Malaysian Singer Defends Use of Brownface to Raise Awareness About ‘Sunburn’

Singer Haoren came under fire for featuring a Chinese model in brownface in his latest music video for the song “White Doll.”
Brownface, YouTube, Malaysia, haoren
A still taken from Malaysian singer Haoren's controversial music video for the song White Doll” that depicts brownface. Image: Courtesy of Haoren's YouTube channel

A Malaysian Mandarin pop singer has apologized for featuring a model in brownface in his latest music video, saying that his original intention was to portray someone who was “sunburned.”

Singer Choo Hao Ren, more popularly known as Haoren, released his new single “White Doll” on Sunday. The 3-minute music video, which also served as an official advertisement for a local skin whitening product, featured popular Malaysian Chinese Instagram influencer Qiu Wen, who played the role of a schoolgirl mocked by classmates for her tan complexion. 

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In the video, Haoren plays her secret admirer who gifts her with skin whitening products, soy milk, and protective clothing, which eventually helps her skin become fairer — a move lambasted on social media for being “distasteful,” “offensive,” and “racist.”

In a 7-minute YouTube video addressing the controversy titled “I was wrong, I’m sorry,” Haoren said it was never his intention to create “racially insensitive topics.”

“I only wanted to imply the effects of sunburned skin,” he said to his 430,000 followers on YouTube.

While he apologized profusely multiple times, Haoren remained adamant about his original intentions: saving a female lover from the dangers of sunburn.

“As you can see, I wanted to emphasize taking care of sunburned skin because in real life, we get sunburnt so easily in Malaysia. Everyone has been ignoring the idea I was meaning to express,” said Haoren, who added that the character was based on the true life story of his girlfriend. 

“We all live in multi-racial Malaysia and it is still a continuous journey for me learning about topics like racism, and I do not in any way support racial discrimination. In the future, I will be more careful in representing my art in the right way.”  

The music video reportedly generated about 190,000 views before it was taken down. It was also deleted across Haoren’s social media accounts following the public backlash in Malaysia. The singer confirmed that the video would be re-edited and re-uploaded at a later date. 

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Upon its release, the video was immediately slammed by viewers and Malaysian social media users.

“How is it acceptable in this day and age, especially given how racially-charged Malaysia has become, to even put out insensitive garbage content like this? The apology that followed failed to make up for such an offensive video,” wrote an Instagram user before the video was deleted from the app.

Asia’s obsession with fairness and whitening products has fueled a multi-billion dollar beauty industry and Haoren’s video is not the first to stir outrage in Malaysia. In 2017, pharmaceutical and beauty chain Watsons released a highly controversial advert which depicted actors in blackface. Similar controversial ads and videos have regularly made headlines in other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and the Philippines. 

In Singapore, a series of government ads promoting electronic cashless payments went viral in 2019 after featuring a Chinese actor in brownface. 

Vocal Singaporean YouTube star Preeti Nair, more famously known as Preetipls, weighed in on the controversy and addressed issues and stigma among minority races and communities.

“A Chinese girl is painted brown for a music video and then shown to be bullied for ‘being black’ and literally tries to erase her dark skin,” she wrote on Instagram. 

“That’s the reality of a lot of actual brown people and some sick rite of passage in schools, to be made fun of for being darker skinned.”