Why do Taiwanese people want to be white?

I don’t mean white as in Caucasian, but as in not tanned.  Which, if you live on a tropical island, is pretty damn hard to do.  It leads to all sorts of uncomfortable clothing choices.  While myself, and most other westerners are running around in shorts, wife-beaters (sleeveless T-shirts) and sandals, lots of Taiwanese are plodding along in long sleeve shirts, wide brimmed hats and long trousers – during million degree days.

Just watching these people walk around in clothes hot enough to fry a phoenix gives me heat induced comas.

One could argue that this is a style thing, and Taiwanese put a lot of emphasis on looking professional and not “bummy”.  But there is clothing available that’s comfortable as well as stylish, so I don’t think it’s all style.

And then there is the curious sight of people (mostly Tawanese women, but sometimes also men) walking around with umbrellas on a perfectly sunny, rainless summer day:

I’ve come to realize that this is about exposure to the sun more than anything else.  You see, Taiwanese people want to be fair.  Fair , fair , fair – no tan.  Which is totally backwards compared to where I come from.  Everyone wants to be darker and tanning salons are milking peoples obsession with…uhh..dark meat.

But here on the other hand, everyone wants to be milky white.  So why this opposing view of beauty?  And why do these people go to such uncomfortable lengths to achieve ghost-like complexions?  Asking around has yielded a few ideas.

It should be noted that this is from a small town perspective.

1) Western obsession

Everyone and their dog in Taiwan is obsessed with the west – mostly all things American.  So naturally, they equate beauty with the western ideal of beauty – fair skin, blonde hair etc etc.  This seems to be the most obvious answer, but I’ve discovered that even before the ancestors of Taiwanese people had regular relations with the west, white skin was heavily prized.  So while this may be the case in modern days, the obsession with being fair goes further back than the west.

2) Cover up imperfections

It was explained to me that having fair skin helps cover up imperfections like wrinkles or freckles.  In fact, there is even a saying – “一白遮三醜” (Yī bái zhē sān chǒu) Which means one white covers three uglies.

This was a little confusing because it seems to me that fair skin would only enhance the appearance of freckles and wrinkles – providing more contrast, whereas a darker complexion would help hide them better.  But, years of family wisdom passed on in Taiwan says otherwise, so who am I to argue.  Apparently white skin helps cover up imperfections and signs of aging.  Who knew?

3) Dark = dirty

I tried not to take this personally as I am of a darker shade, but I guess some Taiwanese believe that dark = dirty.  When I asked how this applies to white (Caucasian) people with tans, the answer invariably turned out to be “Oh…it looks good on white skin, but looks dirty if you’re not white.”

I see.  I’ve heard that people of colour tend to be discriminated (negatively) against here, and now I understand why.  They are dirty, dirty rats.  Hmmmm…I wonder if this also extends to not shaving and having a 5 o’clock shadow.

4) Dark = unsuccessful, worker type from underdeveloped Asian country

Successful people have fair skin and labourers have dark skin.  Didn’t you know that? – It’s obvious!  Labourers (from Asian countries lower on the economic scale than Taiwan) who work out in the sun, doing menial jobs for a pittance of money, are all dark.  Of course, a respectable Taiwanese doesn’t want to be mistaken  for such a person.  No sir.  Having fairer skin implies being successful – working 12 – 16 hours a day in an office, 6 days a week.  In this case fairer skin pegs one as being from upper class as opposed to a lower class.

So there you have it.  A few reasons why Taiwanese are obsessed with being fair, and the justification behind some of the ridiculous clothing choices I’ve observed.  It seems that this mentality is quite deeply rooted in the Taiwanese pshyche – I can’t see any other reason why people would expose themselves to such discomfort.  For the regular Taiwanese, it’s go white, or go home!

14 Responses to “Why do Taiwanese people want to be white?”

  1. 1 Steven May 20, 2013 at 4:13 am

    i hate to hate, but having lived in Thailand, i have had previous experience with the “white phenomenon”… your first sentence is where you actually went awry.. “i don’t mean white as in caucasian”… uhhh… well, obviously nobody will actually come out and say this (except me, evidently) but that is EXACTLY what they want… the Thai people were more open about the “undesirable” look of “tan”… in your 1 to 4 list, it’s number 4 that is the predominant reason for staying “light”. dark means poor, but it also means…. well…. DARK… i’d be shocked if you admitted to me that you have been out with us whiteys and not noticed a difference in treatment at say a restaurant, bar, or shop in Taiwan… i notice it with an American friend of mine wtih Filipino parents and she looks ASIAN! (though, DARKER… and i could write a new blog post on filipinos in Taiwan– we should hang out and discuss…)

    • 2 islandsidechronicles May 20, 2013 at 4:24 am

      I’m not sure what you are trying to say here – that Taiwanese people want to stay fair because that’s more like caucasians or that they want to be fair because it makes them appear to be of a higher class?
      Being like Caucasians would be a relatively new motivation, but Asians have admired light skin way before all things American became poppular here.
      I’m still not totally sure, but I think it’s much more about a class thing than a wanting to be caucasian thing..this from my experience being out with “whiteys” as you say. As soon as I start talking and it come out that I’m from Canada, things change, but prior to that more attention is definitely diverted to the white people in the group. Once I’m lumped with the “westerners” my skin colour doesn’t matter any more.

