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By Karen Wang
If there’s one thing that can be said about Crazy Rich Asians, it’s that it definitely brings the Asian, and it does it well.
The film, which began screening across the US on August 15, has reached a level of commercial and critical acclaim and recognition once thought to be impossible for a movie predominantly created by Asians.
Crazy Rich Asians, based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel of the same name, tells the story of a Chinese-American economics professor, Rachel Chu, who is asked to take a trip to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family. Things begin to devolve once Rachel realizes that her boyfriend’s relatives are just as crazy and rich as the title implies.
The film is incredibly well-done, with a level of authenticity to Chinese culture that deeply surprised me. Despite being a mainstream Hollywood movie, Crazy Rich Asians does not hesitate to give nods to Chinese culture at every turn. From the family dumpling-making scene to the Chinese-style weddings and parties to the repeated use of Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hokkien. Crazy Rich Asians’ Chinese influence is undeniable.
Crazy Rich Asians even tackles more hard-hitting topics, such as the tension between tradition and Westernization, the pressure to maintain an image and satisfy family expectations, and inequity and insecurity in relationships, with grace. There are storylines about overcoming abusive relationships, single mothers, and finding self-confidence and self-worth, even when there are people who relentlessly tear you down.
From start to finish, Crazy Rich Asians is a wholly, unapologetically Asian film, something difficult to find in an era where many American filmmakers still don’t believe Asian stars are marketable (see: Jenny Han’s admission that To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was whitewashed by every production agency she approached except for one). It is poignant and well-crafted with a story that is equal parts hilarious, touching, and heartwarming.
But while a sequel is already in the works for this blockbuster movie, some are left less than satisfied with this film adaptation.
For starters, Crazy Rich Asians takes place in Singapore, a small sovereign city-state that borders Malaysia. However, the film does little to acknowledge Singapore’s multi-ethnic and culturally diverse background, with all characters, except for bodyguards and housekeepers, portrayed as ethnically Chinese.
Some people have even gone as far as to say the film contributes to the erasure and mistreatment of South Asians and Malaysians at the hands of ethnically Chinese people. The idea of “Chinese privilege,” a term coined in recent years by Singaporeans, seems to be at the forefront of the controversy surrounding the film.
The only “Asian” in Crazy Rich Asians is Chinese, and dare I say it, there seem to be more white people than brown people in Crazy Rich Asians.
Outraged and upset Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians, and South Asians have voiced their concerns about the film contributing to a long-held stereotype that only East Asians are “really” Asians and that their identity as “Asian” people is invalid.
In an attempt to quell the controversy, many proponents of the film have emphasized the importance of supporting Crazy Rich Asians in order for Hollywood to acknowledge the profitability of Asians stories and presumably, invest in telling and creating more of them.
But being asked to “wait their turn” has rubbed many non-East Asians the wrong way.
Something similar occurred following the release of The Joy Luck Club twenty-five years ago. Obviously, the fact that another full-Asian cast film wasn’t created again until Crazy Rich Asians speaks for itself, but there’s another issue at play here as well.
Crazy Rich Asians, while brilliant and touching and well-done overall, doesn’t represent every Asian, and it is unfair to try to coerce or guilt people into supporting the film when it feels hurtful to be reminded that their stories aren’t as valued by the general public.
Asians exist beyond the realm of just Chinese people. In fact, Asians exist beyond the realm of East Asian people. There is a saturation of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese culture in modern Western media and entertainment that makes it easy to forget that “Asian” is a term that encompasses billions of people, with hundreds of unique cultures and languages and traditions. And each of them deserve a turn in the spotlight.
Asians can do more than just settle for representation for representation’s sake. As relatable and adorable as Rachel Chu is, the truth is that most of us aren’t going to marry into one of the richest families in all of Asia.
Now that doesn’t mean the story isn’t entertaining or valid, but it would be nice to see Asians portrayed outside of an atmosphere of abundant wealth.
There are hundreds, thousands of Asian-American stories worth telling. Where are the stories about refugees and the extreme poverty they face? Where are the stories about mental health and the pressure many Asians face at the hands of society and their families? Where are the stories about deeply internalized colorism, racism, sexism, and homophobia?
Crazy Rich Asians tackles some tough issues, and it does it well, but there is still so much more to say and share about the Asian-American experiences. And it is clear that many Asian-Americans are done being silent. They want their stories told, and they want it now.
So, is Crazy Rich Asians worth the hype? Absolutely. Is it a perfect film? Of course not. But despite its flaws, Crazy Rich Asians really shines as a story that feels authentic and feels real, even in a setting and premise many of us will never become familiar with.
Crazy Rich Asians feels like the first rung on a long ladder we’re in the process of climbing. I can only hope that this film doesn’t turn out to be another The Joy Luck Club, and that it leads to more representation for all Asians and all of their stories.