“Crazy Rich Asians” and the Problem of the ‘Real’ Singapore

“Marina Bay Sands” Singapore” by Lily Banse on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@lvnatikk?utm_source=medium&utm_medium=referral

I watched Crazy Rich Asians on the day it opened in Singapore, the tiny island nation where the story is mainly set. To be honest, I hadn’t expected anything. To say I was surprised to find myself with a lump in my throat would be an understatement. I don’t even like romantic comedies as a rule (apart from the marvellously witty work of Nora Ephron, that is) and you would normally have to put a revolver against my head to make me go and see a non-satirical film about the filthy rich.

Thinking about the movie afterwards, though, I realised it wasn’t the romantic story at all which had affected me. It was the background, the glimpses of Singapore which had touched me. After 28 years living here, it was moving to see the famous landmarks, the colourful shophouses of Chinatown with spiky durians being unloaded from trucks, the fast-disappearing food centres where locals “chope”, or reserve, tables by putting a tissue packet on them and then order dishes in the local version of English called ‘Singlish’, Chinese dialect and Malay. And what food it was! Singaporeans are obsessed with food and the film was full of it: skewers of satay to be dipped in peanut sauce, light, browned carrot cake, explosive chilli crab, thin, crispy roti prata with firey curry, plump dumplings, rich mooncakes and colorful Nonya kuehs. These are delicacies we can eat every day, if we wish. It was touching to hear the younger characters addressing their elders as “auntie” or “uncle”, as we do here, and asking “Have you eaten yet?” when greeting someone. After living in the country for so long, I was finally seeing a Hollywood film which treated the place I call home as the fascinatingly exotic, exciting world it is.

“Durian Fruits” by Jonny Clow on Unsplash https://unsplash.com?utm_source=medium&utm_medium=referral

I can already hear the scornful laughter, especially from locals who regularly complain that the city is boring: “This is Singapore you’re writing about?” Singapore, the home of infamous chewing gum bans and caning, ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’, the land celebrated in the satirical version of one of its notorious National Day songs:

“We are Singapore, / We are Singapore, / You’ll have more fun in a hardware store!”

Yet, after many years here, it’s important for me to see this perhaps over-familiar place with fresh eyes. For a couple of hours, I was looking at my home on the big screen and seeing what I’d become too used to with something akin to the excitement I’d felt when I first walked through its streets almost three decades ago.

Yet, of course, what I saw was airbrushed, a fantasy which completely avoids what is called the darker side of Singapore — the strict laws, the death penalty, the growing disparity between the rich and poor and, most noticeably, the loss of its native jungle in favour of rapid urbanisation. When I arrived in 1990, there were 2.3 million people living here. Now, 28 years later, we’re nudging 6 million. Yet there have even been suggestions from the government in recent years that “to remain sustainable”, the population will need to be 10 million.

When we consider these issues, journalists such as Alex Abad-Santon in Vox definitely seem guilty of gushing. He virtually swoons himself when he calls Crazy Rich Asians “a swooning lifestyle fantasy — a shimmering dispatch from sumptuous Asia to people who have never seen it for themselves.” Yet he does make another stronger point, and I think this was also what moved me about the film: beneath all the opulence “there are thoughtful stories about parenthood, love, and fidelity lurking beneath that sheen.” It needs to be remembered that this story is essentially about Rachel Chu (the Chinese- American played by Constance Wu) and the question of how she comes to terms with her Asian heritage and her Chinese-American identity. While the film’s ending may seem rather too neat and contrived, this inner tension is something which any ABC (American-Born Chinese) has to wrestle with.

My mixed feelings caused me to start paying closer attention to articles, by locals and foreigners, criticising how Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t show us what they call the real Singapore. I was especially interested by Matt Gross’ refreshingly positive description of his visits to Singapore and the obvious pleasure he took in its “weirdness” — a strange world of “low-lifes and randos.” As Gross says, “Those bits and pieces of weirdness are everywhere in Singapore, hiding just under the surface and, I’d argue, undergirding the gleaming, sweat-free, billionaire’s Singapore you see in Crazy Rich Asians.”

