With her large, double-lidded eyes, small sharp nose, narrow face and tall figure, popular Chinese actress Dilraba Dilmurat is, in many ways, the epitome of beauty in Asia today.
The 25-year-old sprang to prominence two years ago when she starred in Pretty Li Huizhen, a Chinese television show and remake of the South Korean drama She Was Pretty. As of last year, she had 40 million followers on the popular social media website Weibo, making her the second-most-followed celebrity after Chinese actress Yang Mi, who has around 80 million followers.
After photographs of her at a 2017 fashion show appeared online, netizens gushed with comments like: “Dilmurat’s skin is so white it glows”, “Her skin is whiter than white”, and, “So white and beautiful”.
A Weibo user reported: “I saw a beauty who resembled Dilmurat on the bus today. Being near a beautiful woman who looks mixed [Asian and] Western, makes me sigh over such amazing genes.”
The fascination with facial features and skin tone that are a mix of Eastern and Western, referred to as Eurasian or Pan-Asian, has made celebrities of actors, models and others in the entertainment and advertising scene.
It has also kept alive the never-ending debate over concepts of beauty, and whether Asians have fallen too hard for Western ideals of good looks instead of celebrating their own.
Dilmurat, who commands up to 100 million yuan or US$14.8 million per drama, also happens to be an ethnic Uygur. Since 2014, the mostly Muslim minority group of 11 million from China’s Xinjiang province has been subjected to a crackdown by Beijing, which claims the area faces a serious threat from Islamist extremists. There have been allegations of mass detentions and re-education of hundreds of thousands of Uygurs.
Other Uygur celebrities include actress and model Gulnazar Bextiyar, who represents fashion house Fendi and jewellery brand Qeelin, model Parwena Dulkun and actor Merxat Yalkun, who sports a K-pop boy band aesthetic.
Their Pan-Asian blend of European and Asian features have helped make them famous, and this has been the case for others elsewhere in Asia.
In Thailand, Urassaya Sperbund, who is half-Thai, half-Norwegian, appears in local ads for Uniqlo and Maybelline, and is a Thai brand ambassador for fashion house Louis Vuitton.
For the blockbuster hit movie Crazy Rich Asians, half-British, half-Iban Malaysian actor Henry Golding was cast as Nick Young, the wealthy Singaporean Chinese lead character.
When Miss Philippines Catriona Grey won the Miss Universe 2018 pageant last December, there were murmurs in the country over the Filipino-Australian’s looks. Some felt she did not look Filipino enough, and represented too Western an idea of beauty.
In China, actress Angelababy (Angela Yeung Wing), who is one quarter German and three quarters Chinese, earned 200 million yuan in 2017, and appears in campaigns for fashion-house Dior and watch brand Tag Heuer. She has denied persistent rumours of having undergone plastic surgery, insisting that her European grandfather’s genes explain her looks.
Emma Teng, the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao professor of Asian civilisations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says intermarriage and intermixing among ethnic groups date back to antiquity. The notion of “mixed races” in Asia was invented during the era of European imperialism from the early 1800s.
“After the Portuguese and other European traders arrived in China, mixed families emerged across different sites where Europeans and Chinese commonly interacted,” she says.
In fact, the terms Eurasian and pan-Asian are relatively new, with no agreed-upon definition of either.
“You will find many arguments regarding the term online,” says Teng. “In some places, such as Singapore, there is a historical definition of the Eurasian community that is fairly widely accepted. However, that particular definition does not fit well with the reality of intermarriage and mixed families today. These families are becoming increasingly global, spanning diverse cultures.”
While they’re often viewed as a novelty today, many Eurasians once obscured their ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Teng says, many Eurasians were called “half-castes” and denigrated for their mixed parentage. To fit in, most chose to “pass” as either Asian or European.
Today, those with Western features have come to represent the beauty ideal in many parts of Asia.
Nathalie Africa-Verceles, director of the University of Philippines Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies in Manila, says: “If you look at our popular movie stars or models, most of them are half Filipino and half European, Australian, American or White. Those are the standards – they’re fair-skinned, slim, with high cheekbones and straight noses.”
It is no different outside the Philippines, she notes. “It’s the same everywhere. You go to Thailand and it’s the same. All across Asia.”
