Where Was ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ When I Was A Teenager?

Nobody ever tells stories about attractive, young, modern, fashionable, and progressive-thinking Asians. It’s always tragedy, martial arts revenge stories and “immigrant porn”. So my initial impression after reading Crazy Rich Asians was that it was a story that had nothing to do with being Asian. But at the same time, it had everything to do with being Asian because every single character is Asian. And if you believe everything the media tells you, then all the countries in Asia are some sad, podunk, poor, provincial place where the people are just dying to move to the US. We don’t think of places like Singapore which is a very wealthy island nation that is full of beautiful, educated and fashionable people. I think a big myth about immigration, especially Asian immigration, is that all of our parents were just dying to come here but in reality, most of our parents and grandparents would have been perfectly happy to stay with their families if things were different in their home countries, politically and economically. So this book shows that there are countries in Asia that aren’t impoverished, sad nations like Americans love to believe.

If you haven’t yet read it, Crazy Rich Asians is a fish-out-of-water story with Rachel Chu being the fish. She is an American-born Chinese (ABC) professor at NYU who travels with her fiancé, Nick Young, to Singapore to attend a wedding. What she doesn’t realize, is that Nick is the most wealthy, eligible bachelor on the island and his family is the at the top of the social hierarchy there. We move thru the story and watch the action unfold thru Rachel’s eyes and think, “it is absolutely ridiculous how much money these people have.”

Something that struck me as different was that none of the characters are framed by whiteness, which is unusual if you read a lot of Asian American literature. Side note: usually the Asian girl is obsessed over a white guy or is absolutely tortured with some identity issues because every single person around her is white — like even if they reject whiteness, it’s a self-conscious and angsty process. It gets exhausting after a while so this was a welcome departure. In a discussion with Korean-American podcaster and writer, Jess Rhee, she sums up the story as “a celebration of hedonism and self-discovery that isn’t tied to whiteness.” Jess also said, “Asian American literature [typically] reads like an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. But actually being Asian is intensely fun. When it comes time to write about it we turn into these depressed anxious social isolationists.” I wonder if Kevin Kwan noticed this too because his book is pretty much the complete opposite of typical Asian American literature.

Seems like a few other people also took notice because it’s going to be a major Hollywood movie that comes out in theaters on August 15th, 2018.

The first time I heard it was being made into a movie was because of several casting controversies: One major controversy, for example, was the one involving actress Jamie Chung. Chung claimed that she didn’t get offered a part in the movie because she’s Korean and the casting directors specified that they wanted Chinese actors. Then she called the casting of the biracial actor Henry Golding, “bullshit.” She has since apologized to Golding. In the broader sense, I get what she is upset about even though I didn’t agree. They’re getting all super specific about casting different ethnicities, but if this was any other Hollywood movie, white actors can pretty much play anyone they want, even characters of completely different races. Or, it can be a movie cast with all people of color and as the lone white person, they can still be the hero of the story.

In terms of media representation, this film is moving in a new direction. All we’ve had are period pieces, martial arts revenge films, and crime sagas and Asians being cast in white movies as model minorities, hypersexualized mannequins, nerdy sidekicks, or poor immigrant workers. The Jade Pendant was terrible. The Joy Luck Club was terrible. We can only have one Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Gook is an excellent film but it has no chance of going mainstream. The Raid was fantastic but we can’t keep making that movie over and over again. This is a new story with new stereotypes. The thing is, without a lot of different kinds of characters, then the stereotypes don’t go away and we end up in the same cycle of having to watch the same Asian stories over and over. This allows for more opportunities. So start with Crazy Rich Asians, which is an easy sell and even easier to consume.

I see this movie as a win for Asian women especially. While there are few roles for Asian men onscreen, they are usually substantial and leading roles. And some Asian male actors have reached icon status: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Donnie Yen, for example. If you went to college in the US and lived in the dorms, chances are, a lot of guys had posters of Bruce Lee on their walls. He is just a universal icon of masculinity, heroism and chivalry. Ip Man, OldBoy, Rush Hour — all those movie franchises are centered around an Asian man. Tons of quality movies with Asian male leads are excellent. I would say Asian women might have more in numerical quality in terms of supporting roles in mainstream films, but the guys definitely have icon status. I cannot name a single Asian female who has the icon status of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. Gong Li and Kris Aquino are icons but only to Asian audiences. Mainstream audiences do not know them. They barely even know who the female lead in this movie is (it’s Constance Wu from Fresh Off The Boat). As far as Michelle Yeoh, who will be starring as Nick’s mother and was even in Tomorrow Never Dies and the newest Star Trek series, she’s famous but she doesn’t have the kind of fame that Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee have.

I’ve heard the criticism that Crazy Rich Asians isn’t the “right kind of Asian movie to make when we’ve waited so long since the Joy Luck Club.” Or that it might introduce a new kind of Yellow Peril to the larger narrative, politically and economically speaking. But I think that’s the whole point. It’s accomplishing a lot by doing less. One movie shouldn’t be expected to tackle every single hot button topic at once. It can accomplish a lot more by tackling one thing really well.

This article was originally published on Eliza’s Romero’s blog, Aesthetic Distance. Eliza can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Pop culture writer. Blogger and founder of Aesthetic Distance.