Why You Shouldn’t Watch the Crazy Rich Asians Movie
Unearthing the crazy rich colorism of Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians will go down as the best book and worst film ever.
To this day, Crazy Rich Asians by Singaporean-American author Kevin Kwan remains one of my favorite reads of all time. I remember picking the book up at my high school library during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and breezing through the pages during and between classes, attracting weird looks from a majority-white community that’d grown up alongside canonical (white) works such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies.
However, Crazy Rich Asians became the book that trumped any other I’ve read in my public school experience. Uniting the cultural, social, historical, and even political contexts of East Asia into a bourgeois amalgam, I found much to study within the humorous storylines and tragic love stories in Kwan’s book.
As an Asian-American, the accurate picture that Kwan paints of (bougie) life on the other side of the Pacific Ocean was relieving; although I could never identify with the “crazy rich” indulgences of the Young family, I felt at home with Kwan’s childhood-based depictions of East Asia. Overall, Kwan’s overarching narration was breathtaking in its descriptions of East Asian cuisines, geographies, and communities.
Rachel Chu’s experiences regarding being American-born and feeling cultural disconnect with her own people in East Asia resonated with my own feelings in the Asian diaspora. Underneath the fashion, the fine dining, and the island resorts of Crazy Rich Asians is a region and culture that I’ve spent my life trying to understand.
As of 2018, Crazy Rich Asians is being adapted to a romcom film. The cast is primarily — if not, completely — Asian and takes Kwan’s representations of East Asia to the big screen. I’m extremely excited for the release, which is scheduled to be August 15, 2018 in the United States. However, as I dig deeper into the movie’s logistics — casting, production, etc. — I’ve begun to notice a massive problem with what’s presented on the big screen.
But not in the way you’d think, or expect.
The cast — although completely Asian — does not accurately reflect what East Asians look like in reality; everyone possesses a very light shade of skin tone that isn’t definitive of the range of colors in East Asia. Juxtaposed against Kwan’s satirical bourgeois class of characters, the casting decisions only introduce another — much realer — strata: color.
Within the broader issue of Asian representation in films such as The Great Wall and Ghost in the Shell, the film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians is lauded as “revolutionary” and “progressive” for the industry. Film critics point to America’s notorious record of yellowface as a reference point to gauge the cast, in which such a composition — an amalgam of big names such as Constance Wu and Ken Jeong — would have seemed unfathomable decades ago.
And so, such critics are quick to make social judgments on Crazy Rich Asians while hardly scratching at the surface of its politics. Films like “Ghost in the Shell” prove that whitewashing is very much alive today, especially for Asians trying to break into the industry. Therefore, the bar for representation is incredibly low: despite all of the problems that Crazy Rich Asians possesses, it’s still a step in the “right direction” for film, culture, and society writ large.
However, Crazy Rich Asians breaks existing stereotypes and stratification practices as much as it steps into a new one. The all-Asian cast is groundbreaking in certain respects, especially in how it makes a conscious effort to put real Asian actors on the big screen. However, that relies on a certain definition of “Asian” that becomes a new source of problems for Asians in the film industry: colorism.
Colorism is defined as the hierarchy of skin tones, where having lighter skin is the privilege. This is distinct from — but not completely separate — from racism. For example, racism in the film industry looks like white actors replacing Asian actors on the premise that Asians can’t act: that’s a racist stereotype. However, colorism in the film industry looks like lighter Asian actors replacing darker Asian actors on the premise that lighter skin is more beautiful and thus more appealing on the big screen: lighter skin is the privilege.
What makes colorism structurally distinct from racism is that it can manifest within races. Lighter Asians can be colorist towards darker Asians; lighter black folks can be colorist towards darker black folks. This is a result of the internalization of racial stereotypes and hierarchies, where people of color begin to assume the beauty, privilege, and power of lighter skin and enforce those (impossible) standards on themselves and their own communities.
In my experiences visiting family in Vietnam — which is located in Southeast Asia just below China — I’ve only ever witnessed dark-skinned Asians. Even back in America — in the immigrant communities that I live with — Asians mostly possess darker skin than not. For me, these people are the people I imagine when I think of Asian; these people are my people.
Yet, despite the presence of dark-skinned Asians across the continent, whiteness remains extremely pervasive within East Asian societies. These cultures are homogenous in racial composition, but are heavily stratified along colorist lines. For example, the pop industry in South Korea places a huge emphasis on celebrities having lighter skin; those with darker skin are either ostracized or pressured into whitening their skin through cosmetics.
Therefore, I’m not entirely surprised that the Crazy Rich Asians cast is entirely composed of light-skinned Asians. These are actors/actresses who’ve distinguished themselves in an already-difficult industry for Asians, but have been given a bare pass due to their light/lightened skin that emulates that of actual white folks.
As a result, colorism becomes the latest manifestation of whitewashing. Instead of white folks wearing yellow faces, it’s yellow folks wearing white faces. Either way, folks with dark faces are excluded and discriminated against. Yet, what adds further insult to injury is that white directors and actors can now absolve themselves of the blame for white supremacy; the problems become vested within the Asian community.
That’s why films like Crazy Rich Asians are acceptable in the same day and age that Scarlett Johansson played an Asian role in Ghost in the Shell: the industry is looking for ways to appear progressive to a critical audience while maintaining its rampant racism and colorism. What did they come up with? A film that “pushes back” against racism, while solidifying colorism completely.
Thus, Crazy Rich Asians sets an incredibly dangerous precedent for Asian actors by throwing a progressive illusion over the industry. By lauding a light-skinned Asian cast as progressive and groundbreaking for film, they set a colorist standard for what Asianness looks like on the big screen. As a result, the concerns of dark-skinned Asians are sidestepped by conservative film critics who argue that Jon Chu’s film should have been enough to satisfy their anger; yet, the reality is that it never did.
I’m incredibly angry.
Today, I’m fairly confident that I won’t attend the screening of the Crazy Rich Asians movie. I refuse to subscribe to a racial capitalist project that profits from the whitening of my own people. As a Southeast Asian coming from a brown family, I could see myself in the Asians portrayed in Kevin Kwan’s original novel; Jon Chu’s casting decisions took that from me.
Frankly, I’m not just disappointed in Chu but also at the complicity of the cast in their own whitewashing; these are Asian people who know exactly what their people look like, yet choose to uphold colorist ideals in the work they do. I’m especially angry at actors/actresses such as Constance Wu, who have an impressive history of challenging such problems in their work. As I said before, the industry jumps over certain issues just to land into new ones.
Therefore, I can never be satisfied with the “progress” achieved by the film. Critics will applaud how Chu’s film challenges the existing racial dilemma of the industry, but I will continue to rally against the whiteness that continues to pervade my community, country, and culture. We should not settle our movement against white supremacy here: to do so would mean ignoring those who have faced the hardest struggles in the status quo.
In the end, people can feel free to do what they’d like: buy the book, praise Chu’s film, watch the movie, etc. However, I urge that when you drive out to the theaters, buy the tickets, walk into the screening, and buy the DVD a few months later, you be well-informed about exactly what you’re doing. As a consumer of culture, you have immense power in determining the role of Crazy Rich Asians in film, entertainment, and society writ large. Therefore, I ask that you be mindful about the choices you make in providing your money and attention. See you on August 15.