After a day at the TIME office in Hong Kong, a colleague and I recently saw the Pixar short Bao, an eight-minute long film that aired before Incredibles 2. Directed by Domee Shi, the film follows an animated dumpling, who is nurtured by a Chinese mother into adolescence and eventually adulthood. We were both moved by the loving references Shi made to her own Chinese-Canadian upbringing. Even in cute cartoon format, we were seeing a part of ourselves authentically represented on screen for Western-oriented audiences—an experience still all too rare in 2018.
It was the seemingly small things in Bao that had an impact—from the colored visor worn by the mother practicing tai chi in the park to the woven baskets of steamed dumplings gobbled up by the father. That similar attention to detail is what many of us with Asian heritage are hoping to see on screen in this summer’s romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, released in the U.S. on Aug. 15.
Based on the phenomenally popular book franchise by Singaporean-American author Kevin Kwan, the film will be the first major motion picture movie featuring an all-Asian cast and Asian-American leads since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. Constance Wu, who rose to fame in the ABC series Fresh Off the Boat, plays Rachel Chu, a New York professor who accepts her boyfriend Nick Young’s invitation to attend a wedding in Singapore. There, she discovers that Nick’s family is one of the wealthiest in Asia and that his formidable mother, played by Michelle Yeoh, is not easy to impress.
The world Kwan creates in the film’s namesake novel, as well as its sequels, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, is filled with dazzling caricatures and garish sparkle. No expense is spared. Film stars dressed head to toe in Gucci dine at Michelin-star restaurants. On long weekends, boarding school-educated lotharios whiz over to island havens on private jets. Duplex penthouses, Lamborghinis and $195 million artworks are simply casual purchases.
Although the glamour can be overwhelming, the world Kwan creates is not just an escapist one. It’s part satire, a critique of the consumerism and desire for social status that drives the competition between old money vs nouveau riche. It also subverts our expectations of the traditional West-East power dynamic, as the fantastical wealth of Asia’s elite families makes searching for an ‘American Dream’ seem almost provincial in comparison.
But as well as being a classic romance, Crazy Rich Asians is also something of a love letter from Kwan to his native Singapore, and to the region as a whole. As a Malaysian-British Londoner now living in Hong Kong, I share the same affection that Kwan does for this part of the world. The more frugal elements of Crazy Rich Asians call to mind my experiences here, like the tapping of chopsticks demanding a taste of char kuay teow in the chaos of a hawker food center, or a crowd of wedding guests toasting “Yum Seng!”(the Cantonese version of “cheers”). Nick whisks Rachel away to the misty tea plantations in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, and to the busy streets of Hong Kong’s Mong Kok district, just a hop across the harbour for me now on the city’s famous Star Ferry.
The picture Kwan paints of these places doesn’t just bring up fond memories for me. My Malaysian mother, who read the books beside me this summer vacation, also enjoyed reminiscing about her life and childhood in southeast Asia. From describing the sizzle of goreng pisang (banana fritters in Malay—a popular street food snack across southeast Asia) to the delicate pearl inlays of Peranakan Chinese antique furniture, Kwan’s world brings to life the shared histories of so many of us in the region and in the diaspora.
“The first people who really embraced [Crazy Rich Asians] were the chick-lit audience,” Kwan has said of his novel. But that’s a genre so dominated by white, Western settings and characters—and for us, it felt almost groundbreaking to recognize scenes of our lives so rarely seen in popular culture. It was also the first time I had read a novel incorporating Hokkien slang, a dialect traditionally spoken among the Chinese community in my mother’s birthplace of Penang Island, Malaysia. I hope hearing it in the movie, along with Cantonese, Malay, Mandarin and the distinctive blend of Singaporean-English, will be yet another first for me.
For all its fabulous froth and name-dropping galore, the franchise raises important questions about race and representation. The novels have been criticized for failing to incorporate Singapore’s minority populations, such as Indians and Malays, and placing an ethnically Chinese elite in its own “crazy rich” strata when the reality is slightly more diverse.
The screen adaptation too has sparked debate, particularly following scrutiny on recent examples of Hollywood whitewashing. Crazy Rich Asians’ casting of male lead Henry Golding, a fellow Malaysian-Brit, was described by critics as ‘not being Asian enough.’ I know how he feels, and am often reminded that despite having an Asian name, I don’t “look” typically Asian. It can be complex to negotiate your sense of Asian identity while grappling with your white privilege. “Where are the boundaries?” Golding, who is half-white too, responded to the criticism. “Where are the lines drawn for saying that you cannot play this character because you’re not fully Asian?” And Golding’s inclusion in the cast is an important part of making a growing mixed-race generation— particularly in the diaspora—more visible.
The fact that the film’s creators pushed for a wider theatrical release is meaningful in itself—enabling people like me worldwide to see ourselves represented on screen. But also being able to acknowledge the shortcomings of Crazy Rich Asians matters too. We should be able to celebrate its existence as a milestone, but we should also be able to critique it.
We still have a long way to go to elevate the diverse stories coming from southeast Asia, across cultures, countries and races. But to see familiar faces, places, phrases and even recipes depicted with a warm tenderness underneath Crazy Rich Asians’ glittering exterior is a start. For me, that attention to detail is where the real wealth of the story lies.
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