Malaysian musician Choo Hao Ren slammed for music video featuring Instagram influencer Qiu Wen in brownface

Choo Hao Ren and Qiu Wen in the Snowbebe advertisement.
PHOTO: Screengrab/YouTube/ Johny's Channel

A Malaysian Mandopop singer’s music video has caused an uproar online for having an ethnically Chinese woman appear in brownface to depict a tanned character.

On Sunday (Jan 24), YouTube personality Choo Hao Ren, known by his stage name Haoren, released the video as an advertisement for a skin-whitening product called Snowbebe.

The main character was played by Qiu Wen, a popular Malaysian Instagram influencer, who was slathered with make-up to achieve a darker skin tone – a move lambasted online for evoking brownface.

The music video, White Doll, opened with two schoolgirls mocking Qiu Wen for her tanned skin. Choo was cast as her secret admirer, who left her numerous skin-lightening remedies including whitening drink sachets. Two months later, a cascade of animated sparkles revealed Qiu Wen’s lighter skin tone, with her classmates fawning over her transformation.

While Choo’s music single has not attracted huge interest, with over 190,000 views on YouTube before it was taken down, news of the apparently racist video touched a nerve among netizens. It has drawn fiery responses, including calls for Choo to be cancelled, while he was also criticised for propagating antiquated ideals of equating fairness with beauty.

“This is disgusting, wrong, dehumanising and stupid. Educate yourself, I don’t [care] if the idea is to show a message,” one Instagram user wrote. “The girl in the video can take off that make up but [there are people who] deal with discrimination every day of their lives. If you want to highlight that, you wouldn’t do something like this.”

PHOTO: Screengrab/YouTube/朱浩仁Haoren

Another wrote: “It’s not OK to make fun of darker skin tones in any way. It’s not OK to use make-up to fake a darker complexion on an actor. It’s not OK to create disrespectful narratives without the creative control and voice of those who are discriminated against.”

Choo defended the video with a comment on Instagram that said it was “simply a story of a girl who was bullied for her tanned skin, so I wooed her with gifts to keep her happy. I am still fond of her despite her becoming tanned again in the end. Whether you favour your partner being tanned or not is a personal preference, please don’t get the wrong idea.”

Some of the singer’s fans have stepped up to defend him, with one YouTube user responding that it was “common to see Malaysians with tanned skin”.

In the music video, Qiu Wen was given a cardigan, sunblock, soya milk, an umbrella, and the advertised drink sachet presumably to lighten her skin tone. While it depicted beauty products as having an effect, the constant exposure to sun led to her skin becoming tanned again.

Choo’s agency, WebTVAsia, said the singer would release an explanation via a YouTube video on Monday night.

Choo, 32, began his music career in 2008 at a Chinese singing competition called Astro’s Star Quest . Since then, he has released various albums and theme songs for television shows, while also dabbling in acting in the past few years.

In 2017, beauty chain retailer Watsons Malaysia found itself in hot water for a 15-minute comedy skit that featured an actor in blackface. The video was lambasted on social media for its racist and sexist tones, eventually leading to the video being taken down and an apology from the company.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.