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Enough With Crazy Rich Asians - The Industry Needs to Reflect Southeast Asian Diversity


A perspective on Asian representation in Southeast Asia from Eunice Tan, managing partner of Junk Desk, The Secret Little Agency’s Cultural Bureau

Enough With Crazy Rich Asians - The Industry Needs to Reflect Southeast Asian Diversity

Wearing a flaming red bikini, thigh-high boots and a flowing cape, Philippine-born Singaporean Bernadette Belle Ong walked down the runway at the 69th Ms Universe competition in Florida with a clear message. Hand-painted down her billowing cape in red and white were the words “Stop Asian Hate”. On her Instagram post, she said “This costume is inspired by the Singapore National Flag. The red represents equality for all. White symbolises everlasting virtue. Singapore is a place for all races and they are very proud to be Asian. It sure would be great, to #StopAsianHate.” 

The movement for Anti-Asian-violence started in the West in response to racism against Asian Americans related to Covid-19 and has grown to spark conversations about prejudice and representation globally. Whilst originating from the West, it has sparked debate on a larger issue of Asian prejudice and representation in Southeast Asia. In a poll conducted by Rice Media, 75% of readers agreed that the costume worn by Ms Ong was tone-deaf. While efforts to champion this important issue abroad were appreciated, some argue that it seemed to ignore how the issue affects Southeast Asians closer to home. 

The region’s population of 655mil people is rich with diverse ethnic groups from the Malays, Javanese, Khmer, Eurasian, Muong to Cantonese just to name a few. Indonesia itself sees 583 dialects and languages spoken on the archipelago alone. What does Asian representation mean for Southeast Asia? How does that impact the work that ad execs and CMOs create? 

“Asian” isn’t a homogenous concept

“What makes Asian millennials tick?” That seems to be the perennial question that marketers ask every year with no answer nor end in sight. Often spending large budgets on research to derive some clues to unlocking this proverbial puzzle. Part of the answer lies in the question itself. The truth is, there isn’t one Asian, there are many. What it means to be “Khoun Khmer” in Cambodia completely differs from what it means to be part of the “Sandwich Generation” in Singapore. When we ask homogenous questions, we create homogeneous advertising and content that only reinforces existing stereotypes. 

In March 2020, a Singaporean was beaten up by a group of men on London’s Oxford Street who told him, “I don’t want your Coronavirus in my country”. Singaporeans reacted with confusion. A colleague said, “he’s not even from China, can’t they tell?” To the West, all Asians seem to look the same. Clearly, this shows that it has transcended from an image issue to a real problem in the wake of the pandemic.

The Pan Asian face 

This becomes a real problem when the industry doesn’t celebrate Asia’s diversity enough. Advertising in the region often depicts a “type” of Asian. Enter the Pan Asian face. A face that represents Asia, but miraculously does not depict any nationality whatsoever. The Pan Asian face has both Asian and Caucasian features, and typically comprises of black hair, fair skin, almond-shaped eyes, accompanied by a western accent. Across Southeast Asia, you will find the Pan Asian face in commercials, modelling agencies and casting calls - a symbol of Western aspiration for the rising middle class. But, as the region’s consumers become empowered as content creators themselves through social media, diverse Asian faces are emerging naturally. User-generated content shows indigenous facial features and darker skin tones because well, that’s part of who we are. It’s critical that the industry catches up to this, and hopefully, we can finally say goodbye to the Pan Asian face. 

Tell the rich stories (not necessarily of the “crazy rich” kind) 

“Crazy Rich Asians” launched to great anticipation, grossing USD 238.5mil in box office sales. It was hailed as a significant step forward for Asian representation in Hollywood as the first movie to feature an all-Asian cast for 25 years, the last being Joy Luck Club in 1993. Singaporeans were rife with excitement as the film featured locations across the island nation. In the wake of it’s premiere in Singapore, many were left with mixed feelings. Happy to showcase the beauty of Singapore to the world, yet bitterly asking, “Is this us?” East Asian features. White collar jobs. Boarding school accents. “The only brown faces in the movie were the guards outside the mansion”, another colleague exclaimed. “The world probably thinks we’re rich snobs who overcrowd Louis Vuitton whilst holidaying in Europe,” she added.

In an era where opinions are formed and shared at the speed of light, we owe it to ourselves to start telling richer stories about who we are and where we come from. Because at the heart of it all, we come from an industry of storytellers. We strive to not only sell, but to make people actually feel something. We are called to tell stories about our consumers - the modern mom, the gamer, the multi-generational family or the busy executive. We profile and depict them in our work. Work that ultimately tells people what we think of them and how they lead their lives. 

Work that makes our children proud 

This region is seeing a seismic shift in human migration. As Southeast Asia develops, a rising class of young, empowered individuals are moving across cities and countries to gain better life and work experiences. Over the past decade, we’ve seen workplaces getting younger and more diverse. A confluence of backgrounds, life experiences and ideas are perfect ingredients for making interesting work, because the simple fact is that interesting people make for interesting work. 

As a new generation of Southeast Asian talent enters the workforce across both agencies and client organisations, we need to ask, “Will they be proud of the stories we tell?” What will they say when asked about the talent we cast, the scripts we write and the mediums we use? How does this shape the culture we want to build and leave behind for the new creative class? Instead of making work that makes us proud, it’s time we start creating work that makes our children proud.

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The Secret Little Agency, Fri, 18 Jun 2021 14:01:00 GMT