Leading up to the release of Crazy Rich Asians, Honi asked two Asian-Australian reporters if they think the movie represents a watershed moment for Asian representation in Hollywood. Here are their thoughts.
Since the release of the Crazy Rich Asians trailer, many have criticised its apparent depiction of an inaccurately monocultural Singapore. The forthcoming film, based on Kevin Kwan’s novel, follows Chinese-American Rachel Chu’s induction into her boyfriend Nick Young’s elite Chinese-Singaporean family.
After Hollywood’s constant whitewashing of Asian characters, the all-(East) Asian cast seems to be a win for representation. But the trailer’s failure to show non-Chinese Singaporeans or Singaporean accents (the characters speak in “angmoh”—white—ones) have left some locals questioning whether their country has simply become a cinematic backdrop for Asians in the west to gratify their own desires for representation.
However, as some Singaporean commentators have noted, there may be a more insidious truth to this portrayal. Adrianna Tan, the CEO of a Singaporean startup, explains that Crazy Rich Asians does reflect the world of Singaporean elites. During the colonial era, the Chinese often acted as middlemen between the British and Asian merchants as they could communicate in English and local languages. As a result, this group became wealthy and privileged, undergoing education in the UK and enjoying connections with the British. This wealthy Chinese class distinguished themselves from “regular” Chinese Singaporeans—and other ethnic minorities—by birthright and marriage.
Ignatius Ip*, a Singaporean writer, points to Singapore’s late autocrat Lee Kuan Yew as an example. “He’s always painted as a nationalist, anti-colonial freedom fighter, but his success stems in very large part from his elite British training,” says Ip. “He was literally as British as could be.” Indeed, a survey of Lee’s family history shows that his ancestors established shipping companies and rubber plantations that profited from the trade routes set up under British occupation. This bears an eerie resemblance to the wealth and status of the film’s fictional Youngs, inherited from their real estate business which dates back to the colonial era.
The film’s glitz, glam, and vapid storyline are unlikely to provoke nuanced discussions on class and ethnicity in postcolonial Singapore. Indeed, Kwan’s novel fetishises rather than critiques their wealth. For Asians in the west to appropriate this context without regard for these complexities speaks more to Hollywood’s cultural imperialism than representation in good faith.
Still, there is no escaping the economic imperatives for watching this film. All of the film’s critics are conscious that if Crazy Rich Asians does not exceed box office expectations, Asian minorities in the west are unlikely to be granted similar opportunities in film anytime soon. Perhaps, then, it is better to watch this film with an informed mindset—but in future Asians should be able to demand better representation in film than as a privileged elite profiteering from the colonial past.
Crazy Rich Asians is no Black Panther. Contrary to the well-meaning enthusiasm of many members of the Asian Diaspora, no comparison can really be made between the two except that they both heavily feature non-White actors. One imaginatively explores legacies of oppression left by colonialism, the other seems to exist in a world without it. But, it is a start, and it should be celebrated as the first victory in what will be a very long campaign for representation.
The fact of the matter is that Asian representation in Western media is still in its very early stages, and to start things off with a $30 million budget film is pretty good by any metric. But some cynicism regarding its value persists, held by Asians themselves. I do understand where they are coming from.
It’s very easy, as a member of the Asian diaspora, or of any minority, to be left feeling indifferent about creative works that are supposedly about us but then don’t fully reflect our own experiences. When Hollywood has ignored us for decades, “Crazy Rich Asians” can feel like our one shot to get everything we’ve been bottling inside of us across to the world. Experiences of racism, poverty and cultural isolation from both ends – it seems that everything rests on the shoulders of what is really just a fun romantic comedy. But Crazy Rich Asians should not be regarded as a checklist for the complexities of the hallowed “Asian experience”. It is a movie to be enjoyed, and while many great films can be both, who watched Love Actually expecting a detailed analysis of contemporary British society?
I say this to Asian critics who pan the film for perpetuating harmful stereotypes of Asian materialism and wealth. That isn’t to say it’s an argument without merit. There has been a worrying trend recently of Asian communities in the English speaking countries being scapegoated for a myriad of economic problems. But when the film is overwhelmingly an Asian production, from the actors on screen to the director and writers off screen, we must be careful not to blame minorities for causing their own oppression. And if all goes well, Crazy Rich Asians will set the foundation for other Asian stories to be told, ones which will dilute its influence as the Asian film and provide a more complete portrait of what being Asian is like.
So while the mega rich world of Singapore’s elite is probably worlds away from our own lives, we, like the film’s second generation Asian-American heroine, must accept that there is diversity of all sorts underneath the label “Asian”. After all, if we can’t appreciate Asian stories from others just because they are different, why should anyone else appreciate ours?