Mindful Approaches to Watching Crazy Rich Asians

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Singapore © MTS_Photo

One must understand how different it feels to watch this film in the cultural context of Singapore, where issues of socio-economic and racial inequality are finally gaining traction in wider public consciousness.

I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to locate myself in a cross-boundary conversation about Jon M. Chu’s summer blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians, based on Kevin Kwan’s eponymous 2013 best-seller. Much of the North American perspective on mass media points to the film as a landmark movement toward greater Asian-American representation in Hollywood. However, in Singapore, where both the book and the film are based, commentators are calling out the irony of this statement.

Much of the film’s focus is on the hyper rich, entitled East Asian characters played primarily by East Asian and Eurasian actors, whereas darker skinned Asian characters appear as scary guards, drivers, domestic workers and service staff. This Sinofication points to issues where a Chinese-Singaporean majority is overrepresented, and Anglophone Chinese-Singaporeans have disproportionate access to resources in a Southeast Asian country where Singaporean-Malays, South Asians, Eurasians and other racial minorities face systemic underrepresentation in multiple aspects of daily life.

One must understand how different it feels to watch this film in the cultural context of Singapore, where issues of socio-economic and racial inequality are finally gaining traction in wider public consciousness. Though Crazy Rich Asians has emerged as a conversational phenomenon, it was preceded by another, earlier this year: Dr. Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like. Teo’s book is an ethnography of socio-economic inequality in Singapore, based on three years of fieldwork with families living in rental flats and on household monthly incomes of SG$1,500 ($1,100) or less.

The book brought the conversation on inequality from academia into the mainstream, where the author got people to critically reconsider narrow, yet prolific narratives of a cosmopolitan, contemporary and prosperous Singapore with stories that unpack the everyday injustices faced by her interlocutors.

Ethnography of the High Life

Though Kwan likens his book to “an ethnography of a culture and a species of people” living highly exclusive lives, the film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t aim to fit its characters’ experiences into larger structures of society, leaving the wider historical and social context of power and privilege unexamined. In the same way that the film may have been found empowering to underrepresented Asian-American populations in the US, it could have really stepped up in trying to do the same in the Southeast Asian country the story is actually based in.

Furthermore, when the focus is all on the film’s racial representation within a US-centric context, issues of underrepresentation, privilege and inequality in Singapore are conveniently disregarded. Though both Kwan and Chu claim to present a satirical view of their characters’ lives, the film indulges viewers in so much visual wealth, it becomes gratifying to the extent of placation. We start to lose some of that intended edge to ingrained aspirational capitalism that runs wild in both the US and in Singapore. The city of Singapore itself begins to reflect this as a glorified stage (queue tourism board product placement, camera lingering redundantly on the Merlion, and a garishly edited shot of the Marina Bay Sands) for wealthy, cosmopolitan Anglophone-Asians who live in the Asian values households of their tiger mothers.

Recall when Peik Lin tells Rachel that the Youngs were rich even when they left China to settle in Singapore — emphatically pointing North American audiences to a second map showing that Singapore is not, in fact, in China — back when Singapore was nothing but “jungle and pig farmers” they eventually built up as one sprawling piece of real estate. Highlighting the centrality of Singaporean-Chinese wealth in the myth of Singapore’s transformation from a sleepy fishing village to modern metropolis again obscures the nation’s much more complex and pluralistic history and demography.

It’s important to talk of this film with context in terms of for whom Kwan’s book and Cho’s film were created. Kevin Kwan wrote his book with the intention of introducing a North American audience to a contemporary view of “Asia,” one he felt many in the Western world did not know existed. Similarly, Jon M. Chu created Crazy Rich Asians within and for the North American context — more specifically, for the expansive viewer base of a powerful film industry that has systematically underrepresented racial minority voices in America. We could say that Chu’s film is a direct response to an industry where the last film with an all-Asian cast was Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago, whilst making full use of Hollywood’s classic romcom formula for global appeal.

