[Review] The Asian American Elite’s Victory: Crazy Rich Asians in Print and on Screen

{Written by Michael Tsang, this review is part of Issue 41 (September 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Crazy Rich Asians_Cha.jpg

This review contains spoilers to the entire franchise.

Though highly celebrated commercially, Crazy Rich Asians the film also seems to have attracted much critical backlash. The praise it has received largely tallies with the discourse that the film’s actors have been spinning on TV talk shows—that the film is the first major commercial film in twenty-five years to feature an all-Asian cast, and is hence a landmark moment in Asian American representation in Hollywood films. In short, the film helps break racial and gender stereotypes for Asian Americans.

Let me be absolutely clear—there is a lack of nuanced representation of Asian characters and the “Asian American experience” in Hollywood. I don’t disagree that they deserve visibility. However, the problem with the film is that such celebration need not be done through dramatising a clash between self-made Asian Americans versus the most entitled and richest of Asians. This clash is both ethnic and socioeconomic, and any critical appreciation of the film should be aware of the intersection of these two factors.

The gist of the story is, in fact, very straightforward: Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an Asian American economics professor visits Singapore to meet the family of her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding), who she learns comes from an extremely wealthy family. While there, he proposes to her, leading to an inevitable clash with the “evil” Singaporean Chinese mother-in-law, Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh). Working against Eleanor’s prejudice of American individualism, Rachel manages to show that she understands the “traditional” “Asian” value of self-sacrifice, thereby influencing Eleanor to forgo her old prejudice, which descended from her own mother-in-law.

Both the matrilineal-rivalry-turned-acceptance motif, and the exploration between “liberal” Asian Americans and “traditional” Asians are déjà vu in much of Asian American literature. But Crazy Rich Asians differs from these texts in that its ethnic and cultural conflict is orchestrated together with a class conflict that is unnecessary and problematic. It does not take a genius to observe that both the book and the film a) equate Asians with the Chinese-speaking population in Asia (mostly Singaporeans, some Hongkongers and mainland Chinese, while Singaporean Indians and Malays are absent except in the background of one scene opening the doors of expensive sedans) and b) only present the richest of these Chinese. Much of the film’s use of humour and ridicule centre around the absurd scale of their wealth and lifestyle, and the audience is invited to sneer at gold-diggers such as the character Kitty Pong (Fiona Xie). Needless to say, this glosses over serious racial and class inequalities in Singapore and the rest of Asia. But the million-dollar question arguably is: why do the 99% need to be shown and told how rich people spend their money?

The answer is that this is part of the obstacle Rachel needs to overcome. Crazy Rich Asians shows that money alone is not everything: as opposed to generations of “old money,” the contemporary definition of prestige comes in other forms that one needs to earn in order to command respect. Nick Young is the epitome of such new prestige. Applaudably, he may be one of the few male Asian characters on screen portrayed as sexually desirable, but this is because, in addition to Henry Golding’s exotic Eurasian looks, this self-proclaimed “Prince Harry” of Asia has a six-pack, a BBC accent and a charming and considerate personality to match. Cultured and easy going, he possesses both old (money) and new (globalised, cosmopolitanism) forms of prestige. Other foil characters prove my point here and provide a contrast to him. Take for example his cousin Eddie Cheng—equally rich and based in Hong Kong (Ronny Chieng’s Malaysian accent conveniently standing in for one from the SAR)—is fussy and fastidious, and his friend Bernard Tai (Jimmy O. Yang)—even richer—is arrogant and has bad taste (no abs, only floral-print shirts and Gucci gold chains). Both are settled in Asia, unlike Nick who considers himself “liv[ing] in New York now” and enjoys his foodie/hipster lifestyle. Thus, Asians are cemented in new stereotypes—rich, but not classy. And if the film critiques race and gender by showing Asian males too can be hot and sexy, this is clearly available only to a limited group of men who embrace and embody conventional (Western) ideals of sexual desirability.

With Nick straddled in the middle, Rachel and Eleanor each represent either side of prestige. Climbing her way up America’s system, Rachel the up-and-coming professor certainly belongs to the new cosmopolitan elite. On the other hand, Eleanor, exquisite and elegantly dressed, enjoys generations’ worth of accumulated fortune and is so rich that she can purchase a hotel in London as an impulse buy. In the film, Michelle Yeoh, playing Eleanor, even speaks in a perfectly graceful English accent, skipping all the lahs that the Eleanor in the book inserts once in a while. Thus Eleanor is portrayed as almost impeccable except with a serious flaw—that she thinks Rachel is not worthy of Nick, just as she herself was never fully accepted by Nick’s grandmother.

To overcome this obstacle is thus Rachel’s task. Both the book and the film make it clear that it is “traditional” values and matrilineal prejudice that need to change, not “Western” values of equality and mutual respect. In the book, Nick calls the practice of marrying someone with the right social class “archaic.” As for Rachel, she is no newcomer to “Asian” families; she used to refuse to date Asian guys because she was too often subjected to their “SAT” test—social, academic and talent aptitudes—”in order to determine whether she was possible ‘wife and bearer of my sons’ material.” Yet in Nick’s case, she manages to endure a full-length novel’s worth of bullying before erupting at the end with this outburst:

I want [my children] to grow up in a loving, nurturing home, surrounded by grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins who consider them equals. […] I want [my kids] to love their family, but to feel a deeper sense of pride in who they are as individuals, Nick, not in how much money they have, what their last name is, or how many generations they go back to whatever dynasty. I’m sorry, but I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of being around all these crazy rich Asians, all these people whose lives revolve around making money, spending money, flaunting money, comparing money, hiding money, controlling others with money and ruining their lives over money.

