stars voon

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Voon Keat Lai, Stephenson Harwood's former Hong Kong Managing Partner, has said he "regrets" wearing blackface for an office party in 2020.

Lai dressed as Eliud Kipchoge, the Kenyan long distance runner, for the annual 'In-Between Party' held at the firm's Hong Kong office between New Year and the Chinese New Year. The theme in 2020 was 'favourite sports people' in honour of the Tokyo Olympics. 

"At that time, Kipchoge just broke the 2 hours records wearing a pair Nike Alphaflys", Lai told RollOnFriday, "and Nike just introduced the Nike Vaporfly (which was very similar to Nike Alphaflys) for consumers. He was going into the Olympics as the favourite marathon runner".

"In celebration of his achievement, I wanted to faithfully reconstruct Kipchoge’s achievements and managed to procure the Nike T-shirt and Nike's Vaporfly", said the lawyer, who led Stephenson Harwood's China operation from 1998 until he left in November 2020 to join a boutique firm.

"It would be extremely strange for a Chinese person to look anything like Kipchoge. So, to faithfully reproduce the celebrated Kipchoge, I did wear black make-up", he admitted.

"At that time, I thought it was the right way to celebrate the achievements of this great man."

Although blackface is generally considered highly offensive in the UK, the practice continues in several countries, including China. As recently as 2018, a Chinese sketch show featured an actor in blackface. Although the skit attracted condemnation from users on Chinese social media, others interviewed on the streets in Beijing told reporters the criticism was overblown.

Lai pointed to cultural differences in his defence of his costume, telling ROF that, "Until recently, I was not aware of the stigma in the west with this. At no time did I intend to offend".

Lai studied law at UCL and joined Stephenson Harwood in London as a trainee before moving to Hong Kong in 1992. At the time of his departure from the firm after just two years in the MP role, he said, "As with everything in life, there are hiccups every now and then, but the three decades have mostly been an exciting and happy journey for me".

Alleging double standards, Lai told RollOnFriday that as a Chinese person, "we have often been targets of discriminations", and that in Asia, "Caucasians frequently dressed up as Chinese, Japanese and other natives. Not sure why that is OK". 

The corporate lawyer left Stephenson Harwood months after the incident, while the firm reported the matter to the SRA.

"I much regret this, if anyone was offended", said Lai. "However, I do hope people see this in the light of what this great man has achieved and how I wanted to celebrate his achievements. Perhaps a good intention gone wrong?"

For the 2019 In-Between Party, where the theme was 'Back to the Future', Lai dressed far less controversially as Captain Kirk. Stephenson Harwood posted photos of its Managing Partner in his costume on social media. However, it did not publish any snaps of Lai at the 2020 party, or of anyone else, and there is no public mention of the knees-up at all.


kirk

He commits to the bit.


A spokesperson for Stephenson Harwood said, "Our firm is deeply committed to diversity and inclusion. This serious misjudgement, on the part of an individual, does not remotely reflect our values".

He said, "We investigated the incident thoroughly and self-reported it to the SRA at the time. We also continually re-emphasise across the firm the importance of diversity and inclusion, which are core values of our firm".

A spokesperson for the SRA said, “We have looked at all the available information and decided to close the matter with no further action. If further information is made available, we can look again at the issues”.

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Comments

Ex HK 08 July 22 08:27

Spent almost a decade in HK and never saw any Caucasians dressing up in ‘yellow face’.  I do however recall several other international firms having similar issues with their local staff

Anon 08 July 22 08:53

I always find it hilarious how highly intelligent private practice lawyers/partners can be so detached from the real world. The naivety (whether you agree with whether it should be seen as offensive or not) is spectacular.  

Anon 08 July 22 09:00

Cannot believe he thought this would be a good idea.  Everybody knows that only Justin Trudeau is allowed to do blackface.

Ctrl+C > Ctrl+v 08 July 22 09:02

Why does every firm have its own equality and diversity officer/coordinator/lead/czar/commissariat when it seems all you need to do is copy and paste the same "we are committed to edi" speel every time someone asks a question or raises a concern?

Seems like there's a market for some poor bar steward to just go around firms reading out the same line every time a partner gropes a disabled nun while wearing a Trudeauesc variety of ethnic clothing and bootpolish.

Anon 08 July 22 09:17

@ Anon 08/07/22 08:53

Intelligence and wisdom are not the same.  Nor indeed is common sense!

Anon 08 July 22 09:55

Would I have done it, no, but really, the world has gone mad!  There was no intention to offend anyone, in fact it was to compliment the sportsman and the fact is, he is black.  

SecularJurist 08 July 22 23:21

One can't do it these days.

It arguably was not intentionally offensive subjectively in the times when Peter Sellers, Michael Bates and Spike Milligan played Indian characters, but the objective perception today is that it is. I admit that I like the film 'The Party; and 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum'; the latter mainly for the character RSM Williams. Michael Bates had been a Major in the 5th Gurkha Rifles.

Today, however, don't do it. Ever.

PwC Law 09 July 22 09:42

There were some halfwits at PwC Sydney who thought it was a good idea to put on wuhan bat costume and mock Chinese accent during a PwC work event and got sacked. Star.

Not a SH partner 12 July 22 06:12

Having been over 12 years in Hong Kong, I am glad that the love of face painting at firm parties is still alive and well, and often insist that my team get painted up as cartoon, movie or other historical/mythical characters for the Christmas party (but naturally steer well clear of anything remotely touching on race of other non-inclusive touchpoints).

Sometimes things go awry, as they clearly did here, but it should be recognised that conceptions of race and racism in Asia (and sensitivities about the issue generally) are not as finely honed as what they are in London, New York or Sydney.  Blackface would definitely be a no-go area for most people in HK, but it caused massive confusion even more recently when a Chinese actress went "brownface" to play a Filipina in a local TV drama.  The actress apologised, but the TV station refused to: https://hongkongfp.com/2022/04/21/actress-behind-tvb-brownface-row-apologises-after-darkening-skin-to-play-filipina-domestic-worker/  

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