Crazy Rich Asians dominated the American box offices in August and has been the topic of much conversation in the Asian American community since the trailer was first released in the Spring. This is the first Hollywood film since 1993’s Joy Luck Club with a full cast of Asian American leads (which incidentally uses some of the same actors). Based on Kevin Kwan’s novel of the same title, Crazy Rich Asians details the journey of NYU economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding in his debut role), who just happens to be the enormously wealthy heir to a major Singaporean real-estate conglomerate. While in Singapore, Rachel is exposed to his opulent lifestyle and meets his childhood friends and family and the film manages to maintain its lighthearted romance while still raising some important questions about culture, identity, and race. To date, the film has grossed over $117 million, making it the highest-earning romantic comedy since The Proposal (2009).
To what extent is this film part of a watershed moment in Asian representation? Tiffany and Annie sat down to discuss their thoughts.
Edited by: Katie Constantine & Morgan Moore
All images are property of Warner Bros.
Tiffany: I haven’t watched media about super rich people since high school or early college (my favorites being Gossip Girl and the Japanese live-action Hana Yori Dango). Honestly, it kind of lost its appeal to me after the 2008 recession, because so many people were truly struggling economically that it felt like it was in bad taste to partake in voyeurism of gratuitous wealth.
Although the film has been marketed as a showcase of traditional glitz and glam, just set in the East, I think that it does get to the crux of the Asian American struggle. Rachel has adapted really well to her niche in the upper academic and social echelons of American society and is well-respected here. She navigates the Asian and American worlds well while in the United States, but what happens when we bring her to Asia and she is clearly not Asian enough? Implicitly, the film also addresses a clash of cultures and the choices that either we, or someone in our families have had to make. I went into watching this film expecting fun, but also expecting that it would touch on some really important Asian American issues as well.
Annie: I think this has been an incredible year for Asian representation in western entertainment! Of course, as an Asian American theatre maker I’m definitely somewhat of a skewed sample, but this was the first time—possibly ever, certainly since I became aware at eighteen that race was forever to be a seminal part of my identity–that I feel like I haven’t had to look too hard to find my story. Beyond Crazy Rich Asians, Searching is finally giving John Cho the leading man status he deserves. Netflix gave us exposure to the absolutely immaculate Canadian family sitcom Kim’s Convenience; David Henry Hwang’s new play-with-a-musical Soft Power had a really well-received world premiere in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the National Asian American Theatre Company here in New York just closed a gorgeous and ambitious all-Asian production of the Henry VI trilogy. And then, of course, you have Young Jean Lee as the first-ever Asian American female playwright to have a play produced on Broadway (the most delicious irony being that the play was Straight White Men and featured–you guessed it, four characters who are straight white men).
The most remarkable thing is that all of these shows and films and television series were playing during the same summer, so I’m experiencing Crazy Rich Asians not just as a very delightful top-grossing Hollywood picture, but also within the context of seeing more Asian faces in general within my field. And if you were to look into each of these stories, you’d see that they’re all vastly different and hold very specific viewpoints. I feel like I’m being overly hopeful when I say this, but perhaps the monolith is finally breaking down.
While this film was exciting on paper, many members of both the Asian and Asian American communities have been really apprehensive about celebrating the film off the bat.
Tiffany: Immediately from the trailer, many people picked up on the issue with representing the people of Singapore. Crazy Rich Asians was partially meant as a love-letter to Singapore, but can it still call itself that if it doesn’t accurately depict the diversity of Singapore? ~25% of Singapore’s population is Malay, Sikh, or Indian, but all the major characters are of East Asian descent.
Annie: Sure, and I think that in the same breath, it’s important to acknowledge that films can’t—–shouldn’t— be evaluated on a binary. A film can be both successful in its vision and execution, and gloss over people and important themes that should be represented. We can have a story that moves us, and is yet still deeply flawed. That’s how most stories about marginalized communities go–I recognize that The Joy Luck Club is monumental for how it brought the lives of Chinese-American women to the forefront of modern American culture, but I still resent it deeply. For many of my high school classmates at the time, it was the only piece of Asian American literature they ever read (and possibly will ever read), so they assumed that the experiences of the women in the novel must be universal to their Chinese-American peers. I think that for this generation, Crazy Rich Asians may create some similar, conflicting feelings. Only an increase in the number of stories told will solve that problem, and I believe CRA has opened that door. Does it have its merits? Yes, many! Does it also have its problems? Yes, of course.
