Film

Crazy Rich Asians is a breakthrough moment for Asian representation in Hollywood, but even in this rom-com the cloud of imperialism and colonialism is never truly lifted. By Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen.

The ‘whiteness’ of Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians stars (from left) Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Constance Wu.
Credit: WARNER BROS ENTERTAINMENT

The young man sitting beside me leans over to his girlfriend and whispers, loudly, “That’s like David’s family … You’d be surprised when you see his house.”

He is reacting to the establishing shot of Edison Cheng (Ronny Chieng), standing prim, proper and stiff as a board with his wife and children – more status symbols than family members – posing ostentatiously for photographers. Cheng is a typically unlikeable character who reinforces the status quo. He is also Asian, which makes him a distant figment of the imagination, yet also a strange caricature of reality; it’s like standing in front of one of those warping mirrors at a fun fair.

We’re watching Crazy Rich Asians at a packed cinema. Of all the faces around me, most look like shades of the people on screen – like me. There are couples, friends, older people, younger people, all turning up to view what’s been heralded as Hollywood’s watershed moment for Asian people, both on screen and off – a blockbuster, non-martial arts film with a majority Asian cast, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club.

The ritzy film, based on the bestselling 2013 satirical novel by Kevin Kwan, is at its heart a simple romantic comedy – a perfectly serviceable, predictably heteronormative one. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an American–Chinese New York University professor – which in itself already signifies that although she isn’t “crazy rich” she’s immensely privileged in a way that many viewers won’t be – who goes to Singapore to meet the family of her boyfriend, Nicholas Young (Henry Golding). Rachel has no idea that Nick’s family are, surprise, absolutely loaded – secret mansions, private jets loaded. Tension bubbles when his mother, the sophisticated and overbearing matriarch, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), decides that “commoner” Rachel isn’t good enough for her son. These are people who are immobilised, almost broken, by their own wealth and power.

It’s a classic fish out of water story, a Romeo and Juliet for the modern age. It’s about love – not only romantic but familial – with all the beauty and ugliness that entails, sometimes both, inextricably, at once. It has all the ingredients of a good rom-com – compelling side plots, clever subversions of tired tropes, a most welcome dynamic shift that hands agency to its female characters – and, naturally, a happily ever after ending.

The difference is, of course, that these fantastical characters are Asian, and that is reflected in the way they interact and exist: the lahs after each sentence, the rapid switching between languages, the familial traditions and expectations that, while well intentioned, are often crushing and restrictive. Rachel is a “banana” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside – an insult I’ve endured my whole life, as a second-generation member of the diaspora who has never visited my family’s home country.

During the film, Chinese covers of songs by Western artists such as Coldplay and Madonna play bombastically in the background, making for strangely emotional listening. A scene where generations of the Young family sit together and handmake dumplings is both comfortingly familiar and, due to the context, bracingly strained. A climactic sequence over a game of mahjong makes me ache, as I see the familiar patterns on the pieces and think of my late grandmother’s soft, mottled hands gently clinking the green and white tiles around, like the sound a lullaby. I’m not Chinese, but I do see my grandmother, and my precious past life with her, in that moment. It’s something I never imagined I’d bear witness to anywhere outside of an indie film festival or my mother’s extensive collection of phim tap, let alone on a giant Cineplex screen in the middle of a bustling city.

One repeated criticism of Crazy Rich Asians is that it doesn’t represent all Asians. But how could it – and why should it? This is a story about the 1 per cent, the richest of the rich, the Gatsby crowd of the east. Its central characters are people of Asian background who left their home countries to be university-educated around the world, who speak with fancy accents and have returned to Singapore to live opulent, unreal lives. If the point of blockbuster cinema is largely escapism, then Crazy Rich Asians succeeds – it’s an indulgent look into a beautiful, perilous circus of a world filled with inflated versions of people we know, wish we were or are glad we aren’t. The standard Hollywood rom-com isn’t expected to reflect the experience of the everyday person. The pressures placed on this film to be the Asian movie, rather than an Asian movie, seem unrealistic at best and racist at closer glance, boiling the vast experience of an entire continent of cultures down to
a monolith.

