Why I Think Crazy Rich Asians is so Important

I’ve read a ton of posts about Crazy Rich Asians, ranging from the derisive to the supportive, but I felt that most of the articles I’ve read seemed to miss the real importance of the movie.

The storyline has Rachel, a Chinese American, dating an Asian man from the Asian continent. Just on the face of it, we have already flipped the trope that Asian women tend to date white men and/or that they can’t date (or won’t date) Asian men who are raised in Asia. This is allegedly because Asian men raised with Asian values are more chauvinistic or traditional, and this doesn’t gel with the values learned by a woman raised and educated in America. And, as the title suggests this guy, Nick Young is “crazy rich.” The great thing about making this character rich is that it extends a metaphor that I think speaks to something that has been happening for the last decade for Asian Americans: they are slowly being eclipsed and outshone by Asians in Asia. It doesn’t surprise me that the biggest film since the Joy Luck Club is actually the reverse of it. Where JLC was a story of immigrants coming to America, CRA is a story of an Asian American going to Asia. So although the movie seems like just a romcom with Asianness sprinkled on top, it’s actually more incisive than it seems. And I think this is why the film has more staying power than Hollywood might have originally thought.

If you can get past the cheesiness of the film’s romantic aspects, and just pay attention to the tropes that it is attempting to reverse, it is groundbreaking. The set of characters themselves represent a wide range of Asian perspectives, from the groomsmen who each embrace their Asian affluence in their own unique way, to the older, more refined generation who are portrayed on a spectrum ranging from the cheeky Ken Jeong to the traditional Michelle Yeoh. The movie sets out to deliberately break stereotypes of what Asians are like.

When I was growing up, Bruce Lee was particularly important to me as an Asian figure who represented Asian values and behaviors. Doing it in an era when Asians were a marginalized and forgotten minority, he broke multiple molds, pioneered fitness and martial arts, and put Asians on the map. Since Bruce Lee, we have not had an international figure of such stature, even into 2018. No doubt, there are major figures from Michelle Yeoh to Jet Li to Jackie Chan, or even political figures like Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kuan Yew. You could even count Jack Ma as the modern day frontrunner on this list. These individuals are all “greats” in their own respect, but even so, none have captured the global consciousness like Bruce Lee. Some may say, “Well, Bruce Lee is a singular figure, beyond race and field.” But my rebuttal is that while Bruce Lee rises above many limitations, the Caucasian entertainment class has continued to churn out men and women that capture audiences, have powerful voices, and enduring influence.

The above is unfortunate considering the continued, powerful, and massive influence of African Americans in all areas of entertainment, from sports to music to cinema. Even in the martial arts, with the exception of Manny Pacquiao and a handful of other Asians, Caucasians and African Americans have risen to dominate the various martial sports. But this also underlines an interesting thing about what it means to be Asian American. In Crazy Rich Asians, it’s worth noting that all of the characters are of Chinese descent. In truth, the movie should be called Crazy Rich Chinese. African Americans are a united culture and community, whereas Asian Americans are a disparate group of ethnicities with multiple histories, cultures, and paths to America. How much can a Vietnamese American refugee relate to a Japanese American whose parents were forced into internment camps? Or for that matter, how much can an American Born Chinese (ABC) relate to a native-born Chinese?

So this is the tall order that Crazy Rich Asians is taking on. It’s paradoxical. A multi-ethnic group now gathers like a moth to a flame around Crazy Rich Asians, and it’s my hope that it can be a face that launches a thousand ships. Despite CRA’s wild success, it is irrelevant if it is not followed up by more projects of its stature and vision. It should not be allowed to be just a blip in the history of Asian American entertainment like the Joy Luck Club, which everyone forgot about until Crazy Rich Asians reminded us of its existence. CRA needs to be the first domino.