  2. 3 trentus May 21, 2013 at 1:50 am

    I reckon you have pretty much hit the nail on the head with the dark=poor thing. And from my experience, it’s not just the foreign workers who look dark. There are many Taiwanese, and dare I say it ‘aboriginals’ who do outdoor labour and as a consequence have dark skin.
    I have however noticed that there are quite a few younger people who don’t mind the sun, such as girls who have no problem spending the day on the beach in i bikini, but these are a minority. I personally think the really fair-skinned Taiwanese look unhealthy.

    • 4 islandsidechronicles May 21, 2013 at 3:04 am

      I’m glad that you brought up the aboriginals, a factor that I totally missed. Agreed in that dark skin makes one look aboriginal – also undesireable (forget the fact that one of the most popular music stars, A-mei, is aboriginal).
      And as for the girls in bikinis – I guess you have to head to Kaohsiung for that eh?

  3. 6 kiwipom91 May 21, 2013 at 10:52 am

    This whole wanting to be pale instead of tanned used to be commonplace in the west, and for pretty much the same reason as you mentioned: the socioeconomic factor. If you were tanned, it meant you were a farmer-type, a poor labourer who worked outdoors. Rich ladies would always carry parasols around to stay pale. It began to turn around in the Victorian era, when it became fashionable for the rich to go on holidays, and poor labourers were forced into workhouses, never seeing the sun. By the mid-20th century, if you had a tan, it showed you were rich enough to afford holidays, and so having a tan become desirable.

    • 7 islandsidechronicles May 21, 2013 at 2:53 pm

      Interesting how social perception changes with trends eh? One day being fair is in vogue, the next, tanned rules the social scene. Made me think of the fact that lobster used to be poor fisherman food, and is now an expensive, upper class table gracer. Unfortunately, things in eastern culture are VERY slow to change, so I don’t think we will be seeing a switch in perception anytime soon. Thanks for reading and commenting. Cheers!

      • 8 kiwipom91 May 21, 2013 at 10:49 pm

        Well it’s a very interesting post. I didn’t know that about the lobster, but it made me think about how it used to be fashionable to be fat, whereas now the rich can afford to eat healthier than the poor… anyway.

        • 9 Taipei May 26, 2013 at 12:16 am

          It’s Amei not Jolin that is aboriginal.

          I don’t think they want to be Western, by they do like some characteristics of the western face, high nose, pale skin, double eyelid. It’s a beauty model rather than wanting to be Western. For instance they prefer to be skinny and not much muscle, that’s the other part of their beauty model.

          The pale skin thing is mostly a class thing, a feeling of superiority to other ‘poorer’ people or races.

          It’s also true the sun does damage the skin, and many people are obsessed with beauty these days.

          • 10 islandsidechronicles May 26, 2013 at 12:28 am

            Thanks for the correction – I’ll edit that. The general consensus seems to be that it’s a class issue, and as to your point about the sun being damaging, bang on because I recently got a bad case of sunburn which (almost) made me consider carrying around an umbrella…almost, but not quite. Thanks for the comments.

  4. 11 MKL May 26, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Dark = unsuccessful, worker type from underdeveloped Asian country

    If we go back to the origin of this phenomenon, then we can say that has nothing to do with undeveloped Asian countries, the notion of “white equals beauty” is over two thousand years old, it dates back to Han Dynasty (anno 200 BC) from what I know. White was seen as high-class, imperial, beautiful, dark skin equaled to low-class, peasant, associated with rice field work under the sun. It was all about class, less about race back then, but in today’s world race is also related to this phenomenon, that’s why workers from South East Asia aren’t seen and treated equally as White people. Of course it’s not only that, the influence of the US and Europe as world powers has contributed to a very good image (and media, Hollywood, brands, economy, wealth etc…). It’s a very complex issue.

    Another thing: From what I heard, Jolin Tsai has some Atayal blood, I think one of her grandparents was from that tribe.

    • 12 islandsidechronicles May 27, 2013 at 12:15 am

      While the origins of this mentality may have come from ancient times, in today’s Taiwan, I’ve found that people DO equate Dark with underdeveloped Asian countries.
      Like you’ve said, it’s a very complex issue now with multiple reasons for creating and maintaining this phenomenon, but from what I’ve heard from a lot of younger Taiwanese (25 – 30 ish), a large portion of them see darker people as foreign nationals lower on the economic scale – thus undesireabe.
      I should point out that all of this is from a small town perspective so there may be more prejudices than you may find in a more racially diverse city.

  5. 13 ArianStarfighter June 7, 2013 at 3:19 am

    Nah, Taiwanese people hate Black people. That’s why Black people have a hard time getting jobs or having “conquests” like any non-Black foreigner can in Taiwan. I thought that Japan was bad, but Taiwan is atrocious. At least there are a few groupies of Black dudes in Japan.

    • 14 islandsidechronicles June 7, 2013 at 5:43 am

      Well, I have no idea about the consensus of Taiwanese toward black people, but I have only seen one black guy in the town I live in. And I have heard that it is harder for black people to get jobs.

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