I absolutely agree with Gross’ argument that Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man depicts a much edgier and more interesting Singapore than the “mainstream, fancy-brand, fundamentally boring Singapore” of Crazy Rich Asians and his very penetrating comment that the world of Khoo’s film “can only exist because Singaporeans displace their weirdness elsewhere — hide it in their government-owned housing projects, behind the perpetual A/C, under a package of frozen fishballs.” I lived among that weirdness for years in the litter-strewn and industrially-polluted district of Jurong West. Even Singaporeans admit it’s not very salubrious — a living, breathing contradiction of Colin Khoo’s joke in Kwan’s novel that “This whole country is an upscale tropical resort”. This is the ugly, challenging world which as Gross says, “tourism-board movies like Crazy Rich Asians seek to hide away in favor of easy materialism and neat rom-com narrative arcs.”

“Test Card Themed Building” by Muhd Asyraaf on Unsplash https://unsplash.com?utm_source=medium&utm_medium=referral

In his survey of the vast amount of print comment on the film Gross writes:

“The articles (and social media posts) that interested me most, however, were those that questioned whether the movie showed the real Singapore. It’s a fair question: the Singapore of the movie did not look like the Singapore I experienced when I visited a lot back in 2004–2006. And the movie’s Singaporeans did not really resemble my own Singaporean friends.”

This issue of what “the real Singapore” is concerns me because it creates a distraction — from the cultural importance of Crazy Rich Asians and confuses what the film is about: is it about the filthy rich or Singapore itself? This confusion has lead a number of critics off on rather pointless journeys down dead-ends complaining about what’s missing from the film.

After all, searching for the “real” Singapore in a romantic comedy is surely a futile task. If the movie were a high-quality documentary, perhaps it might manage to portray the essence of the place, but to expect that of a light work such as Crazy Rich Asians is rather unrealistic. Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros’ distribution chief emphasises that the film is meant to be fun, “The people are handsome and pretty and the locations are exotic. It looks like a nice diversion from life.” That seems pretty much the opposite of a documentary’s purpose.

Let’s face it, there is, essentially, no such thing as “the real” Singapore – or anywhere else for that matter. A place, like a person, is a mosaic of many different contrasting and even contradictory traits. To a crazy-rich Asian, the Singapore depicted in the movie must seem wonderfully “real” and the low-life existence of Mee Pok Man another world entirely – and vice versa. Yet they are both “Singapore” – not the whole picture by any means, but part of it. Matt Gross’ criticism is based on the fact that he prefers the demi-monde of Mee Pok Man to the glitz of Crazy Rich Asians – and that’s absolutely fine. I tend to agree agree with him.

However, this questionable criticism of the “reality” depicted has informed many of the reviews of Jon Chu’s film. Partly, I suspect, this comes from the undeniable fact that the release of Crazy Rich Asians is an event: the first Hollywood film to feature an all-Asian cast since Joy Luck Club twenty-five years ago. That meant that expectations were extremely high. Major films featuring Singapore are so rare that anyone interested in film here, no doubt, wanted Jon Chu’s film to be done ‘right’. A movie set in New York or London doesn’t have that kind of pressure. Yet, that desire was doomed before the camera even started rolling and the film has proven especially polarising in Singapore itself with these being the main complaints:

  • The Lack of Representation of Minorities

The most controversial of these reasons is the issue of how representative Crazy Rich Asians is of the various ethnic groups in Singapore. In a review of the film, local critic Nicholas Yong asks whether it is “an accurate portrayal of Singapore society at large” and answers his question with a resounding “No”, dubbing it “Singapore-lite”. He states that “the most glaring misrepresentation is the absence of significant roles played by actors from Singapore’s minority races. The only Malays and Indians present in the movie appear to be servants and underlings, which is a crying shame given Singapore’s multiracial society. Was there no space for a single supporting cast member who is a non-Chinese Singaporean?” It is true that there is little sign of Malays and Indians in the film and I do think his final question is an important one. Yet, I would argue that given its narrow focus there’s no reason why there should be other races shown except in those roles. The filthy rich have servants and they tend to come from Indonesia and the Philippines. As for not showing the other main races in Singapore, the film is honest in the sense that it is solely focused on the incestuous world of filthy rich and in this country the richest families tend to be Chinese.

“Man Standing at a Stall” by Christian Chen on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@christianchen?utm_source=medium&utm_medium=referral

A quick scan of Forbes Magazine’s list of the 50 richest families in Singapore will show you that 42 of these are ethnically Chinese. As Kevin Kwan’s novel emphasises, they are dynastic families, intimately related through marriage, who tend to socialise together. They have to do this because they can’t trust anyone less wealthy than themslves. Only the similarly “crazy rich” can understand them and their lives. No matter what friction and competition may emerge between them, they need each other for the support, protection and mutual aid necessary to network, to grow and maintain their wealth. Given this, it’s hardly surprising that the film doesn’t have characters who are Malay and Indian.

