Sunday 30 October 2016

Shane Pow! Mediacorp's Toggle gets black eye over blackface

At least now I know what not to wear for Halloween this year.


Instead, maybe I’ll go as Shane Pow.

Except nobody will know I’m Shane Pow unless I go in blackface.

But I can’t go in black face because I would then have to apologise like Toggle did — twice.

And also, you know, because it’s racist.

Admittedly, I had never heard of Shane Pow before I read about his controversial make-up choice in an episode of the Mandarin comedy series I Want To Be A Star produced by Mediacorp.

I have never seen the show. It’s not on Channel 8 or U, but on video streaming service Toggle, which is sort of like Mediacorp’s version of Netflix.

And like Netflix, Toggle also produces its own original content. I guess you can say I Want To Be A Star is Toggle’s Orange Is The New Blackface.

In the episode in question, Pow played an actor who put on blackface make-up and an Afro wig after a casting director failed to find an African man for the role, reported The Straits Times.

So at least the blackface wasn’t gratuitous. It was plot-motivated, not that that made it any less racist.

On Wednesday, Toggle apologised on Twitter, saying:
“Ep 6 of I Want To Be A Star on Toggle Originals featured a brief scene on the portrayal of an Afro-American, played by actor Shane Pow.

“The scene has been perceived as being racially insensitive by some viewers, although that was never our intention in the production.

“We appreciate the feedback and truly apologise to viewers who have been affected by this portrayal. The relevant scenes have also been removed from the programme.”

Toggle’s apology was more poorly received than my column.

You go to Twitter to say sorry, Twitter will make you really sorry.

Here are some of the replies:
  • “This isn’t an apology. Admit someone made a mistake during the production process instead of blaming the viewers’ ‘perception’.”
  • “So I take it that @ToggleSG and @mediacorp still don’t have an issue with blackface? Only the viewers’ reactions?”
  • “Remove yourselves from existence please.”

The backlash got so bad that the next day, Mediacorp’s head of connected media Anil Nihalani had to apologise for the apology:
“Our apology yesterday came out wrong. We’re sorry for the blackface portrayal and for the poor apology.

“We take race-related issues very seriously and that portrayal should not have happened.”
To show how serious he is about his apology, he also apologised on Facebook, not Twitter.

Last year, another Mediacorp artist, Desmond Tan, was also criticised for posting on Instagram a photo of himself in blackface and a turban.

I can see how this happens.

In a local entertainment culture where male comedians have made a career out of pretending to be another sex (see Liang Xi Mei, Liang Po Po, Aunty Lucy and maybe Kumar?), why not another race?

Look at Gurmit Singh.

If a Singh can play Phua Chu Kang, why can’t Desmond Tan play a Singh?

I’m old enough to remember watching on Channel 5 a BBC programme called The Black And White Minstrel Show, where the male performers were all in blackface and everyone seemed fine with it. The popular series lasted from 1958 to 1978.

But this is 2016.

You can still find the show on YouTube if you want to be horrified by casual racism packaged as lavish song-and-dance numbers.

Nowadays, you can no longer get away with Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese man in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) or James Bond going undercover as a Japanese man by getting Vulcan eyebrows in You Only Live Twice (1967).

Or can you?

Last week, I saw Doctor Strange, where the character of The Ancient One, who appears Asian in the comics, is played by the very Caucasian Tilda Swinton.

Well, at least they didn’t give her Vulcan eyebrows.

I’m also old enough to remember when Darlie toothpaste used to be Darkie toothpaste and the logo was a black man (or possibly a white man in blackface from The Black And White Minstrel Show) wearing a top hat.

The name was finally changed in 1989 and the logo became a man of indeterminate race wearing a top hat.

Unfortunately, in Chinese, the product is still called “Black Person Toothpaste”.

Because of these mixed signals, perhaps it’s understandable if not excusable that Toggle thought that blackface was acceptable comedy fodder.

One can only wish that Singaporeans could be at least less racist than a toothpaste.

For Halloween, I think I’ll just go as 200 eggs.

- Published in The New Paper, 30 October 2016

UPDATE: IMDA fines Mediacorp $5,500 for racially insensitive content