Fame and Racism in Thailand

 


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“I think it has stemmed from a history of class comparisons, where the wealthy upper classes had fair skin from lounging around their mansions, and the working classes had darker skin from working outdoors in the fields. Someone from the upper class was seen as being more desirable due to their social status, and so accordingly, their fair skin was seen as a being a good trait, ” says 28-year-old actor and musician Montonn Jira when quizzed about why there may be a social stigma with regards to having darker skin in Thailand.

A common stereotype in Thailand is that many people believe that lighter coloured skin is more desirable than darker coloured skin. One only has to look at advertising, in magazines, on television and in cosmetics departments to see that there may be some truth in such an assertion.

Away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life on the street are a group of people who society deems as famous. Although these people may mingle with regular folk and go to the same bars and restaurants, there is ultimately a distinction between someone who is not famous and someone who is. Fame is something that has come to be idolized as there is some notion that famous people are the best looking, the richest and the most desirable.

When looking at fame in Thailand it appears at first that to be successful in the entertainment industry requires certain characteristics of a person, primarily lighter skin. Could it really be the case that it is more beneficial to be pale in certain industries, or is this merely a dated misconception often imposed on Thailand by foreigners?

DJ Nakadia’s story is one riddled with triumph and despair. From nude photo shoots to DJ sets in Ibiza, Nakadia has made a name for herself more so in Europe than her native Thailand, and often she has been quite vocal about how she has been held back because of the colour of her skin.

“When I play all the people are really nice to me and support me a lot, especially the Thai people and clubs, ” says Nakadia. “It is only when it comes to exposure by Thai-language media or the real business side of it, like recording contracts for example, that I have problems - these people are not very supportive. ”

This would seem to suggest that it is not so much the regular people that are posing a problem for Nakadia, but rather it is the industry itself and the media. The media spotlight is not renowned for longing to help darker skinned talent in the entertainment industry. Some may be quick to point out that Nakadia’s previous actions have cast something of a disreputable shadow over her image, but ultimately this is not an isolated incident.

Tony, a man who works in the entertainment industry in Thailand, had these words to say: “Working in the music field I know that behind the scenes the music business here instructs women to be sure that they look as white as they can. I would think that Thailand would be happy that they have a female DJ that is known all over the world, but she is a dark woman so there is not a lot of news of DJ Nakadia. What if Tata Young were a DJ? I am pretty sure that there would be posters up everywhere promoting DJ Tata. ”

DJ Nakadia played a set at the World Cup final, arguably the grandest stage of all for any Thai DJ in history. “If I was white , Thai TV would surely have put my World Cup performance on TV, ” says Nakadia. “A Thai performing in the final of the World Cup - it would be huge news if I was white. ”

Nakadia’s performance was not shown on Thai TV.

“I think when I started in the entertainment industry back in 1989, ” adds Montonn Jira, “there were many half-breeds getting into the business. I'm sure it made a difference for me at the time. ”

This raises another interesting point about the virtues of being of mixed ethnic backgrounds. From an outsider’s point of view, the phenomenon of the Luk-Kreung seems to be a dominant factor in achieving celebrity status, but how close to truth of the matter is this?

“I think [celebrities] are mostly half Thai because they have naturally what Thai people want, ” continues Tony. “Natural white skin that does not have to be maintained by skin whitening creams, and most of all they have all of the features that Thai people are fascinated with and get surgery to have: nose, chin, eyes, lips, and cheeks. I am not certain if it is the truth, but I think that when Thai people see dark skin, they think of someone out in the fields that is poor, which is, of course, at the bottom of the invisible caste system that is presented in Thailand. ”

Asian actress Sherry Phungprasert: “Many models that are darker skinned have left the kingdom and found success elsewhere. The majority of the country has tanned skin, so just maybe the people that are watching these shows [on television] show a bigger interest in the lighter skinned stars because there are a lot fewer of them and they are in some way drawn to their uniqueness. ”

This must surely be the point: light skin is something rare in Thailand and so because of its uniqueness it is, rightly or wrongly, deemed as more desirable. Much in the same way as someone from the UK desires tanned skin, so someone from Thailand desires lighter skin, and in elevating lighter skin to superstar status a situation is created in which it is more difficult to be in the public spotlight with darker skin.

The Thai celebrity circuit is evidently aware of the stigma that has gone with having darker skin. Sherry continues: “The word ‘dark’ isn’t so much what it is anymore, many are starting to call it a ‘tan’. ”

This seems like unnecessary political correctness. Whilst Sherry has no quarms about using the term ‘light, ’ the term dark is clearly problematic. To be truly politically correct surely we should all be using the terms ‘tanned’ and ‘non-tanned’. The fact remains that nobody has a problem being labeled as ‘light, ’ but there is some caution when it comes to labeling someone as ‘dark. ’

It would be naïve to draw the conclusion that Thailand directly discriminates against its potential stars. There are two sides to this argument.

