Asian representation in Hollywood has long been limited to a repertoire of offensive stereotypes understood through the Western gaze. Take Mickey Rooney’s Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Unabashedly in yellowface, with exaggerated mannerisms, arched eyebrows and a comically thick accent, Rooney’s portrayal desexualises and alienates Asians. Or, perhaps, Nelly Yuki in Gossip Girl (2007-2012), a studious New York Upper-East Sider whose only aspiration is to go to Yale, or Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill (2003), which plays into the “dragon-lady” trope, an orientalised and fetishised femme fatale.
In 2018, a new trope revealed itself in Hollywood – the “crazy rich Asian”, after the immense box office success of Crazy Rich Asians. It signified that contemporary stories led by people of colour can prove commercially successful; Western audiences have latched onto it as a poster child for Asia’s economic boom. Since its release, the film has inspired a string of new roles, from Mindy Chen in 2020’s Emily In Paris, a zipper-heiress turned runaway nanny and her champagne-popping posse of Shanghainese socialites, to Netflix’s 2021 reality series Bling Empire, which follows the wild, ostentatious and botox-happy lives of Los Angeles’ wealthy Asian-American set. It’s referenced by cast member Kevin Kreider from the get-go as “the real deal”, leaving Crazy Rich Asians to pale in comparison as “a nice fantasy”.
But as the box-office success of Crazy Rich Asians continues to inspire a trend of supposedly ‘representative’ media, one cannot help but wonder whether the “crazy rich Asian” poses a harmful and just as limiting stereotype as the “Asian nerd” or “dragon-lady” tropes that have reverberated throughout popular culture. It’s not hard to imagine how this image of jet-setting glamour, sumptuous shopping sprees and lavish parties could stoke people’s pre-existing fears. For example, through race-baiting media of Asians snapping up the property market in Australia – and dangling the idea of “what foreign otherness there is to come”.
The “crazy rich Asian” perpetuates the successful model minority myth that places Asians on the pedestal as a shining example of how POC can ‘make it’ if they ‘try hard enough’. This positions Asians as close to whiteness and pits Asians and other POC against one another, wrongfully denigrating the latter as complacent and lazy. Moreover, it positions Asians as an enemy to the white working-class, rather than critically analysing capitalism or social institutions, and in many ways does not meaningfully represent how most Asian people live their lives.
The word ‘Asian’ still conjures up an outdated image in popular culture – one which is still predominantly East Asian, one of lustrous fair complexion and rod-straight raven hair. This pernicious Western imagination of what “Asian” looks like can be traced back to the illegal incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans after WWII along the west coast of the US, purely for their “suspected” appearance. Propaganda portraying them as cunningly “successful” fed on Americans’ paranoia about espionage. Following this history, the “crazy rich Asian” stereotype divides both those of East Asian appearance and those who are not based on whether they come across as “Asian enough”.
Noticeably, the main cast of Bling Empire perfectly fits the bill of the Western image of Asian,. But it begs the question: where are all the brown people? Take a closer look; those of Asian descent but don’t tick the boxes of the Western gaze’s “Asian” have been reduced to roles of servitude or simply not shown at all. This speaks volumes to the history of colourism in Asian countries and the Asian diaspora, and reinforces the West’s image of the model minority as being East Asian, further creating hierarchies within minority communities and leaving South, South East and Central Asians deprived of any representation in media, good or bad.
Given Hollywood’s problematic past with racist portrayals, it should tread carefully on what it deems a “success for POC”. It needs to do away with the “model minority” myth, which has deleterious effects for all racialized groups, as well as generalising varied Asian cultures into one monolith culture without enthusiastically exploring all the multi-faceted Asian stories out there. It appears that this “trend” may have just cemented the trajectory of Asian representation for years to come.