There are no exact numbers for the minority Eurasian communities in Asia, and their ethnic heritage is varied, reflecting the Europeans who arrived over the centuries and married locals.
So India has its Anglo-Indian community and Sri Lanka has Dutch Burghers. In Malaysia and Singapore, Eurasians include those with Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and British ancestry. Elsewhere, in the Philippines, Macau, and Hong Kong, Eurasians make up a small but visible portion of the population.
In much of Asia, the Eurasians are a reminder of colonial legacies, and admiration of their Pan-Asian features reflects a combination of Western beauty standards and the globalisation of mass media.
The way Africa-Verceles sees it, Asians have been inundated throughout their lives with images of Western models and celebrities in advertisements and media.
“If you ask me what I find beautiful, I would probably tick off women who look European or Eurasian because I don’t know any other way of looking at beauty,” she says. “That’s what I was taught.”
The notion that Western looks are superior to what is indigenous is part of the post-colonial mentality.
“Many of the current beauty ideals are so far from what we are born with,” she says, pointing out that unlike the new Miss Universe, many Filipinos have darker skin, rounder faces, smaller eyes and curly black hair.
Scholars believe indigenous facial features and darker skin tones became racialised and devalued through colonial rule.
In his 2012 book The Search for the beautiful woman: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives and Aesthetics, Meiji University professor Cho Kyo writes that a people whose civilisation is regarded as highly developed is likely to be viewed as physically appealing, whereas an ethnic group deemed “backward” is considered ugly.
“As long as the ‘backward’ culture remains unaware of its backwardness, members do not think of themselves as ugly,” he writes. “But once hierarchical consciousness is established, the aesthetic of physical features rapidly changes. This is the reason that, today, Westerners are considered beautiful. It is not just Westerners themselves who think this; people in developing countries also do.”
THE EYES HAVE IT
Pale skin has long been a beauty ideal in many Asian cultures.
“Historically speaking, skin tone can refer to your status in society,” says Brenda Alegre, a gender studies lecturer at Hong Kong University. “If you had darker skin tone, you worked under the sun.”
Under Western colonial rule, white skin came to represent not only class, privilege, but also Westernisation and development.
In East Asia, the most dramatic change has been in the “de-orientalisation” and rejection of the shape of Asian eyes. An entire aesthetic surgery industry caters to demand for larger eyes with double eyelids, but this was not always the preferred look.
For people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent, the single eyelid was previously not only a norm, but also an ideal look.
Women with slim eyes are of tender nature, whereas those with large eyes are hussies
Novelist Li Yu
During the Qing dynasty in China, “thin, long eyes” were desired, whereas “large, wild eyes” were considered rough and less attractive, according to 1600s playwright and novelist Li Yu. “Women with slim eyes are of tender nature, whereas those with large eyes are hussies,” he wrote.
Nearly two centuries later, that view prevailed in much of the region, including in neighbouring Japan.
During the early 1800s, Japanese men and women deliberately made their eyes look smaller to appear more “dignified”, according to Sayama Hanashichimaru, a cosmetics researcher during the Edo period from 1603-1868.
“Eyes that are too large are unsightly,” he observed. “Some people narrow their eyes, forcefully, attempting to make them smaller.”
But those views changed in the 20th century, with the fall of imperial China and the increased Western presence in the region, and early instances of double eyelid surgery were performed.
Most experts agree that it was not until the American occupation of South Korea in the 1950s that double eyelid surgery took off in a big way in East Asia.
American surgeon David Ralph Millard, who pioneered cleft palate operations and other aesthetic surgery, was stationed in South Korea in 1954 when he was approached by a Korean interpreter who implored for Millard’s help in changing his eyes from “oriental” to “occidental”, as chronicled in the American magazine Wilson Quarterly.
He felt that because of the squint in his slant eyes, Americans could not tell what he was thinking and consequently did not trust him
American surgeon David Ralph Millard
“He felt that because of the squint in his slant eyes, Americans could not tell what he was thinking and consequently did not trust him,” wrote Millard, at the time. “As this was partly true, I consented to do what I could.”
The surgeon not only made the man’s eyes wider, but also gave him a new, raised nose bridge so that he appeared more Western.
