I HAVE SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT CRAZY RICH ASIANS AND I AM GOING TO SAY THEM.
But first, some caveats:
- I will not be talking about the lack of minority representation in the film (beyond some snarky comments). That has been better dealt with by other writers like Kirsten Han and Pooja Nansi. It is no doubt #problematic but I am not sure what else I could add to the conversation at this point.
- I have not read the book. Nor do I intend to. The word salad you are about to grudgingly pick at is purely about the movie.
- I am going to be a bit loose with my usage of ‘Asian-American’ and ‘Asian’. I’m well aware that not all Asians are Chinese and not all Asian-Americans are Chinese-Americans, but the nomenclature used in Crazy Rich Asians means it is difficult to talk about the film without some blanket use of ‘Asian’ to mean ‘Chinese’. Where possible, I have gone for ‘Chinese’ and ‘Chinese-American’ for the sake of accuracy. And yes, the fact that the ‘Asian’ in ‘Crazy Rich Asian’ refers only to the Chinese is suuuuuuuuuuper #problematic (I hate that word) in itself.
- I usually try for some semblance of objectivity when I talk about movies. It’s not possible for this one.
1. As a movie, Crazy Rich Asians (henceforth abbreviated to CRA) is aight.
2. No, seriously. That’s all I have to say about it. It’s aight. Like, aggressively aight. Opulently aight. Like average and ‘eh, good enough’ had a baby and it graduated with second class honours from Miss Sure-Why-Not’s School for Marginally-Above-Par Entertainment. Here’s a quick rundown. Good – Constance Wu is going to be a star, Awkwafina is funny, Jon M. Chu knows how to film spectacle (he’s got that posh-deep-dark lighting on point and has a great knack for cramming his shots with enough extras to make them feel kinetic without overcrowding), Gemma Chan is bae. Bad – Henry Golding is a handsome slab of meat with about as much charisma, the film feels like a loose collection of scenes rather than a single coherent narrative (both a screenplay and editing issue), and the comedy comes about only through pointing the camera at actors and letting them ham it up, which fits the general trend of Hollywood studio comedies doing nothing even remotely resembling visual comedy any more (e.g. making jokes through edits, blocking, mise-en-scene, camera moves, etc.).
And that’s it. That’s all I have to say about the movie Crazy Rich Asians. The end. Thanks for reading. Hope you like the blog. Come back next week when I write about a more interesting film that I actually liked.
3. Ok fine. End of cheap rhetorical device. Now to get into (sigh) my thoughts and emotions about artistic representation, artistic MISrepresentation, being Chinese, being Singaporean, the diasporic Chinese identity in relation to the notion of Chinese-American identity, The Woman Warrior, the Singapore Tourism Board, why capitalism sucks, a minor (but important) note on Singaporean actors, accents, Orientalism, the hermeneutics of the HDB block vs. Marina Bay Sands, and Newton Circus.
Buckle up. It’s going to be a long one.
Part 1 – “Movies aren’t about places. They’re about stories. If we notice the location, we are not really watching the movie. It’s what’s up front that counts.”
4. Throughout watching CRA, I kept thinking of one of my favourite films of all time – Thom Andersen’s sprawling, epic documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. If you have not seen it, the central premise of Los Angeles Plays Itself is that Los Angeles (Andersen’s hometown) has been misrepresented and distorted by serving as the backdrop for the vast majority of major American studio motion pictures. An entire mythology (with varying degrees of truth) has risen over Los Angeles, and to some degree, erased the reality behind the image. There is no more Los Angeles. For better or worse, there is only LA. CRA, in many ways, is a perfect piece of evidence in favour of Andersen’s thesis.
5. Here’s a simple example. After a point, my friend and I kept laughing whenever the Marina Bay Sands hotel turned up onscreen. When CRA comes out on DVD, make a drinking game out of it. Take a drink whenever MBS appears. Take a drink whenever the Gardens By The Bay Supertrees appear. Down your entire glass if they get both in the same shot. It makes no damn sense, for anybody with a rudimentary understanding of Singapore’s geography, just why MBS would appear again, and again, and again, sometimes in the same journey. Nitpicky? Perhaps. Almost certainly. But the message in this repeated shot is clear*.
Singapore is basically a matte painting in a 50s musical. And not a particularly detailed one at that, more the type of matte painting where the artist got lazy and just stencilled in everything around the sides because “eh, who’s gonna care?”
6. But this is a key question. Who does care? I mean, plenty of people, judging by the sheer number of #hottakes on CRA circulating on my social media feeds (and which will include this post as a fashionably late entrant to the party). CRA is racist. CRA is neo-colonial. CRA is unrepresentative of what Singapore really is. The backlash to that has been swift – “Aiyah, why you care? It’s not really about Singapore, right? It’s just a silly rom-com that just happens to be set here, why are you so triggered?”
