Fair warning, light spoilers ahead. Proceed at your own discretion.
I performed my Asian American duty by heading out to the big screen in support of the opening weekend of “Crazy Rich Asians” and this is the story of how I went from “Crazy Rich Asians” cynic to stunned.
Leading up to it, I was not expecting to like this movie. I never considered myself a fan of romantic comedies. I’ve always found them to be formulaic, often sexist, with eye-rolling corniness. Not only are rom-coms not my go-to for streaming services that I already pay for, f*ck no would you ever catch me paying $12 for a movie ticket to see one. I’m a jaded hag and I’ll take 3 lattes instead, thanks.
Another friend of mine shared her own (more thoughtful) apprehensions toward the film. She said she felt embarrassed to watch movies with Asians because their characters were always portrayed as cringeworthy stereotypes like awkward, ugly nerds, meek girls in need of rescuing, etc. She shared how this had led to internalized shame for seeing Asians on screen. For me, I was afraid that the opportunity for authentic storytelling might be watered down to cater to white viewers. The film industry has, again and again, done so much wrong by the Asian American community that I didn’t want to get my hopes up. It was all probably going to be corny AF, but I’ll take it anyway.
My support for “Crazy Rich Asians” was entirely symbolic. As a first-generation American, daughter of humble blue collar Vietnamese refugees, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. I saw the glitz and glamour and questioned how much I could truly identify with this story. After all, this was a film based off of a semi-fictional novel by an author from an elite Chinese-Singaporean family and I shop for toilet paper on sale. But even at that, my symbolic support was present as a way of saying this is the start, not the end. With my money and my time, I will make my voice heard that we need more non-white faces on big screens.
Those of East Asians descent including Chinese, Korean, and Japanese are overrepresented when it comes to opportunities for Asian Americans to be seen. The representation for non-East Asian Americans is so limited, watching “Gran Torino” was the first time I learned about Hmong Americans. For Southeast “jungle” Asian Americans like myself, I knew it would be far-fetched for a large scale production to be made about my specific experience. Even with that being the case, I continue to advocate for the representation of other POC communities outside of my own ethnic one because I believe in the power of us uniting to break through this barrier.
I knew what I was getting myself into, I thought. I dove in with a deep breath. When I resurfaced, what I didn’t expect was to not only see a film rich in production value, but a film rich in performance and cultural depth. I was stunned. I saw a film that made the foreign circumstances so familiar because I realized I had felt these same moments before. As an Asian American woman, I’ve navigated my fair share of Rachel Chu moments. I studied abroad in Hong Kong and was made hyper aware of my American-ness. I’ve dealt with the cultural and ethnic barriers between myself and my partner’s parents. I’ve had my personal accomplishments be reduced to character judgements of whether I’d be good wife material. I speak awkward American-tinted Vietnamese.
Rachel Chu represents a first-generation woman with a similar background to myself, living a successful American dream but simultaneously a failure of Asian filial piety. It was about the sacrifices of intelligent and educated mothers who had to give up their dreams because they lived in a broken patriarchal society that forced women to choose between love and family or individual success and fulfillment. Reading between all the lavish gold-encrusted lines, this is the story of navigating the strife between three generations and societal expectations of Asian (American) women. These thoughtfully constructed moments made me realize that how “Crazy Rich Asians” really hit its home run is that it didn’t just put Asian faces on white people problems and called it a day, but it centered on real Asian American problems. These are issues that many of us, regardless of our Asian ethnicities, could identify with.
Upon further reflection, my distaste of romantic comedies might not have anything to do with the genre itself but the fact that they had always forced upon me this narrative of the quirky and charming white woman finding love in films such as “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally”. The appeal of the romantic comedy is the idea that it could happen to you, but I never saw that for myself. Characters who looked like me were the angsty or sassy best friend. Unless I could somehow become a white woman, I might as well forget having my own worthy love story.
When I walked out of the theater, I still wasn’t Rachel Chu. I hadn’t won over the mother of my partner and I wasn’t going to marry the hot heir of a massive Singaporean fortune (well, I haven’t ruled this out completely…) but Rachel’s victory still felt a little like my own. I saw more than enough of myself in a film when I didn’t expect to see more than Asian faces. This was a film made for Asian American audiences. It made me realize that I had spent so much time humanizing white people’s stories because of what I saw on the screen, so much so that I didn’t realize how moved I would be to have characteristics of myself humanized. This movie healed me in ways I didn’t know were broken.
