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In Session: Critical Race in Asian Studies II: Performance, Visuality, and Beauty
4: Beauty, Race, and Pain in the Sinophone
Thursday, March 25, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
On February 5, 1931, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post published an article on a new ordinance in Singapore to prohibit the sale and import of cosmetics containing lead. The article described several Chinese women in Singapore who had been blinded or paralysed by lead-laced face powder, while others had given birth to babies with birth defects and stillborn infants. The article claimed the powder was manufactured in Guangzhou, where women had also been poisoned, and that the cosmetics had travelled to Penang and across the Malay Peninsula. How and why did the poisonous powder travel from its site of production in Guangzhou to Singapore, the Malay Peninsula and Hong Kong only to be consumed by Chinese women, and why would women seek whiteness at a cost to their health?
To answer these questions, this paper traces a genealogy of beauty, race, and pain across the Sinophone, from footbinding and whitening powders to cosmetic surgery. Contrary to ideas that Western standards dominate global beauty, this history reveals that Chinese women forged regional racialized beauty ideals through manipulating their bodies, and that the Chinese female body has been both an expression of Chinese power and a symbol of its weaknesses. The duality of Chinese racialized beauty reveals that while pain is only made visible in moments of powerlessness, even the racialized beauty practices of the empowered can only be achieved through artifice, pain, and violence.