition of international beauty. They largely dominate magazine advertisements, fashion shows and catwalks from Singapore to Manila to Hong Kong. Some modeling agencies, like Elite Model Management of Hong Kong, have built their business on the faces of mixed-blood models.

It hasn’t always been thus. Not too many decades ago, mixed-blood children in much of Asia were treated as pariahs. In some countries, particularly Japan, Korea and Vietnam, where they were the product of occupying American military forces, they were particularly ostracized. But as soldiers have been replaced by well-to-do western businessmen and women who have taken Asian spouses, their progeny have done considerably better.

They are a vast and variegated mix, ranging from American-Filipino, Thai-German, Japanese, Lebanese and Swiss. One of Malaysia’s hottest models is Maya Karin, a German-Chinese-Malay combination. Sara Malakul Lane, with Looque Models of Singapore, is a descendant of the Thai royal family whose father was a British corporate executive. Her mother, Madam Tuptim Malakul Na Ayuthaya, 53, is a descendent of King Rama II.

It isn’t the first time Malaysia has gone after outside models. This is a predominantly Islamic country after all where large numbers of Malay Muslim women wear the mini-telekung, a snood-like garment that covers every part of their heads except their faces. A small minority, particularly in the poor, fundamentalist Northeast, hide in the full black telekung, only a windshield for their eyes. Arrayed against them are Chinese and Tamil women whose miniskirts would do credit to London or New York, and a sizeable sprinkling of more moderate Malay women as well who have forsaken the conservative dress.

“Malaysia has been very protective and sensitive about being less competitive compared to the faster- developing countries across the region and therefore, began to apply what we call MIM (made in Malaysia) in the 80's,” said Anthony Leung, head of television production for JWT Hong Kong. “The goal of the rule is to secure business within the country thereby guaranteeing a certain level of work remains produced on Malaysian soil. Pan Asian models are extremely popular because they blur the boundaries of races and can capture a wider audience without being offensive. This hard-to-categorize group quickly becomes regional advertisers' favorites because they can share regional resources further as well as better manage their assigned budgets.”

Much as American advertising and movie companies work African American actors and models into their products as a kind of social contract, in Malaysia regional or international advertising agencies work ethnic Malaysian models into their advertisements.

Some advertising executives say Maidin’s move is going to backfire, though, because Malaysian advertising agencies will be less competitive across the region.

One of the tragic codas to the phenomenon of Asia's mixed-blood children was in Vietnam, where children in Montagnard villages in the Annamite Cordillera were fathered by French foreign legionnaires in the 1950s. They were conspicuous with their brown hair and blue eyes in the 1960s and 1970s when they were in their teens or early 20s, just about the age of American fighter pilots shot down over the country during the war. The sightings of these children, filthy and in largely tattered clothes, probably gave rise to rumors of captured US servicemen in cages. Sylvester Stallone would ultimately star as John Rambo, the fictional, renegade Green Beret who would go back to Asia to rescue the supposedly emaciated veterans in two movies. Chuck Norris, with his B-grade Missing in Action movies built an entire career on the fiction of US boys rotting away in the jungle. For two more decades, Americans believed the Vietnamese continued to hold missing US servicemen. No trace of a single imprisoned American serviceman has ever been found.

“I am no expert on the subject matter but I can assure you that multinational clients will spend less in Malaysia or they will produce target-specific campaigns in much smaller sizes in order to reach Malaysian viewers,” Leung said. “To me, this is not just a matter of promoting the use of local faces in advertising, it is segregating the community into labelled camps and Malaysia will once again be one step behind.”

Because mixed-blood models are the country’s most sought after, Maidin’s proposed ban has kicked off a storm in Malaysia’s fevered blogging scene, with heated commentary on both sides – a good deal of it sounding like jealousy.

“I have always laughed at the fact that so-called pan-Asians ‑ people of mixed Asian-European descent ‑ are overrepresented in advertising here,” wrote one. “After watching a week’s worth of ads on Malaysian TV, foreigners here could be forgiven for thinking every Malaysian has creamy white skin.”

Another, blogging as “Ducky,” wrote: “Just because (mixed-blood models) were fortunate enough to live overseas, makan (eat) bacon and eggs for breakfast, have afternoon tea, be exposed to overseas culture, mix with a variety of foreign people or breathe orang putih (white man) air, does that make them less equal?”

“What the hell is up with the whole ‘Pan-Asian’ thing anyway?” wrote a third. “Shouldn’t that mean they just have a general Asian look, like they could be from any Asian country? You’d think so, but somehow in Malaysia the term has come to mean ‘one parent is Malay or Chinese but the other one is white’. Eurasian seems more accurate, but for some reason people here call mixed-race Malaysians like my son Pan-Asian. Very odd.”