Why Singaporeans and Asian Americans are reacting differently to the film
Perhaps the most well-known line from Crazy Rich Asians is delivered by a Singaporean father whose children aren’t finishing their chicken nuggets: “Think of all the starving children in America!” When I watched this scene with my parents in a Singapore movie theater, the audience laughed — but not very much. Throughout the movie, there were some chuckles at the funny moments, some sighs when romantic lead Nick held out the ring. But nobody seemed to be having the kind of reactions I’ve been reading about for the last few months.
Crazy Rich Asians opened to generally favorable reviews, helped along by Asian Americans who championed it as a major stepping stone towards more Asian representation in the media. CRA’s box office success since has been lauded as a watershed moment for Asian-Americans, or better still, “true diversity.”
The movie is not without its Asian American critics, for example, for its marginalization of the “wrong” kind of Asians, the ones who don’t conform to white Western expectations. Others like the New Yorker’s Jiayang Fan have voiced concerns about the cultural demands being placed on CRA, writing, “What does it mean that “Crazy Rich Asians” must accommodate simultaneous, conflicting demands — to tell a coherent narrative, to represent Asians of all stripes, to showcase Asian culture without alienating the dominant culture, to sell something palatable to the average American — when other movies, starring white leads, are asked only to tell a single story convincingly?”
But it is Singaporean critics who have chafed the most at Crazy Rich Asians. It’s worth noting that they’ve also closely analyzed the movie and the book, not just the buzz surrounding them.
Sangeetha Thanapal argues that scenes from CRA reinforce Chinese privilege in Singapore, writing, “The only Brown people in the movie are opening doors or in service of the elite Chinese in the movie. Minorities only exist in the periphery of the film. Why is this being lauded as revolutionary?”
Jerrine Tan criticizes the film’s supposedly complex Asian characters: “Here and there, badly behaving Asians are used as a convenient excuse for “complex characters” which parades as a subversion of the stereotype of smart, meek, well-behaved, hardworking Asian. Is this the best that can be done to throw off the yoke of the Model Minority Myth? Are we so starved for representation that bad behavior not only passes for complexity, but is also championed for diversity in representation?”
Kirsten Han argues that by depicting Singapore as a megarich monolith, CRA contributes to the othering of Singapore and Asia.
And Pooja Nansi calls Crazy Rich Asians “one of our saddest moments” as Singaporeans, writing, “It is a chilling reminder of how willing we are to celebrate having a prominent narrative in Hollywood at the expense of gross misrepresentation. How easily we settle for the world to see a version of us that strips us of all our complexities, and becomes a playground, a set-piece for made-in-America Asian fantasies.”
What this wide variety of passionate responses suggests is that audiences are approaching Crazy Rich Asians with very different expectations for representation.
Let’s start with visibility as representation. It’s true that Crazy Rich Asians is the only Hollywood movie in decades to feature a majority Asian cast, and the most prominent movie set in Singapore to date. Visibility is something, but with CRA, discussions about visibility are especially tricky because it’s often unclear who’s being taken to represent who. Our heroine Rachel Chu is Asian American, while her boyfriend Nick Young was born and raised in Singapore, but lives and works in New York, where he’d probably call himself an Asian American too, rather than an expat. His ethnically Chinese family is Singaporean and lives in Singapore, where most of the movie takes place. The multinational cast comes from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. Needless to say, you’ll miss the complicated dynamics among these distinct racial, national, and cultural identities if you mistake them for one homogenous group.
But that’s what plenty of writing about Crazy Rich Asians has done once representation comes up, no thanks to conscious choices made by the franchise that confuse matters further. The movie dramatically begins with an epigraph by Napoleon: “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.” I can’t think of a reason to do this besides trying to appeal to mainland Chinese audiences, and maybe to troll the people who still think Singapore is part of China (Singapore is definitely not part of China).
How much of an issue representation is for you also depends on what the hot-button political issues in your country are at the moment. Tessa Wong points out that in the US, recent controversies over whitewashing in Hollywhite remain fresh in people’s minds. In the wake of Matt Damon playing a ‘white savior’ in The Great Wall, or Scarlett Johansson starring in the US remake of Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell, it’s understandable why some would want to claim Crazy Rich Asians as a sign of better things to come for Asians in mainstream media. Meanwhile, in Singapore, Crazy Rich Asians touches on two national issues that are particularly sensitive right now: race relations and income inequality. It’s only logical for a lightning rod to get hit where there’s already an abundance of lightning.