Despite holding these values, Rachel in the film invites Eleanor to a mahjong game where Eleanor babbles about the virtue of self-sacrifice, at which Rachel retorts by demonstrating that she too can sacrifice herself by declining Nick’s marriage proposal. This is paralleled at the mahjong table where she uses her game theory expertise to set up a winning hand but gives up a crucial tile so that the Eleanor can win. Her wit is on full display here, as she deliberately installs two deaf women as the remaining mahjong players, so as to save Eleanor’s “face” while still gaining the upper hand.

Here is thus a fantasy of the Asian American conquest of traditional Asian power, her Cinderella story of triumph. She is nonplussed about Asian money because she works hard enough to gain a respectable footing in the land of dreams, but she condescends to show the Asian mother that she can be “Asian” too. As opposed to people born with a silver spoon in their mouth, it is the effort of working hard and earning what you deserve—i.e. an amalgam of the “Asian” value of perseverance and the typical “American dream” narrative—that is to be celebrated.

Nowhere is this triumph more clearly contrasted with the story of Nick’s cousin, Astrid Leong (Gemma Chan) and her husband Michael Teo (Pierre Png). Like Rachel, Michael is a self-made man, with a successful tech start-up. Having married Astrid, however, his masculinity is constantly threatened when he is treated by everyone in her family as a second-rate, an outsider and a mere tech support guy. He realises that no matter how hard he works, he can never support the lavish lifestyle to which Astrid has grown accustomed. (Their issues can be glimpsed in the way Astrid hides all of her shopping.) In the end, this Singaporean’s way of coping is to have an affair (in the book he pretends to have one) leading to a separation. This passivity is contrasted with Rachel’s witty and proactive Asian American approach, which successfully changes Eleanor and leads to a happy ending.

Moreover, even though Rachel cannot stand the Asian infatuation with money as seen in the tirade above, and Nick couldn’t care less about his “bullshit” family when he finds out his mother has dug up Rachel’s background, they are still the designated successor of traditional Asian wealth. In the third and final book of the series, Rich People Problems—forgive the spoiler—Nick makes up with his family and is eventually given a part to his grandmother’s house. To save the house from being sold—with Nick being a professor in history and Rachel in economics—he seeks to turn it into a museum/hotel. Thus the new global elite is not only a challenger of traditional beliefs, but also a smart entrepreneur who knows how to sustain old heritage by turning it into a new business model.

In short, Crazy Rich Asians is problematic in at least two different ways in addition to all the invisibilities it produces. First, the film celebrates the Asian American experience by caricaturing Chinese-speaking Asia, offering a benevolent new world heroine who overcomes obstacles along her romantic journey while graciously saving the “face” of her Singaporean Chinese adversary. Second, as opposed to gender and race (the conquering of motherly prejudice and the use of an all-Asian cast), opulence is never critiqued, but is presented as replaceable by new elites. At the same time, these two are interconnected problems. As mass entertainment, the film cannot be simply a bible of brand names or a how-to guide to luxurious living lest it risks alienating its fans. Instead, upper society needs to be packaged, together with hilarious jokes, in pseudo-meaningful messages that the public can understand, in visually glamorous fantasies that the audience can aspire to. The film’s commercial success shows how appealing this mechanism is.

But this is also why the Orientalised representation of Asia has no solution. It does no help to go to the other extreme and throw in some poor characters or write about migrant labour in Singapore, because, let’s face it, would Asian Americans want to read about a Rachel Chu squatting in one of those shoe-box flats in Hong Kong talking to her future mother-in-law—who may speak little or no English—about abandoning traditions? Would Hollywood want to finance a movie about a Rachel Chu going to a rural village in some mountainous Chinese province, trying to prove that she’s wife material to her boyfriend’s mother? (For those who have read the second book of the trilogy, China Rich Girlfriend, you would know that Rachel’s long-lost paternal family is anything but poor and rural.) Most of all, would these stories generate the same level of exhilaration and celebration as Crazy Rich Asians? I am not convinced if any of the answer is yes.

With people in Asia either being taught a lesson, laughed at, judged or made invisible altogether, the film is hardly about Asians at all. It is only Hollywood’s validation of the Asian American elite’s appropriation of Asia. The cast can celebrate its Asianness all they want, but let’s not forget that the film’s producers are largely white. Hollywood is more than happy to help liberal Asian American elites realise their Asian dream as long as it sells.

6f271-divider5

Michael Tsang.jpg

Michael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and holds a PhD from the University of Warwick, researching on Hong Kong English writing. His broader research interests are on postcolonial and world literature with an Asian focus. He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. Michael is a Staff Reviewer for Cha and a co-editor of Hong Kong Studies. Visit his Warwick profile for more information.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s