Crazy Rich Asians: a Singaporean review

Alexis
Alexis
Aug 21, 2018 · 9 min read

Full disclosure: this is a somewhat abridged review that was originally commissioned to appear in (a cool online vertical) — in the words of anyone dealing with a late period: it’s better late than never

A helpful image for people who still think Singapore is in China

As a Singaporean, I wasn’t sure what to expect when Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel, Crazy Rich Asians, was adapted into a Hollywood film. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I can attest that it speaks many truths about ungodly rich Chinese Singaporeans. But at the same time, in true Hollywood form, it blithely ignores the existence of Singapore’s other races. Jon M. Chu’s much-hyped film tells the story of Asian-American Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a smart, independent economics professor who visits Singapore with her Singaporean boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding). Nick’s family turns out to be unimaginably wealthy and powerful in ways that Rachel hadn’t anticipated, mostly in the form of Nick’s terrifying mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). It has an all-Asian cast, including Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang, and Awkwafina. There’s also plenty of excellent Singaporean talent: theater veteran Tan Kheng Hua, Amy Cheng, comediennes Koh Chieng Mun and Selena Tan, Mediacorp darling Fiona Xie, and a magically un-aged Pierre Png.

Rachel’s journey is a lavish, schadenfreude-heavy take on the stranger-in-a-strange-land trope, made almost impossible by Nick’s overbearing family. She is not seen as a person, but a potential asset — or, as several characters point out, “dead weight,” since she doesn’t bring wealth or prestige to the table. Crazy Rich Asians shines a light on the claustrophobic, petty world of Singaporean high society, which needs little translation, as wealthy people speak the same language: money. As always, Constance Wu is perfectly cast as a resilient, thoughtful protagonist who refuses to go down without a fight. Michelle Yeoh is magnificent as a matriarch-in-crisis, and does a beautiful job at portraying a woman entrenched in years of tradition, obedience, and hidden pain at the hands of her imperious mother-in-law, Su Yi.

What the film does not do is tell important truths about everyone else on the island, through perhaps its creators view this glaring omission as a form of negative space. Focusing on rich Chinese — truly, the white people of Asia — is careless, callous, and more than a little ironic, given the Singaporean government’s party line on racial harmony. Ultimately, Kevin Kwan’s story is satire, and as satire, it pushes the right buttons. But for many western audiences without any context, it’s hard to understand why Crazy Rich Asians does Singapore a cinematic injustice.

Hollywood only wants to watch rich Asians, especially when rich Asians act like assholes. Fortunately, Singapore has this behavior in spades.

Crazy Rich Asians opens with the Young family arriving at a posh London hotel, only to be turned away by xenophobic staff. The Youngs are actually the new hotel owners, a misunderstanding that culminates in a scene where Eleanor tells the manager to mop the floor as she breezes to her suite. She ultimately triumphs over ignorance, but only with the help of a white aristocrat who shows up to vouch for her. The scene attempts to invert one of Singapore’s most contentious issues: the treatment of foreign labor, a firmly entrenched relic from our colonial history. There are countless stories of foreign workers who have been bullied, tortured, and held hostage by abusive employers who withhold their passport and pay. Many come to Singapore through maid agencies, who use their socioeconomic disadvantage as leverage, and have them work off the “debt” incurred from bringing them over. It is impossible to tell an honest story of Singaporean wealth without addressing the indentured foreign elephant in the room.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen, because there are hardly any non-Chinese in Crazy Rich Asians, save a troublingly brief scene with two Indian guards, and a few shots of uniformed staff scurrying around to cook or clean (or, in Astrid’s case, hide her expensive shopping from her husband). Eleanor’s icy dismissiveness is common in upper-class households that treat employment as an act of benevolence, while expecting total servitude. For some rich Singaporeans, live-in maids can function as everything from human alarm clocks to home pedicurists and masseuses, often for shockingly low pay and sometimes no days off. Rich Chinese can be ruthless about their perceived cultural superiority, often mocking the heavy accents of their foreign staff. These are the same people — exemplified by Eleanor, the queen bee of her ladies’ bible study group — who follow a very specific, performative way of living. As Eleanor tells Rachel, upper-class Chinese tend to stick to their “own kind.”

Consider this a public service announcement: Singapore was once a Malay island named Temasek. While our lingua franca is English, at school, everyone learns their mother tongue — Chinese kids take Mandarin, Indian kids take Hindi or Tamil, and so on. Most of us are, at minimum, conversationally bilingual. Many of our most prized local dishes are Malay. Our flagship airline’s uniform is based on the kebaya, which originated in Java. Little India plays a huge role in our cultural landscape, and we have an extensive Eurasian community. Over the past few years, there’s been an increasing number of Filipinos who choose to make their home in Singapore. I’m Peranakan, or Straits Chinese — a very specific and unique regional subculture. And in spite of all of this, Crazy Rich Asians would have you believe that Singaporean Malays, Indians, and Eurasians don’t exist — even the rich ones.

But of course, this is a Hollywood film, so west is best, especially when it comes to English. Crazy Rich Asians dances around language in curiously disappointing ways — Koh Chieng Mun, whose most iconic role was as our nation’s sitcom mother in the ’90s, plays the only character who speaks full-blown Singlish. This is absurd, because it erases the one linguistic glue that binds us together — my half-Dutch cousins speak Singlish, and many expats learn it as a point of pride. If I’m catching flak from a cabbie for presenting as a kantang (Malay for “potato,” a slur that suggests a traitorous preference for western food instead of rice), I code-switch to Singlish. The film also ignores how English-speaking Singaporeans are often lovingly dragged by fellow citizens for their western affectations, because none of the main characters have normal friends.

