Crazy Under-Represented Asians

The one thing that stuck with me when I left the cinema wasn’t the dazzling shots of Singapore (which turned out to be Malaysia), the acting of shockingly first-time film star Henry Golding as the Old Money Nick Young, or even the surprisingly catchy Chinese pop songs that had me googling the soundtrack. It was one line from the protagonist’s mother, spoken in fluent Mandarin (but subtitled for us): You look Chinese. You speak Chinese. But here, you’re different. 

As a BBC (a British Born Chinese), identity is an issue I struggle to deal with daily. Imagine how many people come up to ask where I come from and then don’t believe me when I say I’m from Glasgow. Why bother asking then? To have a character, the main character no less, embody this dichotomy, truly warmed my heart. What Crazy Rich Asians did surprisingly well was to express how difficult it is to come to terms with where you come from – geographically, historically and socially.

Rachel (Constance Wu) goes to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s crazy rich family and as an American-born, self-made, poor background girl, she is met with a teeny-tiny bit of disapproval. It’s a very basic plot line but with enough Asian references and scenic views to make me feel comfortable. I particularly enjoyed how they included various languages – I heard at least five different ones – and the old traditions of making dumplings and playing mahjong, the staples of Asian society. However, it does not make itself exclusively Asian. From Awkwafina and Ken Jeong’s slap-stick comedy to the predictable proposal scene, it’s in every way your average chick flick.

From the plot, the acting, and the directing, Crazy Rich Asians may not feel that original, but its distinctive and significant feature is the all-Asian cast. From beginning to end, you know that Rachel and Nick will be together. It’s written in the stars, told to you by a Chinese astronomer. You also know that Rachel will be accepted by the Youngs, because such is the nature of chick flicks.  It is because of this predictability that I am am writing a review on the ‘Asian-ness’ of the film, and how important it is that Asians appear more in media.

I took my little sister to watch Crazy Rich Asians because of one thing: representation. I wanted her to feel proud, and to know that times are changing. But the more I thought about it, the more I believed that Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t exactly depict Asians in the best light. This wasn’t from a lack of Asians, which is usually the case, but because of the enforced stereotypes.

Sure, it does a great job at making light jabs at our cultural ways but it also implies that most of the characters are power-hungry or money-obsessed. I’m not going to try and defend the virtues of all Asians and say we’re all saints because we all know one or two who are a bit tight-fisted. I admit I am, mainly because I’m a student living off loans. But to most of the Western world, all the characters except Rachel and her mother seem to centre themselves around money and superficiality. (Arguably Nick too, but he barely got enough screen-time to let us know how he even ended up with Rachel.) It doesn’t present the Asian population in the best light – especially the rich ones who have a wedding ceremony in which they wade through water.  Who even does that?!

Don’t get me wrong. I hope that more of these films come out, and more get criticised, so that it becomes a normal thing – not some publicity stunt. I am proud that an Asian production is the highest grossing chick-flick of the year, but what I am waiting for is one worthy of being movie of the year. Crazy Rich Asians is a film that could have only been made now and should be appreciated as such. I really enjoyed it, and it was worth paying money to watch – this coming from a stingy Asian student. But I would recommend that when you do watch it, look beyond the unlikely Cinderella story and consider how significant this is to someone like me, and how it could matter in cinematic history.