Local actress Selena Tan, who appeared in Crazy Rich Asians, recognises the problem of representation but makes an important point: “it’s a step in the right direction. You can’t expect the first production to be all about Singapore and really authentically Singaporean … It’s telling a different story about a certain segment of society and I think it’s authentic as is.” Her implication is that Crazy Rich Asians isn’t about Singapore. Rather, its Chinese-American story takes place in the city-state. It’s a narrow distinction but an important one.

Audrey JiaJia Li , a writer based in Guangzhou, China calls the lack of Malays and Indians in the film

“an unfortunate oversight…It would have been nice if the movie had helped its audience gain better appreciation of the diversities of its settings, from the Asian American communities in the US to the nation of Singapore.”

However, Li seems to recognise the futility of such a wish, given that the film was based on a novel in which all the main characters are Chinese, adding, “I may be asking too much from a movie. After all, it is a cheerful one to spend two hours on.”

  • It’s Mainly an Asian-American Event

It’s true that those who have celebrated the representation in the film have tended to be Asian- and, especially, Chinese-Americans such as Constance Wu, who has the lead female role in Crazy Rich Asians and Jeff Yang, author and CNN contributer, whose son Hudson stars alongside Wu in the groundbreaking sit-com Fresh Off The Boat. Both emphasize that this is what Yang calls, “a signal moment” for Asian-Americans. As Wu says, it’s “an Asian-American story…filled with a talented, dynamic, unique, all-Asian cast.” What she is also implying here is that Crazy Rich Asians is not supposed to be a Singaporean film, even though it is mainly set here.

Chinese-Americans, especially, have every reason to cheer the film, but it’s easy to feel the cast’s excitement that ethnically Chinese actors from all around the world star in it. The Singaporean and Malaysian actors who appear in Crazy Rich Asians are not tokens. Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan and henry Golding are stars in their own right. Usually, if we see Chinese faces in Hollywood films they are only portraying gangsters, computer nerds, gold-diggers, courtesans or coolies. Yet, even these roles do not come frequently to Asian-American actors. In a study of diversity in Hollywood, the University of Southern California’s Annenburg Inclusion Initiative shows that of the top 100 films of 2017, only 4.8% “featured a character of Asian descent with a speaking role.” As for major artists behind the camera, of 1,223 directors over 11 years of research only 3.1% were of Asian descent. The study’s main finding was that “diversity of representation among Hollywood films remains largely unchanged from a decade ago.” For these statistical reasons, Crazy Rich Asians matters. Also, the important roles both Chinese-American and local actors have been given does make it a major moment for representation.

Still, the fact remains that this is an Chinese-American story set in Singapore. One movie can’t be all things to everybody, unfortunately, and it’s unavoidable that some foreign viewers and especially Americans, will get the impression that the country is only populated by Chinese. That is hardly surprising considering many educated Americans’ knowledge of geography is so poor that they wouldn’t know where Singapore is anyway..

What hasn’t been mentioned so much in articles is the fact that many locals are completely indifferent to the cultural importance of Crazy Rich Asians. To those who mainly watch the local Chinese, Malay and Indian channels the issue of lack of representation is a non-starter. Everyone in the locally-produced and Hong Kong and Korean dramas they watch is Asian. When I tried to explain why the film is so important in Hollywood, my Singaporean students looked at me blankly, shrugged and went back to their ‘handphones’. It was clear to me then that the film matters far more to Chinese-Americans and the wider Asian-American community than it does to many people here in Singapore.

  • The Lack of Coverage of Poverty in Singapore

Another criticism of the film has been its failure to show anything of the real poverty in Singapore. Audrey JiaJia Li, writing in The South China Morning Post reminds us that

“In Singapore, a wealthy city state and an attractive destination for high-net-worth people from across the world with its low tax regime, an estimated 10 to 14 per cent of the population struggle to meet basic needs.”