My response is twofold. Firstly, because representation matters. Even in silly rom-coms. And secondly, the discussion that has risen around CRA means that, for better or worse, it is more than just a silly rom-com. It’s of the zeitgeist. It’s buzzy. It’s (sigh) important.
But for whom?
Part 2 – From Asian to AZN
7. In Junior College, I had to read The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston’s most acclaimed work. It is part memoir, part fiction, and part history chronicle. It is rich and dense in language and literary devices, utilising magical realism, an unreliable narrator, and multiple timelines. It is an astonishingly well-written book.
I hate it.
Note the present tense.
8. I have never shed the suspicion that to some extent, Asian-American (and specifically Chinese-American) literature is not meant for me. This suspicion is clearly not held by whoever determines the text selection for the English Literature syllabus in Singapore schools, where The Woman Warrior and The Joy Luck Club are standbys. This distaste finally crystallised into something more when an Indian student at a creative writing class I was taking in college referred to the (very) acclaimed author Jhumpa Lahiri as (and I’m certainly misquoting here) “that person who writes for white people.”
9. I don’t doubt that this classification of Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Jhumpa Lahiri is reductive. Neither do I doubt that plenty of Chinese-American people (and Chinese people) find deep meaning in the works of the aforementioned authors. But this tossed-off statement does reveal one deeply held belief held among many Chinese people (including myself to some extent) that, to its credit, CRA feints towards (but never engages with on a satisfactory level).
Chinese-American is more white than Chinese.
There is an element of performative Chineseness to these works (including CRA) that give me the heebie-jeebies. So much chinoiserie, with the dragons and the jade and the peonies and the mahjong and every other Orientalist stereotype imaginable crammed into every single page (or frame). Who is this for? You cannot possibly expect me to believe that this is somehow representative of the lived experience of Chinese-Americans? And so the suspicion creeps in, as it does, that all this is fake, because if you were really Chinese, why would you have to pretend?
10. This, perhaps, is why some of the more reactionary corners of the Singaporean Internet have issues with CRA (as opposed to the other set of issues that the more progressive corners of the Singaporean Internet has). We (Chinese) don’t care about your (Asian-American) representation. We find it comical that you hype yourselves up for a silly rom-com. We don’t twist ourselves up in angry little knots when a white girl wears a cheongsam to prom – matter of fact, we find it pretty cool! But here you are, swanning around, dominating global media (which, let’s not forget, tends towards Amerocentricity) crowing about how important it is to be represented and making all the ang mohs and the guai los and the wypipo breathlessly agree with you that, yes, finally, at long last, Chinese people are properly represented on screen in a movie where an Asian-American girl flaunts her superior immigrant work ethic and enlightened (white) viewpoints all over the matte painting of MBS and Gardens By The Bay – when in reality, we couldn’t give a shit. Bloody ABCs.
11. But of course, that’s easy for me to say. I’ve been catered to all my life by media. People on TV look like me and sound like me. I had MTV Asia, which was populated by all manner of attractive Pan-Asian people. My cinematic life has Wong Kar-Wai and Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-Liang and Zhang Yimou and Johnnie To and Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Jia Zhangke and Tony Leung and Andy Lau and Jet Li and Stephen Chow and you get the drift. I have had no shortage of Chinese men on and off camera who look like me and come from relatively similar contexts (i.e. Chinese-majority societies). I suppose if I grew up as part of a minority and any representation of me tended towards the picture below, I might hype myself up for the chance to see a movie where people of my skin tone were the leads and not just comedic stereotypes.
12. Besides, judging a group of people for ‘not being Chinese enough’ would end very badly for me for very obvious reasons. To be diasporic Chinese is, to some extent, to live in a constant existential crisis on whether one is Chinese enough, especially seen in the fraught relation to the ‘motherland’. Most Singaporean-Chinese exist in some continuum between ‘ang mo pai’ (Westernisation) and ‘cheena’ (Sinocisation) and more often than not, are slightly nervous about where they stand on it. CRA, true to form, feints in that direction without ever engaging with it as well. Our protagonist says the word ‘banana’ one time and I suppose that’s a cue for every English-speaking Chinese person in the audience to nod sagely. Why yes, I have been called that before. What a raw and authentic portrayal of my being. Five stars.
