HONG KONG (WOMENSENEWS)–Each day, an estimated 3.5 million people ride on Hong Kong’s rapid transit lines, a captive audience for the advertisers who pack stations and train cars with flat-screens and multimedia billboards with their ad campaigns.
One video you might easily find yourself staring at promotes lingerie and is made by the Japanese company Wacoal.
In the lingerie ad, a serious young man first runs his hands over the bosom and buttocks of a thin woman with dark hair. He is then shown working in a futuristic laboratory crafting undergarments from his observations. In the final scene, an Asian woman with long blond hair and light skin wears a diaphanous gown to highlight her newly sculpted hourglass figure and turns to smile seductively at viewers: She has taken on Caucasian features.
Although the idea of women as commodities is nothing new, the outrage expressed by groups such as the Women’s Media Center in the United States is nowhere to be found in Hong Kong, where the sculpting and paling of the model comes as no surprise.
"I think it’s a conscious effort that they are featuring Caucasian models," Royce Yuen, chair of both the Ogilvy Group in Hong Kong and of Hong Kong’s Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies, said in a phone interview.
Caucasian models, he said, are used to sell everything from real estate to cheap clothing. The advertisers are not doing it because they "might as well" use the same ad in Hong Kong as elsewhere, Yuen said. They do it because "it gives people the impression that they’re more international and more premium."
In Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, most clothing stores–ranging from high-end retailers like Prada and Burberry to the mid-range Zara–use the same non-Asian models they feature in campaigns in Europe and North America.
Widely Held Ideal of Whiter Skin
Pale skin is a widespread cosmetic ideal in Hong Kong. But while many women follow sun-deflecting trends like carrying parasols, others try more drastic measures.
Skin-bleaching is common, according to Synovate, a global market research company with offices in Hong Kong. In 2004 the firm conducted a survey of 2,500 women in Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan and found 38 percent used skin-whitening chemicals.
The treatments–creams and soaps–fill the shelves of Hong Kong cosmetic stores. In Taiwan, whitening products accounted for as much as 35 percent of cosmetic store sales, according to a 2004 International Market Research Report conducted by Industry Canada.
"In Hong Kong, whitening is very popular, if not the most popular skin treatment," said Yuen. "Every big brand offers a whitening and moisturizing line."
Many whitening creams contain hydroquinone, a pigment-altering agent that has been linked to cancer. A 2000 study in the British journal Carcinogenesis found a link between hydroquinone exposure and genetic damage, specifically aneusomy, a condition linked to breast cancer. And a July 2008 Canadian government report noted that the chemical can also potentially cause liver or kidney damage.
Products using the chemical are banned in England and deemed risky–although not prohibited–by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, which has little regulatory authority over cosmetics. The European Commission considers hydroquinone a substance that causes concern because of its possible carcinogenic effects but says more investigation is required.
Women Aren’t Fazed by Ads
Despite the warnings, Hong Kong women aren’t likely to change habits soon, said Virginia P’an, a business analyst and the chair and CEO of China Pacific Partners, based in Westport, Conn.
P’an, who has worked in the Pacific region, including Hong Kong, for 30 years, says little of the advertising toward women has changed in that time.
"A good part of Asia is still an agrarian society. Being whiter-skinned shows you aren’t a laborer or a farm worker," she said. "These are cultural trends that are not going to shift overnight. It’s only new if you haven’t been in Asia before."
P’an added that the ideal should be understood in a cultural context: It’s "basically harmless" except for its effect on women’s pocketbooks.
But some academics refuse to write off the demand for whiteness as a mere cultural preference. In a 2003 paper, professors Pat Goon and Allison Craven of Monash University in Malaysia chalked up skin whitening to the creation of a "hybrid creature, a dream-doll with Asian features and Caucasian skin."
Wacoal denies the ads are promoting an imposed foreign standard. "We are not trying to make women change," said Wacoal spokesperson Ellis Hui. The body image presented in the ad about the sculpted woman, along with the skin tone change, is part of the total image, she said.
Stressing Thin in Media Messages
The lingerie ad’s assumption of thinness–the model who is made over is extremely thin–is part of the mainstay of advertising in many societies. But in Hong Kong, the call for thinness is often taken to extremes.
Advertisements for slimming centers, laser treatments to "melt" fat from the body, diet pills, diarrhea inducers and girdles appear on the subway, in newspapers and magazines, on television, and in billboards across the city.
At the same time that economic liberalization led to the deregulation of media images, rates of eating disorders among women increased, according to a 2002 study from the Chinese University in Hong Kong.
Authorities have tried to regulate dangerous slimming techniques and products. In August 2008, the Hong Kong government issued a warning about ARMA-Sin Gang San, an over-the-counter weight-loss supplement that caused "hallucinations and confusion" in an Indonesian woman. Following the incident, the Hong Kong Department of Health confiscated boxes of the substance and arrested three people involved with its distribution.
But despite such incidents, slimming is still a major pastime for Hong Kong women. Kat Yeh, 20, a Hong Kong native who attends school in the United Kingdom, said she believes the desire to be thin and light-skinned is rooted in a "typical Asian perfectionism."
Yeh, who wears size 6 clothing, says family members frequently tell her she should lose weight.
"Chinese people more than white people I think have an image that slim is perfect. That is pretty common, and if someone says you’ve gotten fatter you don’t take it offensively, like if someone said that to you in the States," she said. For Yeh, and for many of her peers, being deemed too fat or too dark is an accepted part of social and family life.
Yeh said she noticed that after growing up in Hong Kong. "Even slim people go on diets because the whole city’s image basically revolves around being thin, and also being white."
Another Hong Kong native, Alisha Haridasani, 19, said she finds the extreme appearances that result from over-slimming disturbing. "You go to the beach and it’s actually scary. Some of the women are so, so thin."
Katherine Reedy is an undergraduate senior at Columbia University studying political science and international relations. She worked for Women’s eNews in spring of 2008 as a development intern, and spent the summer of 2008 as a reporter at an English-language lifestyle magazine in Hong Kong. This is her first article for Women’s eNews.