COVID-19 And Racism: What Asian Models Experienced During Milan Fashion Week

New day, new hope? Apparently not. The panicked flurry surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak is not about to die down just yet, and along with the stockpiling of toilet paper and other unsavoury news, including a race-related physical assault on a Singaporean student in London, our faith in humanity is about to be tested yet again — this time, with more news of anti-Asian discrimination in Europe. Let’s just call this racism, shall we?

See, we recently delved into how Asian celebrities as high-profile as Chung-Ha are not spared from anti-Asian racism. It’s well-known that the now-global outbreak emerged from the Hubei province in China, while currently, about 80% of the over 100,000 cases to date have been recorded in China alone. Still — and ideally — this should not justify the spate of racist and unnecessary pushback that Asians, particularly Chinese-looking East Asians, are experiencing outside of their home countries. The stigma is rife, mostly from people who fear that close proximity with Asians may heighten the risk of infection.

Well, we’ve got some sobering news. Anyone can be a carrier of the virus — the virus doesn’t discriminate, but unfortunately, humans do.

In a recent YouTube video by model Jesper Chai, he shares his experience in Athens, Greece, just before he was due to fly to Milan for fashion week before that trip was cancelled. He’s since been back in Singapore. The model describes a situation he faced, when a woman in her 30s backed away the moment she saw him, and started yelling: “You Chinese only know how to travel, spreading your virus to everyone. Why don’t you stay in your own country and die?”. Another incident saw him taking a seat on the public transport system, only for everyone around him to, at the same time, stand up and walk away. He speaks calmly but his frustration is evident, though he still concludes that “it’s not necessary to add more problems to worsen this situation, especially racism”.

This is not an isolated incident. In particular, some of the Singapore-based models we spoke to noted that people and brands were noticeably more on edge during this year’s Milan Fashion Week in mid-February.

With a very recent report of a Vietnamese socialite, who had attended some of the shows, having tested positive for the virus upon her return to Vietnam, perhaps there is some valid cause for concern — though not to the extent of last-minute cancellations because one model ‘looked sick’, or outright antagonism from the general public.

Ahead, we hear from the models, who get candid in their first-hand accounts of how the situation is like in Europe.

Kaci Beh

walked for: Emporio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana

Kaci delves into the reality of model castings, which are really less glamorous than you’d expect, with a lot of anxiety during the entire process on whether you actually get to walk down the runway or not. Still, she tells us that the situation’s a lot more nerve-wrecking this year, with “everyone on their toes”, no thanks to, you guessed it, coronavirus fears:

“Models get cancelled last minute, which could be the night before the show, or worst still, on the show day itself. I had a friend who was at the show venue, who actually did the make up and rehearsal, but got cancelled at the very last minute before she walked out. Reason being: ‘This model told me you looked sick’. Fourteen Asian girls were also cancelled last minute for a particular brand the night before the show. Twelve of them were called back, but they were cast aside backstage because they were Asians and people were afraid of them. Ridiculous.”

Fion Hui

Walked for: Emporio Armani, Iceberg, Gentry Portofino

Milan Fashion week isn’t Fion’s first rodeo, but she says that there was a marked difference this year, due to news of the coronavirus outbreak, and the global epidemic’s origins in Wuhan, China. Similar to Kaci’s story, she tells us of some brands’ knee-jerk reactions of cancelling on Asian models, notably so when infection rates started rising in northern Italy, where the city of Milan is situated.

“The vibe was very different in Milan. The competition between Asians were even fiercer than before because many brands are hesitant to book Asians, making the demand lower. When the virus broke out in Italy, a lot of brands cancelled on Asian models right away. Because of that, I had to cut my placement short — from two months, I left right after my last show in Milan. There were too many uncertainties of whether I would still be able to get bookings.

One of my friends who was booked for a shoot in the outskirts of Milan was informed that she was cancelled only upon arrival, and there wasn’t any car that dared transport her back to Milan because she was an Asian. Another friend got cancelled when she was backstage because another model complained that she ‘looked sick’. All in all, this trip was very disappointing. It’s not so much the virus, but how ignorant people can be. I hope it gets better when I return next season!”

Nicole Liew

walked for: Alessandro Enrique, Antonio Marras (presentations)

Nicole’s first experience at Milan Fashion Week was an eye-opening one — to be fair, it was mostly a good one, filled with the hustle and bustle of castings, and pleasant experiences with the brands she had worked with. However, she tells us that she still encountered several unpleasant experiences, even while going about the city.

“Speaking of COVID-19, my friends and I encountered different sorts of racism while we were there, which was really uncalled for because we knew we came in perfectly fine, we got casted and fitted for jobs, however, we experienced clients cancelling on us last minute because we were Asians. The fear of the virus is understandable but the treatment towards Asians isn’t, and that’s where the problem lies.

On trains, people were covering their faces when my friends and I walked past. We even encountered a man shutting a door on us at the restaurant and asking if we were from China before he allowed us in. Due to all of this, my booker decided to bring us back for safety reasons, when we were actually supposed to stay for two months in Milan… Being back home is a reminder for me to be thankful that Singapore is such a safe space for me.”