Here’s the rub, though. It’s not just yellow vs white. American-Chinese is not Mainland Chinese is not Hongkonger is not Taiwanese is not Straits Chinese, and all of these various identities co-exist in opposition and in tandem with each other. You may call it the narcissism of minor differences, but I say that in a ‘race’ (used very loosely) that numbers over a billion cannot and should not be seen as a tanhua-viewing, mahjong-playing, tea-sipping, dumpling-folding, lantern-carrying, tian-mi-mi-listening monolith. Was it truly necessary to play the same Orientalist game (albeit updated for modern sensibilities) as a lesser James Bond movie just so we could make our (Asian-American) protagonist just that little more special?**
13. Which reminds me. At one point in the film, Ken Jeong does a horrific ‘Chinese’ accent, only to reveal that hey, guess what? Because he studied in the US, he doesn’t have an accent! Hey Ken (or rather, director John M. Chu and screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim). You do. It’s an American accent. And if you were Singaporean, you would know how much we really do not like people who study overseas and come back after four years claiming that they’ve lost their accent, because that’s a thing that happens apparently. An American accent is not ‘no accent’, and the fact that you think so is kinda the entire issue I have with the whole ABC vs. rest of Chinese culture summed up into a single line.
Oh, and one more thing about accents. You know how everyone in Black Panther had an African accent, even the American and British actors, because they were, y’know, supposed to be African? Yeah, that doesn’t happen in CRA because reasons. They can’t even get some form of consistency between whatever comes out of Henry Golding’s, Chris Pang’s, Sonoya Mizuno’s, Gemma Chan’s and Awkwafina’s respective mouths.
14. But don’t get me wrong here. I do not, for a single second, begrudge the fact that Chinese-American people finally have some positive, accurate representation. Rachel Chu is by far and away the most authentic thing about the film*** (however, this is because, and I cannot stress this enough, the entire perspective of CRA is from the Asian-American instead of the Asian perspective). She speaks, thinks, and behaves realistically, down to the struggles about balancing her own ABC identity with that of the ‘Singaporean’ identity. I am happy the character exists, and I am happy that a group of generally underrepresented people have a film protagonist to call their own.
But did it have to be at Singapore’s expense?
Part 3 – Complicity, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Newton Circus Satay
15. A minor detour before we proceed. The Singaporean actors (give or take one Pierre Png) generally give a good show of themselves. Tan Kheng Hua, in particular, does goddamn wonders in very little screentime, though the easy snark in this case would be for me to say – “yeah duh, she plays an Chinese-American person and not a Chinese person, of course she was given some depth.” This fact is weird, especially considering how it’s practically a Singaporean sport to denigrate our local talent, be it sporting, artistic, or literary. Could it be that given the right amount of attention, money, and direction, we could actually foster scultural talent in this country, but we have ignored this part of nation-building for too long and will not sponsor any creative endeavour that does not toe the ‘beneficial to the nation’ party line, which only serves to create terrible ‘art’ that serves neither creator nor audience? Nah. Probably easier to believe that everyone involved in the arts here is no good.
16. I would be remiss to point out Singapore’s complicity in its own erasure. I can bet my last shiny bagwa-shaped one dollar coin that Jon M. Chu did not choose Newton Circus as the location for the hawker food scene because he went on an exploratory ramble through all the hawker centres in Singapore and determined that only Newton would do. Similarly, the wedding scene in the Gardens By The Bay made me laugh, if only because rich Singaporeans would know bloody better than to hold a wedding party outside. In the thirty-degree heat. In the one-hundred percent relative humidity. In gowns and suits. With no air-conditioning.
No, this smacks of the heavy hand of the Singapore Tourism Board, whose official ‘Visit Singapore’ website now has an entire page dedicated to ‘Crazy Rich Adventures in Singapore’. Really though, guys, could you not have picked any other hawker centre in the tourist area? Amoy Street? Lau Pa Sat? Maxwell Road? Why Newton? Why the symbol of everything wrong about the over-commercialisation of our much vaunted hawker culture, from jacked-up prices to food that is a mere facsimile of the real deal to catering only to white tourists who don’t know any better and I’ve basically just answered my own question, haven’t I?
17. With all that said, I am less worried about Singapore’s complicity in the ‘Asian’ part of the title than I am about the ‘Crazy Rich’. It would not take much to re-cut CRA into socialist propaganda. Hell, most of the time, the movie does it for you. Look at these capitalist fat cats, who never work and are waited on hand and foot by the suffering faceless (mostly brown) proletariat. Look at their petty concerns, witness their utter lack of scruples, and how they think keeping their multimillion-dollar earrings in a box on top of a cupboard constitutes a sacrifice. Sharpen the guillotine, comrades, for the glorious revolution awaits.