I’ve been observing the film’s praise as well as its criticisms. These critics argue that “Crazy Rich Asians” didn’t do enough to represent marginalized Singaporeans. This is a very valid argument and it’s good that “Crazy Rich Asians” has provided an opportunity for these conversations so we can be more aware. I mean, I myself didn’t think my story would be represented either. But at the same time, to place the responsibility of fully representing all Asians on “Crazy Rich Asians” is an expectation doomed to disappoint.
Asians and the Asian diaspora are a vast, complicated, diverse, and multifaceted population. Asking this one film to speak on behalf of everyone is like asking that one Asian-descending person in a group to speak on behalf of an Asian country. One film won’t be able to encompass it all. The issue I have is with critics who frame any win as all or nothing. They dismiss “Crazy Rich Asians” altogether because it didn’t do enough for them, while not acknowledging how monumental this is for members of the Asian diaspora and how hard we’ve fought for it. Some critics move further to demonize Asian Americans for supporting “Crazy Rich Asians” at all because Singaporeans didn’t get fair representation.
I think it’s easy to want to hold the first film of its kind in so long to a high standard. It’s easy to say, this is our one chance do it right so we have to do it right by everyone. Hollywood and the film industry has continued to uphold and perpetuate the systemic erasure of non-white people, one film will not undo this. It is problematic to demand that POC-created and led films be held to certain representation standards when we don’t do the same to the countless Hollywood films made by and for white people.
The first Asian American led film in over 25 years happens to be a romantic comedy, but with this will come Asian American action, science fiction, fantasy, horror, indie, and drama films to rectify our systemic erasure. This was a win for representation, not for every single story, but for one that’s desperately needed to be told and as a community, we can acknowledge where “Crazy Rich Asians” fell short without being guilted out of out celebrating it. Instead of arguing for one moment to represent all of us, let’s fight for more moments to represent us all.
“Crazy Rich Asians” broke the Asian identity out of a lot of boxes. It didn’t give us full access to the Hollywood mansion, but it unlocked the gate. Whether or not you see yourself and your story represented in the film, it is a win for Asian American representation and should be celebrated. This doesn’t mean we dust off our hands and say, cool, we’re done now. We keep fighting like hell. We keep this win in our pocket and we keep rallying until all films are as representative as the people watching them.
Additional commentary from my personal Facebook post:
There continues to be this Asian vs. Asian American activist divide when it comes to moving us forward as groups who need representation. We’re often lumped into the same, with one group seeking to speak on behalf of another but it’s ironic this exists because a core theme of Crazy Rich Asians is our difference.
I’m frustrated when Asians in Asia continue to dismiss the activism of Asian Americans and others in the western diaspora. Every time an issue of whitewashing arises, we see so many outlets reporting that Chinese people have no issue with white girls wearing qipao dresses to prom or that Japanese people have no issue with Scarlett Johansson. The experience of Asians is not the same as that of Asian Americans. We’ve been the object of Asian fetishes, ridiculed for our food and culture, and made losers by white people we have to co-exist with everywhere in our daily lives.
This movie was about crazy rich people in Singapore, not everyone in Singapore. I understand where the desire to have everyone represented comes from, but in the same strain, when we see a movie about crazy rich white people in America it doesn’t that mean that poor people or POC don’t live in America. Furthermore, Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t the first Hollywood film to to be shot in Singapore recently, see Equals (2015) and Hitman: Agent 47 (2016)…
I don’t want to encourage divisiveness in our communities, but I’d like to encourage that our counterparts in Asia also do work in their own communities to acknowledge how our experiences are different. I felt compelled to share this after I saw the film. I appreciate, accept, and value Crazy Rich Asians a lot for what it was able to do for me and those I consider to be a part of my Asian American community. Asian Americans are allowed this moment for ourselves.
A very special thanks to Linh Tran, my bff, voice of reason, and perpetual late-night editor.