Where does Hong Kong’s fixation with “whiteness” come from? No, not the slavish imitation of Western consumer products and cultural habits, but the overwhelming preference for pale and even unhealthily pallid complexions over natural brown skin tones.

A cursory glance at local advertisements confirms that virtually every milk-powder model is either European or Eurasian; any East Asian featured will have skin as creamy pale as the product they promote. In the same way, almost all local cosmetics or skincare “faces” are at least three shades pastier than that of the average Hongkonger.

China's love of white skin is cosmetic conceit with possible genetic roots

This “cult of the white” sets almost impossible standards and creates a ready market for “skincare experts” and other gimlet-eyed charlatans. Even when more natural skin tones clearly indicate better health, nutrition and lifestyle, they are still seen as unattractive. And it’s not only women who are susceptible to saturation “whiten­ing” hype. The K-pop ideal of slim, corpse-pale, perpetu­ally 19-year-old pretty boys negatively affects susceptible teenagers who internalise these notions of what constitutes attractiveness.

Some of this preference for fairness is historical. In much of Asia, a suntanned complexion suggested that an individual was an agricultural labourer with an unenviable station in life. Europe was no different until less than a century ago.

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Sunbathing became popular among Hong Kong’s European population from the 1920s, in tandem with the international craze. The practice only became more commonplace here from the 1940s, and even then, among the local Chinese population a glowing suntan was seen only among the genuinely Westernised few.

In what is an overwhelmingly Asian society, obtaining cosmetics in darker shades remains a seriously hard task. Ask any black woman in Hong Kong where she gets her make-up, and most will reply, “Online – and from the United States.”

China’s long-standing love-hate-envy relationship with Japan contributes to the contemporary whiteness obsession. Tradi­tional Japan used thick white make-up – the geisha look exemplifies this – which often contained white lead and other toxic sub­stances.

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By the late 19th century, as Japan rapidly industrialised, an important export industry had developed for cosmetics in overseas mar­kets. The first customers were mostly karayuki-san, as Japanese sex workers were known across maritime Asia; reliable cosmetics were a necessity of their trade. From these tentative begin­nings, Japanese cosmetics quickly spread into local markets, the products being both of high quality and more suited to East Asian skins than their Western counter­parts.

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By the 1920s, mass produc­tion, com­bined with export dumping on the China market, ensured their growing popularity. And the Japanese and Korean mania for fair skin remains, if anything, even more pronounced than among the Chinese.

Talcum powders, which helped temporarily whiten the complexion, were popular in the decades before air conditioning, antiperspirants and deodorants became commonplace. Camphorated or mentholated powders were useful against prickly heat, while carbolic ingredients were favoured for sporting activities and more delicately scented unisex fragrances such as sandalwood were popular for everyday use.

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Thin absorbent papers that, along with managing sweat, allowed the user to soak up oils from skin were fashionable; in earlier times, few affluent Chinese women left home without a small, delicately patterned box of them in their handbag.

These old-fashioned Chinese cosmetics have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region in recent years, partly aided by astute heritage/nostalgia marketing. Kwong Sang Hong, which manufactures soaps, Florida water and talcum powder, is one recognisable local brand. In Thailand, Madame Heng produces high-quality glycerine-based soaps, which are popular purchases among Hong Kong visitors.