I hear that the source novel does more in terms of satirising the inherent depravity and immorality of extreme wealth. The movie doesn’t. It lingers on the spectacle, on the glitter of jewellery and the roar of Lamborghinis and the debauchery of the non-stop party. The barrier between Nick and Rachel is never his obscene wealth but rather its attendant side-effects, such as the damage her illegitimacy might do to his family’s reputation (gasp). Even his Asianness is more of a barrier, because Asian-based Chinese people listen to their parents and Chinese-Americans chase their dreams which is of course, an irrefutable fact. There is never a single moment when the morality of his wealth is questioned, when Rachel wonders how it might warp both him and the world around him. It is nearly always presented as an absolute good.
Singapore’s Gini coefficient (the measure of income inequality in a country) in 2017 after taxes and transfers was 0.356. That is equivalent to the US and the UK. The number of billionaires in this country grows every year. The Singapore government, to give credit where credit is due, has made the right noise and are trying to push policies to reduce income inequality. I do not believe that participating in the creation of this film will help matters.
18. There are two shots of HDB (Housing and Development Board) blocks in the movie. They are clearly shot from a moving vehicle on an expressway. Like everything else about Singapore in this movie, it is pure backdrop. I live in an HDB flat, as do approximately 80% of Singaporeans. The inside of an HDB flat is never seen, only that of hotel rooms and mansions which do not actually exist in Singapore. I do wonder though, why these two shots even exist. As a sop to moaning SJWs like me? As a belated reminder that any cityscape needs to have residential buildings for the common folk? Or just because any more shots of MBS would result in alcohol poisoning for those playing the drinking game? As for my response to the question I know is coming – I did not actually expect more from the film. It is just a point to note.
Part 4 – A Conclusion of Sorts
19. I have no grand argument here. As a matter of fact, the further I go, the more ridiculous this entire enterprise becomes. Everything I said in paragraph 2 still stands. CRA is a trashy rom-com that is merely ok. Trashy rom-coms have been flattening and distorting the cities they have been set in forever, from Roman Holiday to Sleepless In Seattle to Eat Pray Love. So, why bother? Who seriously expected CRA to be some kind of vanguard of representation?
And these are all publications I like! (Except you, Jezebel. Never you.) To some extent, this entire piece is a response to the watered-down liberalism of marketing masquerading as social change. Live by the sword, die by the sword. If you market your movie by telling me how much it is a step forward for representation and diversity, then you cannot turn around and state that unfair expectations have been placed upon you. I hate to get political (that is a lie), but the response from some quarters to CRA makes me understand why some ‘enlightened centrists’ take umbrage with left-of-centre politics, especially if the only exposure you have to it comes from people on social media who believe that Corporate Social Responsibility and Sheryl Sandberg are the height of left-wing thinking. What does it really do to create an Orientalist wish-fulfilment fantasy of the white woman conquering the lush backdrop of the exotic East, oh except we made the white woman an Asian-American now so everything’s cool.
20. Twenty is a psychologically satisfying number, so this is where I will end. I found Constance Wu’s tweet sent two weeks before the opening of CRA to be hugely enlightening.
In it, she talks about her struggles to be accepted in Hollywood and the desire to be represented onscreen. She talks about how she hopes children will see it and be inspired to be the heroes of their own stories, and how immigrant stories are what truly make America great (a brave and necessary statement in America’s current climate). It is heartfelt and touching. It is also entirely about Asian-American representation.
There are two Asian-American characters in the entire film. In contrast, there are 25 Asian characters in the film (as taken from the cast list on Wikipedia). But this is an Asian-American story, apparently. The setting is, barring fifteen minutes in London and New York, primarily in Asia. But this is an Asian-American story, apparently. Hooray for representation and diversity.
Two steps forward and one step back. Perhaps eventually, Singapore can finally play itself.
*Also in the realm of geographical bullshittery – the Young house is an impossibility. The way it is shot and framed, with verdant jungle surrounding a mansion measured by acreage rather than footage, is pretty much a physical impossibility in hyper-dense Singapore.
** Don’t you throw Black Panther at me. Beyond the obvious point that BP created its own fictional African nation, let us not forget that our protagonist is the African and our antagonist is the American, which means that by design, its sympathies are reversed in comparison to CRA‘s. Besides, BP actually took a measured, considered view of what it was trying to say about the transatlantic slave trade and its attendant questions on black identity, as opposed to slapping a #woke label on top of a yellow-washed rom-com from the 90s.
*** Fiiiiiiiiiiiine. The bit about Chinese extended families being bitchy, judgmental and suspicious to outsiders is true, though frankly, I get the feeling that this portrayal did not differ very much in essence to the Missouri family in Sharp Objects. Maybe some things are just universal.