Crazy Rich Asians

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m into all things Asian: the food, the culture and above all its rich, varied, and violent history. Some of you may even have been fooled into thinking that I only care about high brow art and literature. Well, I’m here to burst that bubble. Last weekend, I went to see Crazy Rich Asians.

Surely you know the story. Rachel Chu, American Born Chinese, cute yet smart, falls in love with Nick Young. He takes Rachel home to meet the family in Singapore. It’s a classical Chinese love triangle: the girl, the guy, and his mother.

According to the hype around this flick, however, Crazy Rich Asians is far more than a rom-com. It’s going to blast us all through the race barrier known as Hollywood. Or it’s going to set us back a few centuries due to its demeaning depiction of Asians.

anthropological research

All that chatter made me wonder: how can a romantic comedy generate so much heat? So I decided to go out into the field and do my own little anthropological research. Here’s what I learned, even before the curtain went up.

Anthropological observation #1: there were a lot of Asians at the theater. Also gay couples, tourists, expats plus some grumpy Dutch people (including my husband). So far, so Amsterdam.

Anthropological observation #2: it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a proper movie. The last three films were animation flicks: Coco, Isle of Dogs and The Incredibles 2. Maybe I didn’t have the cinematic pedigree to value Crazy Rich Asians on its merits.

Anthropological observation #3: I’ve seen all of Hugh Grant’s movies. I’m plenty prepared.


Last year, I wrote a blog post about the moment when I recognized my Asian-American self in the pages of a book. It was important for me then and apparently it’s still important today. We all want to see people who look like us depicted as something other than stereotypes or bad guys. That longing comes from a place deep inside anyone who’s ever been called an outsider.

Stephanie Foo is an outsider. She was born in Malaysia and emigrated to the US as a young child. When she saw Crazy Rich Asians, she cried the whole time. Whenever she heard a familiar accent or phrase. At the sight of all the foods she’d eaten as a child.

Jiayang Fan isn’t Malaysian but she, too, came to the US as a young child. She’s a staff writer for The New Yorker so you’d expect a pretty jaundiced view. But this is how she opened her review of Crazy Rich Asians:

“Please, God, let me like this movie,” I said as I walked into a screening of a film I’d been awaiting more eagerly than any other in years.

Why all the anxiety? Apparently, because Americans learn to talk, walk, eat and dress by what TV and movies show us. And if we don’t see ourselves on the screen, we strive to mimic what we do. When she was 13, YA author Jenny Han wanted to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer, at least to look like her in every possible way. That’s what Crazy Rich Asians is all about: recognizing ourselves on the silver screen.

the war among Asians

Yet, for every hyperventilating review of Crazy Rich Asians, there is a dour counterpart. For example, the fuss made about giving the role of the romantic male lead to Henry Golding, who’s only half-Chinese. Robert Ito reports on the blogosphere igniting with claims that Hollywood always did prefer biracial actors and hints that they weren’t real Asians.

South Asians and Southeast Asians were similarly miffed in their total lack of representation in this film. They have a point. Tessa Wong points out that race relations aren’t always what they should be in Singapore, where Indians and Malays make up 25% of the population. Enter the Twitter hashtag #BrownAsiansExist.

singapore bling

And then, there’s the economic message behind all the glitter. According to James Crabtree, the US may be home to the most three-comma club members, but China is expected to overtake the US and India may soon follow. 

In the meantime, you can find the children of the uber-rich all over the world, studying at Oxford or Cal State Fullerton, getting themselves into trouble with fast cars as in Fu Er Dai to the Max, a wonderful short story by Xuan Juliana Wang. In Chinese, fu er dai means second generation rich. The fu er dai are spoiled, indifferent to their privilege until there’s a problem, happy to feed at the family trough.

Crazy Rich Asians is supposed to be a wake-up call to the complacent west that a geopolitical re-balancing is underway.

what I think

Yes, I recognized myself in this flick, though not in an aspirational way. Early on in the film, Eleanor throws down the gauntlet. She tells Rachel she’ll never be good enough for the Young family. What Eleanor means is: you’ll never be Chinese enough.

That theme plays out in a number of gags made at Rachel’s ABC expense. She wears a red dress because she thinks red is a lucky color. Only if you’re an envelope, a Singaporean cracks.

red Asians
Lucky red envelopes. Image source: By Oldie~commonswiki [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Rachel is a jook sing, Cantonese for empty bamboo, what we in America call a banana. She’s certainly not kaki long, Hokkien for our kind of people. It never fails to amaze me how very many insults there are in Chinese for people like me. Not that I picked up on any of it. I had to read about in Vox.

What I do know is that I want a friend like Goh Peik Lin, played by the inimitable Awkwafina. I want her to drive me around Singapore in her little red roadster, offer me the contents of her designer wardrobe (all of which is exactly my size), make me laugh when the mother-in-law from hell breathes fire and let me crash at her palatial place when the shit hits the fan. If Awkwafina is in the sequel of Crazy Rich Asians (and you just know it’s coming), then I’m in.