Yet it’s impossible to talk about the film without acknowledging the overarching shadow of colonialism and imperialism. For all the sensitive and realistic cultural moments amid the glitz and glamour, Crazy Rich Asians presents a version of Asian-ness that is deeply sympathetic to Western measures of respectability. In the film, white people are portrayed only in service positions or as extras, but the gaze of whiteness feels omnipotent. It’s in the sculpted bodies of actors such as Pierre Png and the Eurasian Henry Golding who both – by adhering to the very specific hypermasculine Western standards of attractiveness that have long subjugated Asian men – subvert and reinforce those ideals. It’s also visible in the staggering material wealth and British-accented English of the main characters – most of the characters who speak accented English, or none at all, are elderly, secondary or comedic relief.

While the film cannot be expected to represent all Asians, it’s a telling sign of the unfinished progress of Hollywood, and society at large, that the only way for Asian narratives to be successfully told and sold to the mass market in 2018 is for them to be presented as palatable, exoticised versions of familiar stories. The rom-com template of a fairytale ending and wish fulfilment – in themselves Western desires – is the same, despite the difference in skin colour. After all, this is an American film, not an Asian one; our faces, and diluted versions of our cultures, are simply being normalised.

Since the hype began around Crazy Rich Asians, many customers at the bookstore where I work have come in asking for the novel, which has skyrocketed to consistently take pride of place in our weekly bestsellers. These eager readers are not all Asian – in fact, barely any of them are. They’re elderly white women, hip young things and everything in between. Crazy Rich Asians – the franchise – is significant because it breaks “Asian stories” out of a niche. It shows all readers and viewers that Asians can be the stars of their daydreams, too; that the characters they project themselves onto when they want to escape the banality of everyday life don’t have to be white. It’s a remarkable first step, but it is just that – the first step.

With the runaway success of Netflix’s teenage rom-com To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, starring the Vietnamese-born actress Lana Condor in its lead role, and shows such as the brilliant Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in which the main love interest is Filipino, and Kim’s Convenience, a Canadian sitcom about a Korean family, there’s certainly been a surge of Asian representation onscreen over the past few years. Closer to home, SBS’s The Family Law, based on Benjamin Law’s memoir of the same name, portrays a Queensland family in all of their haphazard charm – it’s sharply written and relatable viewing for TV lovers of all different backgrounds, and its characters just happen to be Chinese. It’s a far cry from the ’90s, when Asian representation on Australian TV meant a Chinese family on Neighbours accused of eating someone’s dog. Similarly, Lee Lin Chin’s legendary tenure as an SBS World News anchor made Asian–Australian kids feel as if there was a chance for them to rise through the ranks to become a not only visible but profoundly respected face in the country’s blindingly white media landscape. It’s from these ordinary stories and people that something much more extraordinary emerges: the possibility for our lives to be fascinating, reflective and heard – not for the voyeuristic, almost pornographic fantasy of peering into the untouchable world of the elite, but for the simultaneously simple and complex realities of our lived experiences and truths.

The numbers don’t lie. Crazy Rich Asians has become the highest-grossing major studio romantic comedy since 2009, and in Australia raked in $5.2 million on its opening weekend. Audiences are hungry for diverse stories, and it’s undoubtedly a huge move forward for representation; whether it’s actually good seems almost irrelevant – it’s funny, heartwarming, tense and ultimately emotionally satisfying, in the way that Hollywood rom-coms tend to be. It’s a perfectly fine film.

It is a disservice, though, to see this as the triumphant end moment for Asian actors and viewers, or something we should have to feel overwhelmingly grateful for – when the cinema trailers for upcoming movies are entirely devoid of Asian faces, it’s clear that Crazy Rich Asians is, for now, still a novelty. But social movements have to start somewhere, and this explosive beginning will hopefully lead to a wider and more representative array of big-screen stories that don’t need to be unbelievable to be desirable.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 15, 2018 as "Sleepless in Singapore". Subscribe here.

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
is a Vietnamese–Australian writer based in Melbourne.