Sherry is quick to speak out against the notion that there is racism in Thailand: “The perception of people with darker skin has changed over the years and a lot of actresses with darker skin are treated like anyone else. Mamee, the star of ‘Butterfly Man’, is probably up there with the Thai celebs that generate the most money. She’s sexy, sweet, talented and deserves respect. Benz *** chita stars in a few successful feature films a year and currently hosts a few TV shows. She is also respected in her area of work. Luk Mee, a model, does runway for successful designers both Thai and international. ”

The points made here are valid but Sherry seems to have chosen her words rather carefully, insisting that a lot of actresses (not all) with darker skin have been successful in their chosen paths, and even then it seems to have come after an initial stint elsewhere in the world.

Back on the topic of the mysterious Luk-Kreung, Sherry was eager to dispel a few myths. It would appear that in today’s market it is more complicated than simply being half Thai.

“I don’t think success comes from being half Thai since many of the actors and actresses here are in fact full Asian, ” says Sherry. “I don’t think that most Thai celebs are half Thai at all. ”

Whilst this may wash away a stereotype, it does not effectively deal with the issue at hand. It is not about being Thai or half Thai, it is about the tone of a person’s skin. Montonn Jira continues:

“I think there is a difference in the mentality of those being of mixed nationality, ” he explains. “There seems to be a connection between those who have spent time abroad as well. It may be a language thing. It also just so happens that a lot of the mixed kids in the entertainment industry speak both Thai and English. They also went to the same schools and have that childhood connection. Beneficial? In some cases it definitely is. There is a shared look amongst mixed kids, allowing for work abroad as well as locally. ”

This suggests that those coming from mixed backgrounds have the upper-hand in the market because of better opportunities to work internationally, but this creates a dangerous situation in which a stereotype arises that depicts people coming from a mixed race background as superior in terms of ability to work. The ability to work abroad seems to dictate how successful a person can be in Thailand. So where does this leave those Thai people who do not come from an international background? Does this mean that for the most part they will be hampered in their chosen career paths?

“There was a wave of Luk-Kruengs that started working in the entertainment industry a while back, ” adds Montonn Jira. “It may have been the strange look they had that attracted casting directors and set the trend, but I'm not exactly sure why. They may have been looking for something new at the time and figured these kids had something special. ”

Although he generalizes with the term Luk-Kreung, something Sherry was uncomfortable with, this goes some way to showing that in Thailand there has been a buzz with regards to the look of people coming from mixed race backgrounds. Whether or not this buzz comes out of paler skin is debatable.

“If you look at the media, ” says Nakadia, “nearly 100% of the people on TV, in magazines, in promotion, they have a light skin. Now there are a few stars with a black skin also, but really not so many. ”

Sherry seems to be wary of this point, although she never says it directly. What she does say, however, about the media speaks volumes in itself: “I think this whole issue stems from how the media floods the public with how great it is to be white with all the overrated products that apparently lighten your skin. You can’t just miraculously become white if both your parents are naturally dark. But besides this whole media bubble that traps people with its lies it does not affect how we as actors and actresses are treated unless it comes to body care treatment products that goal towards making you look whiter. ”

The Thai public is inundated with information about how lighter skin is better. Sherry is clearly aware of this, but she also says that this does not affect how an actor or actress is treated. It seem paradoxical to think that in a country where the image of being white is desirable there is no impact on someone with darker skin, especially when trying to achieve success going against the grain of certain industries.

On a level away from the celebrity circuit, it is well documented that darker skin can be problematic for an individual living in Thailand, as Tony points out:

“When I first came to Thailand I met a Thai man on the BTS who had just opened up an English school and he needed some teachers, ” he explains. “I agreed to help him out and I started teaching a few classes. I noticed over the weeks that my classes were getting smaller, and my friend's (who is white) classes next door were getting overcrowded.

“The director of the school had a parents meeting and asked the parents what was wrong. Most of the parents stated that dark skinned people are “no good not smart, ” and that white people are superior and everything they do is good. I have stopped counting the times that taxi drivers will not take me because they say that I stink. I always ask them “How do you know that I stink?. ” The response that I get is that all black people stink. ”

Thailand as a nation appears to have a fascination with whiter skin. This must surely be part of the problem. Sherry herself already implied that there is a difference between how people are treated and viewed because of the color of their skin when she mentioned the uniqueness of a pale face. This is the root of where discrimination comes from.

It would be outrageous to claim that fame is dependent on skin color, but clearly there are several factors on hand that can influence how successful a person can. That is not to say that all darker skinned people are discriminated against, but when the general population is led to believe that white skin is an ideal to strive towards, it follows that this will have an impact in the areas where products are sold which revolve around the phenomenon of the celebrity.

The author of this article can be found at WhatisMatt.com

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