What I hear in the din of praise and condemnation is a collective yearning for a story of who we are — be that Singaporean, Asian American, Asian, or other identities that can’t be summed up in a label. But we will never get that from any one movie, or novel trilogy, or blockbuster movie franchise, no matter how many copies it sells or box office records it breaks.
How much representation should we demand from a single work? Not much, especially when the work in question is a Hollywood production (co-sponsored by the Singapore Tourism Board) that seeks to position itself as an insider’s view of an extremely narrow slice of Singapore. As I watched the movie, I kept thinking that for all practical purposes, Singapore was just a setting for characters to banter about “tradition” and “family” and “home.” Swap out the shots of Marina Bay and we could be anywhere (and going by poster’s garish color scheme and the old-fashioned jazzy soundtrack sung in Mandarin, somewhere like a Shanghai nightclub in the 1930s).
Crazy Rich Asians, moreover, makes no apologies for being a rom-com. It’s a breezy story about what love can do — except when it’s really a story about how great it is to be rich. For all Nick’s talk of wanting to build a new life with Rachel in New York, the ultimate fantasy that the movie delivers is of Rachel — a foreigner, an American, not “our kind of people” — being accepted by Nick’s mother, his whole clan, and their colossal fortune. The movie ends with a huge lavish party celebrating the engagement, putting us right back in the crazy rich world that the movie insinuates we’ve wanted to be in all along. In the movie’s opening scene, when the Young family is denied their hotel reservation by a snobbish white London manager, Nick’s mother buys the hotel with a single phone call and fires the dumbfounded manager on the spot. (The manager’s reaction got laughs in the Singapore movie theatre where I was watching, but let’s not overlook the fact that this is a fantasy of repaying dominance with dominance.) Crazy Rich Asians has been enjoying comparisons to Jane Austen, but it’s too dazzled with envy of the society it idolizes to have Austen’s insight — or for that matter, her ability to puncture the ridiculous.
An American writer friend of mine compared Crazy Rich Asians to Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which I think more accurately reflects its genre and the cultural space it occupies. Imagine if the tacky, sensationalized world of the Kardashians were your only window into American life. To some extent, you wouldn’t be wrong about what the popularity of the Kardashians says about American pop culture. Fortunately, the Kardashians have never been said, or asked, to represent an entire country and all Americans, even those who “look like them.” But imagine that the Kardashians are going to be millions of people’s first exposure to your country and your people, and you can understand why some Singaporeans are so riled up.
As someone who’s lived more than ten years in Singapore, I had a hard time watching Peik Lin and her family, nouveau riche Singaporeans whose exaggerated, mismatched accents were played up for laughs, and whose gawking selfies in the Youngs’ opulent mansion were just embarrassing. On the other hand, the Asian Americans don’t always come out that well either — Rachel Chu, NYU economics professor, has a painfully ditzy moment when she turns to Nick in their first class airplane suite and says, “So your family is like, rich?” And it’s Rachel’s mother who gets the clunkiest line as she consoles her heartbroken daughter, saying, “Your spirit has always been so strong.”
Still. Crazy Rich Asians is not the worst story that features Singaporeans, or Asian Americans, or Asians. It’s not the best story, either. It’s one story, and it won’t be the last.
When I was growing up in the US, where I was born and have lived for most of my life, I remember being faintly happy if anyone had heard of Singapore, even when they usually asked if it was “that place where chewing gum is illegal” (the sale of gum was banned to curtail littering, and at least in part because gum stuck to train doors was causing breakdowns — we really care about our trains). Post-Crazy Rich Asians, I can’t help but worry for the next generation of Singaporeans who will have to contend with a new set of stereotypes that will be no better than the last. (For starters, as my dad ruefully remarked, if we start being known as “that place with the crazy rich Asians,” prices throughout Singapore will skyrocket.) I think of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s cautionary words: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” To tell only a single story, then, is to show a people “as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
There are so many aspects of life in Singapore that won’t be found in a movie that idolizes custom-made jewelry and sports cars with spare cocktail dresses in the trunk. But what impassioned response to Crazy Rich Asians has really driven home for me is that I’m not alone in wanting more stories to reflect the people and places we know.
If you’re interested in seeing more sides to Singapore, two noteworthy films are Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo and Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice. Outstanding and widely available #singlit reads include The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew, Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal, Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe, Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa’at, and in non-fiction, This Is What Inequality Looks Like by sociologist Teo You Yenn.
Right now, it may be Crazy Rich Asians’s moment to be up on a pedestal, or a scaffold, depending on your point of view. But as a writer, I’m reminding myself how much it matters for all writers to tell their own stories — the stories that only we can write. I can’t wait for a time when Crazy Rich Asians is just one among many, many stories out there about Singapore, about Asians, about all of us.