Tiffany: I have also heard a lot of pushback against Awkwafina’s use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). In many interviews, Nora Lum said she was allowed to ad-lib a lot of her lines, and I don’t think the role of Peik Lin was explicitly written in the way that she performed it. A point that I’ve seen is that Nora has been celebrated for what some have called a minstrelsy performance of blackness, whereas African American performers have had to “act white” in order to get ahead
Annie: This for me has been frustrating, because it’s a legitimate complaint with no answer. As an American actress, she’s not from Singapore, so even if she did not appropriate AAVE (the paradox of anti-blackness coinciding with simultaneous fetishization of black culture is also quite present in East Asia), there’s genuinely no “right” or “authentic” way for her character to sound that I can determine. What is the appropriate alternative? To affect an “Asian” accent? To do a “neutral Midwestern” accent, which I would argue is really just code for “middle-class white”? She’s displaced no matter what.
When the trailer was first released, many took issue with the fact that the romantic lead (Henry Golding) is half-Malay and half-English, when the role of Nick is Singaporean Chinese.
Annie: In my opinion, this isn’t actually a casting controversy, but people are making it out to be because we still have a lot of internalized racism against our biracial/multiracial siblings. We, as a culture, have not done the work necessary to expand the boundaries that we simultaneously seek to break ourselves out of.
Does being half-English negate the significance of Golding’s Malaysian heritage? As someone who is monoracial Chinese, I again am not fully qualified to answer, but it feels hypocritical to me that the critique of a film that’s supposed to highlight the multiplicity of the Asian/diasporic experience would still end up centering around whether an actor is “enough” of who he is.
Pre-screening anxieties aside, both of us promptly got ourselves to the movie theaters to watch the film.
Tiffany: This is a very beautiful, lush-looking film. I wouldn’t say that it is necessarily pushing the cinematography envelope, because we aren’t getting a glimpse into a hidden Singapore that the travel shows don’t already document. But I will say that it reinforces the best of what anyone who has even a little bit of familiarity with what Singapore is famous for would know, like the Marina Bay Sands Hotel or the iconic hawker stalls.
Annie: I went to an advanced screening with a bunch of other Asian American friends and you know what? I felt like I earned that experience. A lot of my work centers around surfacing the ways in which my identity is undermined in western narratives, so it was a pretty unique experience to sit in a theatre and feel like I was just allowed to be myself for two hours, without ever having to defend what being myself meant. Also, let’s be real–romantic comedies are genre, and this film was genre. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have heart, but it hit all the right narrative and tropic beats and then some. I do think it’s important that we show Asian characters of all genders as capable of being desirable romantic leads.
Some of our worries surrounding diversity were well-founded. The film gave screen time predominantly to the East Asian actors, with a troubling scene featuring silent Sikh guards “in the jungle”.
Tiffany: That jungle guard scene made me really uncomfortable.
Annie: Same! And I think I understand the intention for why they were included (as well as the maids in a few of the opening scenes) but the film either chose not to or didn’t have the flexibility to deal with all the nuances of Singaporean racism. I intuit that the director probably wanted to acknowledge the social structures outside of the 1% that’s the focal point in some way, but didn’t get to investigate that train of thought to the full conclusion it deserved.
For some Asian-Americans who have not been back to the Motherland, we were experiencing Asia with Rachel—and it is surprising.
Annie: I relate with Rachel immensely. I immigrated to the US with my family when I was two. I speak Mandarin fluently, but it’s highly capsulated…and I’m also illiterate. So when I return to Beijing to visit my grandmother and extended family, I feel simultaneously within and without. Comfortable walking through the streets, but very aware of how challenging it is to actually get around or interact with anyone outside of my family. I feel like a ghost, but also like I stick out like a sore thumb? I feel like this is getting too poetic and introspective, let’s rewind.
The point is that in this film we see Rachel learning to navigate a world that is both familiar and foreign. These are her people, but they are not her people. She is surrounded by a family that her American-ness tells her should love and accept her because of her relationship to Nick, but she soon realizes that the paradigms that govern these peoples’ day-to-day lives are completely different. The struggle of that constant recalibration throughout the film was so palpable, and her final declaration of the totality of herself during the penultimate mahjong game was one of the most cathartic experiences I’ve ever had. Specific, and yet somehow universal.