Today, the double eyelid operation is among the top five most-performed plastic surgery procedures in the world, with more than 1.3 million done in 2017, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. And in Asia, South Korea is the acknowledged leader in plastic surgery.
The South Korean plastic surgery market was worth US$26.3 billion in 2016, and is expected to grow to US$44 billion by 2025. In South Korea alone, 980,313 plastic surgery operations were recorded in 2014.
But while the American influence on the spread of double eyelid surgery in Asia cannot be denied, experts say today’s preference for double eyelids is not just about “looking white”.
“I think the idea that Koreans get plastic surgery to ‘look white’ is ridiculous,” says CedarBough Saeji, a Korea Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “You can think a white person is attractive and get plastic surgery or strive to look a certain way not out of a desire to look white, but for other complex reasons.”
It reflects the culture of “lookism” and the extreme level of competition in South Korean society.
“Just because a procedure may bring a feature of someone’s face closer to a Western feature, it doesn’t mean the person is not motivated by the desire to fit into a highly competitive society riddled with lookism as everyone else living in East Asia is,” Saeji says.
RACE AND PRIVILEGE
Teo Ser Lee, Miss Singapore 1988 and founder and director of the Protocol Etiquette Academy, a Singapore-based etiquette school, says Eurasians and those with Caucasian features have long been favoured when it comes to media and advertising in Singapore.
Recalling her days taking part in beauty pageants, she says: “In the 1980s, out of 20 contestants there might be one or two Eurasians. They always stood out from the rest of us Chinese or Malays. The Eurasian was always the first to get maximum publicity and sponsors.”
She did not find it unsurprising at the time. “When we were in school and we had classmates who were mixed, they’d be singled out in a good way,” she says.
“Everybody wanted to be their friend. It was really a status symbol and it hasn’t changed.”
Teo, who says she has been mistaken for being multiracial herself, estimates that up to 70 per cent of fashion, beauty and lifestyle ads in the city state feature Eurasian models today. “From my observation, Eurasian models are most sought after for print commercials in luxury properties and branded products,” she says.
In Japan, fashion insiders estimate up to 40 per cent of the nation’s top models are of mixed Western and Japanese parentage, according to CNN report.
Celebrities including Kiko Mizuhara, Meisa Kuroki and Rola are some of the most popular faces in local ads and brand campaigns.
In South Korea, half-Korean, half-American child model Ella Gross shot to stardom in 2017 after her mother shared photos of the 11-year-old on social media. She has more than two million followers on Instagram. Local and international press have not only been taken by her “doe-eyed look and dainty features” but have also called her “the most gorgeous child model in the world”.
Beyond the celebrity world, some say there are advantages to looking Eurasian.
“I think I could pass for white,” says a Hong Kong-based half-British, half-Chinese finance industry worker in his late-20s. “Mediterranean people, people from the Central Asian Caucasus area look like me.”
He adds that he benefits from appearing “exotic enough” for Asians, yet local enough for Hongkongers to feel comfortable around him. “When I speak Cantonese to people in Hong Kong, they welcome that and treat me better,” he says.
If there are benefits, there are expectations too. Jay, a half-Malaysian, half-Australian writer in his mid-30s, says he has been out with Caucasian and Asian women and friends have told his dates: “Think about how gorgeous your kids will look.”
“There’s a lot of Pan-Asian bull**** that gets knocked around,” he says. “A philosophy that we should be embracing people of indeterminate ethnicities and backgrounds is great, but what it means in reality is that lighter-skinned mixed-race people get exoticised, fetishised, and get modelling contracts.”
Ultimately, experts say notions of racialised beauty standards need to be examined.
“There’s no basis to try to divide human beings according to this fantasy of skin colour,” says Michael Keevak, a professor of foreign languages at National Taiwan University and author of Becoming Yellow, a book about the racialisation of Asia.
“It’s totally unscientific. It’s based only on racial prejudice and its motive every time is to privilege one group over another,” he says.
It is simply racism, Keevak says, when people make statements such as “I want to have mixed children because they’re more beautiful”, because that mixture is judged as better or more beautiful.
“The mixture is real, biological and genetic and this may affect appearance,” he says. “But if you evaluate that appearance as better or worse, beautiful or ugly, then you are internalising racism.” ■