To Kristen Han this fact makes “the presentation of the Southeast Asian city-state…about as reflective of Singapore as Gossip Girl is of America.” She has a point. Crazy Rich Asians is a superficial and airbrushed picture of the country. It certainly doesn’t depict the reality in which “elderly people still collect cardboard on the streets to scrape together a few dollars and low-wage migrant workers are often shortchanged for the hard labor they’ve performed.” However, while this is a shame, it’s surely not that surprising when the movie isn’t a documentary and is based on a romantic novel about people who are eye-wateringly rich. Han calls the portrayal of Singapore “startlingly flawed” which seems somewhat disingenuous given the context in which Kevin Kwan and Jon Chu were working. If someone is “crazy-rich” in Singapore (or Hong Kong, New Delhi or Shanghai for that matter), they may possibly do some non-taxing charitable work, but it’s far likelier they’ll either be blind to the cardboard collectors or look the other way.

“Gardens by the Bay, Singapore” by Mike Enerio on Unsplash https://unsplash.com?utm_source=medium&utm_medium=referral
  • Lack of Singlish

To my mind, the most unfortunate missed opportunity in Crazy Rich Asians is the lack of Singlish, the local patois of Singapore, a rich and colourful mixture of Chinese, Malay and English. Local actresses have spoken of how they were told not to speak it on set. This is a shame as it would have added a great sense of local flavour and a taste of the real Singapore to the film if we had heard more of how Singaporeans actually speak.

Still, regrettable as this may be, when we consider that the story is about the filthy rich who come from “old money” and are often educated abroad, it’s not very surprising that we hear American, British and Australian accents rather than Singlish in the film. It is unfortunate, though, that there wasn’t more switching between local and ‘standard’ English since this is very much what locals do every day here.

  • Racism in Crazy Rich Asians

Sangeetha Thanapal, a blogger and self-styled “originator of the term ‘Chinese Privilege’, which situates institutionalized racism within Singapore” states in a two-part critique, published all of two months before the film was released here, that

“this movie is actually perpetuating the state of racism and Islamophobia in Singapore. 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?”

She makes a good point. It is a fact that among this group of rich Chinese Singaporeans, their cooks and servants tend to be Indonesians and Filipinos. Still, why should a film about a narrow community within the larger Chinese population of Singapore try and stretch itself so thin and attempt to depict Asians of every colour adequately? It’s an impossible task and would only result in the movie getting criticised for being even more superficial than many people such as local Malay poet and writer Alfian Sa’at already think it is. His bizarre opinion, in a Facebook post on August 26, is that Crazy Rich Asians is a documentary because it’s “set in a real place called ‘Singapore” — which by that logic makes me wonder whether World War Z is a documentary because it’s set in a real place called Philadelphia.

As for how Islamophobia got into Crazy Rich Asians, I don’t know; unless she means that the absence of Malay character makes the film Islamophobic. This seems a rather flimsy criticism considering who the story is about. Undermining Thanapal’s argument further is the odd belief that Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew is still alive. He actually died in 2015.

She is on stronger ground in the second part of her critique: “While it is being billed as an Asian movie, it is made up almost entirely of East Asians.” Clearly, the fault here lies with Kevin Kwan. He should have titled his novel Crazy Rich Chinese. This would have reflected the main characters more accurately. What commentators such as Thanapal and Sa’at appear to miss is that Kevin Kwan is caricaturing the incestuous sub-group he himself comes from — the 0.1% of the 1%.

In the end, what is real about Crazy Rich Asians is its cultural importance for Chinese-Americans — and this is at risk of being forgotten amid the plethora of complaints that the film isn’t this or doesn’t contain that. It never set out to portray the real Singapore. It portrays a seemingly fantasy world which, for a minutely small and privileged proportion of the local population, actually turns out to be real. Portraying what everyday life here for most people is like should be done by Singaporean directors and actors themselves. Hopefully, if they make good enough films, the wider world will get to appreciate their unique vision.

What matters for now is that this is the first Hollywood film with an all-ethnically-Chinese cast for a quarter of a century. This should be shocking. For all its lightness and superficiality, the film’s artistic achievement and box office success deserves to be celebrated. Still, we shouldn’t have to wait until 2043 for the next top-notch, all-Asian cast to appear in a Hollywood film. There are countless stories from Singapore and South-East Asia waiting to be told. Crazy Rich Asians is “a signal moment” for Chinese-Americans, particularly, a success achieved through the talent of actors from the wider Chinese diaspora. Hopefully, with the interest this film has created and the obvious artistic abilities on show, major studios will see this and have the guts to use South-East Asian actors and their native styles of English in Hollywood films — and not just swoon over their beautiful, exotic homelands.

I write about anything that interests me.

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