Tiffany: As someone who has never been back to Asia, it was interesting for me to see how Rachel was treated in Singapore. From the Asian American perspective…hasn’t she made it? Her mom came in search of a better life, without speaking much English; she didn’t even go to college. Her daughter becomes super successful academic (in Economics!) That’s literally the model minority/American Dream, isn’t it? And yet—bootstraps be damned, she and her mother are still not accepted by the Singapore socialites.
Learning about Rachel’s mother’s story late in the film also was a very poignant moment for me, as the daughter of immigrants but also a feminist. The circumstances under which my parents immigrated were quite different. But here’s what both had in common with that character: the old system was not working for them. Their countries were changing in a way that they did not want to endure. So they came to seek opportunity. And it is interesting to consider that, in the context of the choice that Nick’s mother made. The system was not really working for her either, but she stayed and tried to adapt to it as best as she could.
After seeing the film, we still were grappling with some of the issues that we walked in thinking about.
Television (Handmaid’s Tale/Westworld) is tackling deep political issues currently gripping the United States. Is there still space in our media milieu for something that has moments of silliness, frivolity, and depicts the lives of people who are way richer/more elite than the majority of the population is?
Tiffany: This was brought up by my sister, actually. She read an Atlantic article about how the “new American elite” is like hyper aware of the social and economic privilege we hold and feels guilty about it. But this is such a blatant, unabashed display of wealth. It’s meant to be fun, but is it?
Annie: I think so! First, this wealth does exist in real life, but I don’t think that the film takes these lifestyles for granted, if that makes sense? The average American rom-com featuring white romantic leads is often about upper-middle class families or individuals who are independently wealthy, which I don’t think is the actual norm, but this film never normalizes the wealth held by the Singaporean families–they are explicitly acknowledged as being the exception.
Secondly, I think it’s incredibly important for people of color to see themselves living full lives that aren’t just about our oppression or in contrast to white people (which is, incidentally, what I’m seeing a lot of in new Asian American theatre, but that’s an exploration for another time). We are allowed to have interpersonal conflicts that are culturally specific, but not necessarily exclusive to our own cultures.
If watching this movie is escapist (which is how it felt for me and how I think it was intended to be, at least partly), is that problematic?
Annie: Asian Americans are historically thought of as being quite politically passive compared to other minorities, so I think that this is a low-friction way for us to get skin in the game and to start talking about our experiences in a way that results in meaningful sociopolitical action on a community level (I also think this is very idealistic, but I’m thinking long- game here!). Also, I do think it’s escapist to be able to sit in a theatre as a person of color and feel completely comfortable in your skin. Is that very cynical? That sounds cynical, now that I’m saying it like that.
Tiffany: Personally, I think it’s unrealistic to expect that this film is going to be the one AA film to fix decades of issues with Hollywood representation. At the end of the day, it’s still just a movie. It’s one person’s story, one team’s creation. If you don’t like it, I hope that you’ll find it in your heart to support (or create!) other Asian and Asian American narratives that resonate more deeply with you. Honestly, the moments that affected me more were the dialogues between characters. I personally didn’t really need the glitz and glam of the 1% to hook me into the story
I think we also need to address the fact that this DOES mean a lot to Asian Americans, in a way it may not to international audiences. This is weird for us. We do not usually see ourselves in major blockbuster films and when we do, we’ve been relegated to the sidekick, an exotic masseuse, or any other number of harmful stereotypes. So to see people who are normal and even those with! Power! IS exciting, and an important moment in the American film industry.
Annie: Yay #repsweats! I think that in today’s media landscape, as with political discourse, we’re so obsessed with the idea that everything must be one or the other, all or nothing. It’s entirely possible for a film to be both innovative, charming/escapist, AND imperfect. We can, in the same essay, highlight things the film does well and critique what needs to be improved. Representation is messy like that, and the only solution is to reach a critical mass of stories where we no longer have to look to just one or two works of art to try and see the full multiplicity of ourselves.
Crazy Rich Asians has been the first in a wave of AA media that has been signed into production. Crazy Rich Asians has been confusing film for the AA audience to deal with; people have taken issues with everything that we’ve listed above but also-some people just might not like romcoms! Everyone feels a certain sense of obligation to support the film. But I think whether or not all Asian-Americans love CRA, Hollywood should take note. We want these stories told and they are long overdue.