Hollywood System

Crazy Rich Asians comes to us in 2018 as something very different from what Kwan had envisioned in 2013, when he was offered a Hollywood film adaptation of the book, contingent on rewriting Rachel Chu (a Chinese-American economics professor) as a white woman. He saw Crazy Rich Asians as an independent film outside of traditional Hollywood and its exclusive, often racist, systems of production. This industry legacy has helped to elevate white talent on screen and behind the camera, making little space for all those who are underrepresented, even when representing characters of Asian descent.

This was finally escalated in wider public consciousness with #OscarsSoWhite calling out the fact that there wasn’t a single person of color nominated in any of the lead or supporting actor categories during the 2015 awards ceremony. The very members of the Academy of Picture Arts and Sciences — those made responsible for nominating films for the esteemed reward — were themselves demographically slanted. A majority were old, white men who unsurprisingly voted for the films and stories they decided were most worth recognition.

In this time, it’s important to note how vocal Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians’ own Rachel Chu) has been in her activism for Asian-American representation, and the way she grew to understand this need only after witnessing audience reactions to her show, Fresh Off the Boat — the first Asian-American television show led by an Asian American family in over 20 years. Her involvement in discourse of representation influenced people like Chu to recognize his own responsibilities as a successful director of multiple Hollywood sequels such as Now You See Me 2.

But film in Hollywood remains skewed toward being made by, and made to represent, white men. In 2017, the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative led by the University of Southern California found that out of almost 40,000 speaking or named characters who had an identifiable race/ethnicity, from the 900 top fiction films in the US box office from 2007 to 2016, only 29.2% were Black, Asian, Hispanic/Latino or “other,” even though these groups make up 38.7% of the population and 49% of the movie-going audience in the country.

The figure for women of color who are represented is even lower. We can enlist simple tests to reveal implicit and explicit biases about who is considered worth representing in the North American film industry, such as the Bechdel test (to pass, the film has to have at least two women in it, who talk to each other about something other than a man) or the DuVernay test devised by Mahnola Dargis, in which “African Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories.”

Frameworks of Meaning

The effects of a voting demographic on a film awards ceremony and the differences in conversation about Crazy Rich Asians go to show that our encounters with film are always subjective. We experience films within the frameworks of meaning we find ourselves embedded in, and we are limited by the contextual borders of our realities. A 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes depicts one reality of specifically Asian-American representation in a North American context, but denies the co-existent reality that recognizes the limits of this representation in a Singaporean context — much less the rest of the vast Asian continent.

What is so special about Crazy Rich Asians, however, is the global conversation that it has prompted, on topics informed by the current socio-political climate, but also of the way people watch film, how they see and what they demand of visual culture. Hollywood film is a powerful global export that has influenced viewing practices across the world, shaped cross-cultural discourses and manufactured viewer aspirations. We can’t just talk about a film and its internal world of plot, character and twists. We must always be mindful of the way a film is created as a product and disseminated within in a larger industry with its own particular modes and relations of production.

With this, we must ultimately recognize ourselves as consumers of visual culture and, as consumers, consider whether or not we are elevating the kinds of representative stories we say we want to see. As platforms for watching films and exploring new works from emerging film industries have increased, viewers can choose to support local and regional filmmakers who are in the best position and hold the highest stakes in telling nuanced and complex stories about our societies.

Crazy Rich Asians has generated so much buzz as a wildly fun and successful but underrepresentative film in Singapore. By contrast, Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice received comparatively little attention surrounding its sensitive and well-informed representation of Singaporean-Malay characters working in the Singapore prison and capital punishment system. Another is K. Rajagopal’s A Yellow Bird, which follows a Singaporean-Tamil man who is released from prison and must navigate reconnecting with his family, informal work and his friendship with a mainland Chinese woman who has overstayed her visit pass.

Whilst both these films have been very well received at international film festivals, neither got the media attention, multi-source funding or screening time afforded to a film that largely uses Singapore as a big prop. If we care about diverse and dignified representation of actors, characters, stories and histories in film, we really need to start showing up where it makes an impact.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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