From where I’m sitting in Singapore, it’s hard to buy into the hype for the movie adaptation of the bestselling novel.
Jon M Chu is on a mission: He’s combing the world for Asian talent to be in Crazy Rich Asians, an adaptation of Singaporean author Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel of the same name.
The novel follows Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu, who travels with her boyfriend Nicholas Young back to his home in Singapore to attend his best friend’s wedding. There, she discovers that Nick comes from an obscenely rich family, and is plunged into a world of ridiculous extravagance and lavish parties, complete with Thai handmaidens.
“You may or may not know that it’s the first all-Asian cast from an American Hollywood studio in a long, long time. So it’s a huge step in representation and a great opportunity to showcase all the most talented Asian actors out there,” he said in his casting call posted on YouTube.
The call pushes all the right buttons: At a time when Scarlett Johansson adorns Ghost In The Shell posters and Matt Damon is front and center in The Great Wall, the announcement of a major all-Asian film feels like an antidote to the white-washing that Hollywood is notorious for. Constance Wu — who has been brave and unflinching in speaking out about race and representation in the industry — has already signed on to play the female lead.
But it’s hard to feel the hype from where I’m sitting, here in Singapore, where most of the Crazy Rich Asians story unfolds. While it’s definitely significant that Hollywood’s finally producing an all-Asian film, the anticipation for this film demonstrates that representation can mean different things to different groups of people, and that there is divergence between the needs and priorities of Asian Americans and Asians.
Major Western productions tend to see Asia in very particular ways. We could be the “rising Asia,” all glittering skyscrapers and futuristic urban design, or the rustic, impoverished-yet-inspiring backdrop for slumdog millionaires. We are dumplings and kungfu, curry and tech support, wise gurus who talk in riddles for all your “eat, pray, love” needs.
But this is not what we are. A continent as massive as Asia can never be as simple as the stereotypes imposed upon us. Asians — a population of over 4.4 billion people — are not a monolith, and our need for representation and empathy can’t be addressed by non-white casting.
I did not grow up as a “person of color.” As of 2016, 76.1% of Singapore’s citizens claim Chinese ancestry; at no point in my life here have I felt under- or un-represented because of my race. While Singapore has its fair share of colonial hang-ups — allowing white people in Singapore to enjoy a significant amount of privilege — Chinese Singaporeans can be confident that their interests will not only be served, but usually be dominant, in national affairs. (In fact, the matter of whether Singapore is “ready” for a non-Chinese prime minister is apparently still up for debate, quite like it was in the United States back in 2008, pre-Obama.)
The promise of an all-(East) Asian cast in a film, therefore, doesn’t excite me very much, beyond the novelty value of it being an American-made film, as opposed to the many offerings from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China that we have access to here. As an Asian in Asia, what I need in terms of representation needs to go far beyond the casting process.
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Singapore is a tiny Southeast Asian country that many might have heard of, but not many know about. We don’t exist in the minds of people living overseas as a fully-fledged, complex society, but as a caricature. As a freelance journalist covering Singapore for foreign publications, I’ve heard all the tropes: We’re obsessed with order, we ban chewing gum, we’re so uptight with our laws that we whipped an American teenager in the ’90s. There are people who think we’re in China, and many don’t realize we speak English as our first language.
Singapore doesn’t exist in the minds of people living overseas as a fully-fledged, complex society, but as a caricature.
In recent Western productions, we were the shiny city backdrop for action sequences, or the bizarre smoky, steamy pirate hangout on stilts. A British television show digitally altered scenes actually shot in Singapore to make it look, according to them, “more like Singapore” — by which they meant doing things like changing the street signs from English to Chinese. None of this contributes to deeper understanding or appreciation of our lived experiences in Singapore; it only exoticizes.
When it comes to representation, what I would like to see as a Singaporean is something that reflects my country and society in all our diversity and complexity, and helps audiences make connections between our experiences and theirs.
Crazy Rich Asians does nothing to improve the situation. It’s touted as a win for representation in the U.S. because of its stated goal to have an all-Asian cast, but the focus is specifically on characters and faces of East Asian descent (as dictated by the book). This is already a misrepresentation of Singapore at the most basic level, obscuring the Malay, Indian, and Eurasian (and more) populations who make the country the culturally rich and unique place that it is. Ironically, in Singapore, Chu’s all-Asian boast is nothing more than a perpetuation of the existing Chinese dominance in mainstream media and pop culture.
The racialization of ‘crazy rich’ behavior— as if batshit insane extravagance doesn’t happen elsewhere — does little to combat the Othering of Singapore and Asia.
The story of Crazy Rich Asians — and the racialization of “crazy rich” behavior, as if batshit insane extravagance doesn’t happen elsewhere — also does little to combat the Othering of Singapore and Asia. Reading the book was a strange experience; while I knew it was about my home, there was very little in it that I found recognizable, which is why I have little hope that the film will help anyone see Singapore as anything more than “kooky Asia,” stuffed with materialistic, flamboyant billionaires with bedazzled lifestyles.
Kwan, the author, is free to write whatever he likes. The director Chu, too, should be free to make any film he wants. It would be unrealistic — and undesirable — to expect Singaporean writers to write only one way, because Singapore can mean so many things to so many people. But touting Crazy Rich Asians as some sort of progressive win is false, especially in a context when there are already so few nuanced representations of Singapore and Asia in Western media. And when someone as lovely and woke as Constance Wu is saying that this is “a very important story to tell,” we see a divergence in the priorities of Asian-American people of color and Asians in Asia.
Our motivations when demanding representation stem from the same place — a desire to be portrayed in all our complex, nuanced, contradictory glory. To recognize ourselves on screen, and for others to recognize us as the fully-formed people and community that we are. This is important because it affects the way people perceive us, and by extension the way in which they connect or stand in solidarity with our struggles and challenges. Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t meet this need, no matter how nice it might be to see Asian faces in a Hollywood film.