Representation is the buzzword for Hollywood in 2018. Films like Black Panther, Love, Simon and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before have been hailed as celebrations for People Of Colour (POC) representation. The latest film to add to the list is Crazy Rich Asians. Based on the book by Kevin Kwan, a satirical look into the obscenely wealthy 1% of Singapore, the film boasts a full Asian cast replete with Chinese-Singaporean cultural details, food and scenes. But, like all films with POC representation, it is held to impossible standards.
The story follows Chinese American professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) who accompanies her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore and meets his family who, unbeknown to her, are billionaires in the Singaporean elite. Like the book, the film is completely over the top and features luxurious estates, yacht and private island bachelor and bachelorette parties, diamonds, skyscrapers and all the designer clothes in the world.
It touches on messages about privilege and immigrant striving, and the disconnect between Asians and Asian Americans and ends with the soppy romantic airplane scene, kiss and happy ever after of a typical rom-com.
The West has often been criticised for “emasculating” Asian men and oversexualising Asian women, which Kwan explicitly does not do. Similarly, in the film, there are swoon-worthy shots of Golding, and Pierre Png who plays Michael Teo in the film. There’s no question of the sexuality of Asian men in the film.
Having read all the books, I watched the film when it first played in South Africa a week ago. What I liked about the books was that they subverted the idea that I’d always held about extreme wealth being white. But other than that, I enjoyed it for frivolous reasons. The book used humour, satire and hyperbole to highlight the extreme disparities between the wealthy – and the rest of us. I liked reading about the ridiculousness that is rich people problems and lamenting the capitalist farce at the same time. I enjoyed the characters, the Cantonese or Hokkien expressions, the description of the foods and the peek into a demographic – of extremely rich Singaporeans – that I would otherwise have overlooked.
Annoyingly, the film changed some of the plot and left out some of the characters, as book-to-film adaptations often do. But I thought the movie was harmless escapism. It was refreshing to see an all-Asian cast and I enjoyed the characters that I equally loved and despaired over (I’m talking about you, Eddie Cheng and Kitty Pong) come to life. Of course, I was quite horrified at how Rachel’s friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) was rewritten into the sassy black friend trope complete with a contrived blaccent. But I digress, that’s a story for another day.
Representation clearly sells. People have been flocking into the cinemas to see Crazy Rich Asians in theatres. The film raked in an estimated $76.8 million in the US (about R1.1 billion), more than double the reported $30 million (about R439 million) it cost to make it.
But as with every Hollywood film that dares to represent what is not the heteronormative white norm, the think pieces are flooding in. The film has been dragged for rejecting third world and immigrant Asians and adopting white standards of respectability. The film’s glamorisation of Chinese-Singaporean wealth has also been criticised considering the country’s own racial inequalities, described as a system of “Chinese Privilege” – and swapping Chinese for whites at the top of the racial hierarchy.
While these are all serious accusations, I don’t think it’s fair to level all that criticism on the film.
We can’t ignore that the film is based on a stories Kwan wrote largely as satire to point out all of these dark issues. And perhaps my sentiments come from the background of someone who has read the books as well as watched the film.
In a 2013 interview with Reuters about the book, Kwan said: “I would say the book is very satirical and it’s high parody. There’s a lot of exaggeration and outrageousness.”
“With comedy, it allows people to see things but perhaps reflect on things in a different way. You need that comedy to balance out what I think are some dark issues – the vast income disparity between rich and poor, for example, in Asia, in China.”
Kwan writes Asian people from the perspective of an Asian. As a person who hails from a background not unlike Nick Young’s, he writes from his lived experience. Kwan also wrote the book because he didn’t connect with the portrayals of Asian characters as “the boy that’s embarrassed that his parents own a laundromat or the woman that’s having to choose between two babies in Shanghai,” he said.
The point is that there isn’t enough representation of POC in Hollywood and there are unfair expectations set to the films that do make it to the big screen. What this does show is that seeing the colour of your skin being represented in the cast of a Hollywood blockbuster is a shallow form of representation. But no one film can depict the intricacies of an identity that is not monolithic by any stretch of the imagination.
We need films about the so-called Chinese supremacy in Singapore, the third world Asians in Shanghai, the Chinese American who is ashamed of his parents’ laundromat. All those stories are important and valid. All these stories deserve to be told.
But we can also accept stories about the uber-rich Singaporean elite. With confirmation that a sequel is already in development, it’s clear that Crazy Rich’s story will persist.
Now that we see that representation sells, here’s hoping Hollywood will become a more inclusive place.