Theatre

Anchuli Felicia King’s play White Pearl explores the complex subtexts of the Asian obsession with skin-whitening cosmetics. By Yen-Rong Wong.

White Pearl

Lin Yin, Nicole Milinkovic, Cheryl Ho and Mayu Iwasaki in White Pearl.
Credit: Phil Erbacher

My Taiwanese piano teacher was obsessed with being pale. She’d wear gloves, big sunglasses, a long-sleeved shirt and a visor whenever she went outside, especially in the height of a Brisbane summer. “I just don’t want to get tanned,” she’d say. It was years before I understood the reasons behind her desire for milky white skin.

Priscilla Jackman’s production of White Pearl at Queensland Theatre delves into some of these reasons, revealing that this obsession with whiteness is not just skin deep. Playwright Anchuli Felicia King employs comedy to drive an incisive perspective on how race, capitalism and imperialism underpin the burgeoning business of skin-whitening cosmetics in Asia.

White Pearl begins with Priya Singh (Vaishnavi Suryaprakash) and Sunny Lee (Cheryl Ho) in damage control after a racist advertisement for White Pearl –  cosmetic company Clearday’s skin-whitening range – is leaked on YouTube. It’s close to a real-life incident that happened in 2016, when Qiaobi, a Chinese business that sells laundry products, released an advertisement in which a Black man was pushed into a washing machine and emerged as Asian.

Priya and Sunny are soon joined on stage by Ruki Minami (Mayu Iwasaki), who looks after the Japanese branch of the business, Soo-Jin Park (Deborah An), Clearday’s chemical consultant, and Built Suttikul (Nicole Milinkovic), a Thai heiress and head of the Thai branch.

Between scenes, a projected ticker logs an ever-increasing view count, as well as tweets and comments on social media responding to the ad. This commentary – mostly in English, but at times in Chinese and Korean – spans the spectrum of expected public reactions, from outright racism against Black people to outrage on their behalf in the form of blatant anti-Asian racism. This feature of the set, designed by Jeremy Allen, brings a realism to the production that will resonate with anyone who has watched any comparable event unfold on social media.

Damien Cooper lights the main stage of the Bille Brown Theatre in a glowing millennial pink. The set switches seamlessly between the Clearday office, the lobby and the office toilets located on stage right. A surprising amount of action happens in these toilet cubicles. It’s here the audience first meets an inconsolable Xiao Chen (Lin Yin), the head of Clearday’s Chinese operation. In addition to being blamed for the current fiasco, Xiao is under constant surveillance by the Chinese government and harbours real fears of being disappeared because her father is a main witness in an anti-corruption case in China.

Soo-Jin, Xiao’s only confidante, coaxes her into the office with promises of KFC, and together the five women – frantically attempting to prevent the advertisement from gaining the attention of the Western media – begin to draft a statement for the press. When Soo-Jin voices common Asian prejudices against Black people and those with darker skin, a division starts to form in the already highly strung Clearday office. Soo-Jin’s insistence that an Asian audience will find the ad funny despite its overt racism also has a basis in real life – the Qiaobi laundry detergent ad aired for months in China without fuss before it was picked up by Western media organisations.

Priya rightfully rebukes Soo-Jin for her comments but in the process reveals her own internalised racism. She mocks Soo-Jin for her supposed inferior education and lack of lateral thinking, even though the Korean woman has a master’s in biochemistry. This is hinted at earlier in the play, when Priya and Sunny disparage Xiao and GBB, the Chinese firm that filmed and approved the advertisement. It’s no surprise that Priya – the beneficiary of a British education, complete with posh British accent – and Sunny, who is from Singapore, a highly Westernised society, hold managerial positions in the company.

And while Priya is well-versed in race relations in the West, she still conflates North and South Korea when mocking Soo-Jin, although it’s unclear whether this is born of ignorance or an act of deliberate malice.

There’s a twisted irony in the outrage directed at Soo-Jin, because it is clear the entire business – and the skin-whitening industry at large – is itself founded on an imperialist, white supremacist ideology.

In a flashback to a staff meeting a year earlier, the women celebrate Clearday’s mounting success, before exploring new strategies to manipulate their fellow women into purchasing more of their products.

Soo-Jin reveals that White Pearl products push the boundaries of acceptable levels of bleaching agents to the very limit, and Ruki and Priya note that most skin-whitening creams don’t even work, relying on a placebo effect. This is the metaphor at the heart of the play – the system of imperialism that dominates the world means that everyone aspires to whiteness, even though everyone also knows that the white people who hold this institutional power will never accept anyone who isn’t white.

It turns out the advertisement was leaked by Marcel Benoit (Matthew Pearce), a French photographer and Built’s ex-boyfriend. He agrees to take down the video if they get back together, and also threatens to expose her for embezzlement based on trading currencies if she doesn’t. It is uncomfortable to watch Marcel repeatedly twisting her words and telling her she’s the crazy one in their relationship, with his emotional abuse culminating in sexual assault.

While this plotline is interesting for its exploration of capitalism and the double-edged sword of material wealth, it feels rushed. Perhaps it should have been fleshed out more, especially as there are comparisons to be drawn between Built’s reliance on money to bring her power and Xiao’s lack of power, despite her supposed wealth.

Even so, White Pearl is a funny, heartwarming play that presents Asian women as three-dimensional, allowing them to be loud, rude, irreverent and outspoken. It’s still rare to see a cast that is mostly women, let alone Asian women. For me, it’s refreshing and comforting to see Asian women represented complete with authentic accents and without caricature.

Its dark comedy provides a sharp critique on the interlocking impacts of racism, capitalism and imperialism, not only on us as individuals, but on the world at large.

White Pearl is a Sydney Theatre Company and Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta production. It is playing at Bille Brown Theatre until July 10; STC Wharf 2 Theatre from July 19 to September 4; Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, from  September 9-11; and Canberra Theatre Centre from September 15-18.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 26, 2021 as "Skin deep".

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Yen-Rong Wong is a writer of creative nonfiction currently based in Meanjin (Brisbane).