The one exception to this is Awkwafina’s over-the-top Goh Peik Lin — a warm, charming source of support for Rachel in a society that still bows to old money. The Goh family’s flashy nouveau riche vibe is an antidote to the Youngs’ constipated elegance, even more so because of Awkwafina’s bold, very un-Singaporean persona (it’s been said that she’s basically just playing herself, or even more troublingly, engaging in a minstrel-esque appropriation of black culture). Peik Lin is the only millennial without an Anglo name, emphasizing her role as Rachel’s only “authentic” friend in a strange land. Peik Lin’s father also refers to her as “Asian Ellen” without any indication that she is LGBTQ, which is possibly the most insufferable cop-out ever — coding Peik Lin as an Ambiguously Queer Friend merely hints at the liberating influences of the west, without acknowledging the vital presence of organized LGBTQ culture in Singapore. But it wouldn’t have been hard to make Peik Lin a rich Malay friend, or a rich Indian friend — ultimately, she’s there to guide Rachel through social politics.

Perhaps what was most triggering was the film’s exploration of filial piety — an immoveable force in many Chinese families, wielded as both carrot and stick. Nick’s grandmother, Su Yi, initially seems to welcome Rachel, but is revealed as the true gatekeeper of the family lineage. The quick efficiency with which Su Yi dispatches of potential threats to the Young name is not uncommon. I’ve had complete strangers casually bring up my intimate family secrets in a professional context, just because our parents went to the same schools and ran in the same circles. Filial piety doesn’t just mean to obey and respect one’s parents, but to bring honor to the family name, and doing everything in your power to respect your parents’ decisions, including ones that have cascading psychological effects on younger, more progressive generations. This can involve anything from turning a blind eye to toxic family dynamics, to abiding by a misguided Confucian code of silence.

Nonetheless, it is Rachel’s sensitivity that wins the day, as she successfully overcomes Eleanor’s baggage-laden bullshit using mahjong and game theory. To its credit, the movie does a great job at illustrating how cyclical this process can be — Su Yi didn’t approve of Eleanor, so Eleanor is extra harsh on Rachel, etc. This is resoundingly true of the generational dynamics in my family, as little chips on shoulders evolve into untenable psychological weights. Traditional Chinese families rely on a noxious trickle-down system to keep their children connected to the Confucian ideal of a “proper family,” often at the expense of individual growth. The good news here is that crazy rich people can also afford crazy expensive therapy.

Crazy Rich Asians does offer up well-placed local details that require context, perhaps as a stylistic balm to appease a Singaporean audience. Singapore is a highly neophilic society that loves modernity. Colin’s old jeep, for instance, is a true mark of wealth. All car owners must purchase a Certificate of Entitlement that only lasts for ten years, after which you need to buy a new car or fork out more money. The fact that Colin has enough cash to maintain a vintage car is an indicator of serious money and taste. Nick and Rachel stay at the exclusive, historic Raffles Hotel, the birthplace of our vilest culinary export: the Singapore Sling. The Young family estate is in Tyersall Park, a lush swathe of jungle which, in reality, is owned by the Sultan of Johor. Naturally, the Youngs live in a “black-and-white” — one of the iconic black and white terrace houses built by British colonialists and appropriated by the Japanese in World War 2. Normal people don’t live there, not just because of history and hantu (ghosts), but because black-and-whites are exorbitantly costly to rent and maintain.

The most frustrating byproduct of the Crazy Rich marketing machine is that many people — mostly Americans, including progressive creatives whom I follow online –choose to take an uncritical view of the film because we’re all so starved for Asian content that when an Hollywood Asian film appears every two decades, it becomes holy and untouchable. Crazy Rich Asians is so very important for Asian-Americans, but it’s also huge for Singaporeans. I don’t think anyone is confused about what they’re going to see — a story about high society behaving badly; when I saw the movie, there was a photo op in the theater lobby complete with fake gold ingots and costume jewelry. “Crazy Rich Asians can’t please everyone, look at the name, let people enjoy their thing” is not a kind take for Singaporeans who have been erased from the most prominent western coverage of their country since Michael Fay. Many Americans I’ve met still think Singapore is part of China. This is the problem with pinning all your hopes and dreams on one big landmark minority movie, and why consistently having more diverse, POC-led casts means that we can tell more diverse stories more often, with less pressure on rare POC-led projects to be “perfect” encapsulations of the Asian experience.

At the theater, the woman next to me told her friend that she came because Crazy Rich Asians was promoted on The Bachelor, “so it must be like an Asian Bachelor.” If you end up seeing the movie on those terms, more power to you — we love a complex, well-written rom-com. As many before me have pointed out, the whole point is to have Asian representation in all sorts of genre films, from romances to dramas to hackneyed remakes and beyond. If that’s what it takes, I want this film to pave the way for many, many more Hollywood movies with Asian casts. Asian-Americans need and deserve better representation in films, and at present, Crazy Rich Asians is still just one drop in a very milky bucket. But this is also the first major Hollywood film set in Singapore, about Singapore, and about Singaporeans. In this day and age of American politics, Crazy Rich Asians — or more accurately, Crazy Rich Chinese People — feels like a missed opportunity to tell the story of a singularly multicultural society — even a deeply flawed one.

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