And then there’s the issue of Singapore. I think what most articles from Singapore miss, in their complaints about the movie, ranging from the lack of racial transparency and a misrepresentation of Singapore as only affluent, is that we cannot expect this Hollywood movie to be a documentary. It never set out to do that. It’s one window. And the beauty of Kevin Kwan’s naming of the book is that it provokes people to take a peek into this window, a window that is no doubt a big part of not only Singaporean society, but also the greater Southeast Asian and Asian society. The first scene, where Michelle Yeoh arrives to take over a hotel once owned by affluent white British people is exactly what happened to Southeast Asia as affluent Asians (many Chinese) took over the assets that ruled Asia. Fiction is metaphorical and tends towards being more truthful than journalism, in essence. It doesn’t surprise me then that journalists complain about Crazy Rich Asians because they can only read the details, missing the larger point.

Having lived as an Asian American man born and raised in America for most of my life, and then living in Singapore for the last three years, CRA really hits home for me. There is a certain humility that comes along with being a naive American inside of an affluent and powerful Asia that I know next to nothing about. In one year, Singapore has managed to insert itself into two significant narratives in America. First, the Trump-Kim Summit, which put Singapore on the diplomatic and journalistic map. And although the summit’s results are highly debatable, it is without a doubt that Singapore made its way into global consciousness. And once again, with this movie, Singapore is once again on the map. It’s been an impressive year for Singapore, diplomatically and creatively. Impressive for an unspectacular yet affluent island, which seems to make all the right moves. Does this signal a new moment for Singapore where it can step up alongside the Hong Kong of old? Definitely not. It’s another beast altogether. Is it now a diplomatic and creative hub? Or are these just anomalous moments, ones that won’t ultimately catapult Singapore into prominence? Who can know for sure? I have my doubts. But the larger potential for an Asian and Asian American creative collaboration? Maybe there’s something here.

As Crazy Rich Asians continues its run, I really do hope it breaks $300 million at the box office before it leaves theaters. Although some are saying it’s not representative of Asia or Singapore or Asian America, I think those criticisms really miss the point of the movie. The hope here is that this is the beginning of a proper International Asian and Asian American entertainment industry that isn’t just Hong Kong cinema or Hollywood. Indeed, Crazy Rich Asians is just a foot in the door.

P.S. Not to mention. What an all-star cast! With fresh stars from major TV shows from Humans, Fresh Off the Boat, Silicon Valley, and The Daily Show. Well done!

I love Supervillains

I love supervillains because they make stories interesting. If you have a shitty supervillain, you’re bound to have a shitty story with a hero that doesn’t amount to much. It’s the Joker that made Batman so great. It’s Thanos that made the Avengers so compelling. It’s Q that made Pickard so deep.

Lately, I find myself relating to villains in an odd way. Of course, the hero is the person that we all want to win, because of the values and humanity that we all hold dear. But villains, especially well written ones, fascinate me because they have a vision of the world that they want to exact. They are ambitious about making the world a better place and have provocative principles about how things could be.

For example, I recently went to see the Lion King musical with my family, and I was struck, upon a second viewing how the story played out. Mustafa, the monarch, is killed by his ambitious brother, who wants to assert a new society. Simba, after embracing a devil-may-care philosophy with his friends, Timon and Pumba, eventually returns to reassert the previous world order and monarchy. Scar’s project, although selfish and destructive, is an attempt at something new and ambitious.

This pattern is quite common across most of the supervillains that you will see. They challenge a status quo and the hero comes in to return things back to the way they were or should be. It’s classic Joseph Campbell stuff.

But what you have to admire about the supervillains is that they are attempting to change the world in the first place. Indeed, as a new friend of mine mentioned, the super villain is principled. By contrast, it’s not that the hero is principle-less, but that in order to be interesting, they must grapple with their own moral dilemma to decide what is right. The hero discovers what is right. The villain, on other hand, is blinded by what they think is right. They are thus driven, by any means necessary, to assert that on the world, at any cost.

This is what I really love about villains though, they have an idea or guiding principle that they attempt to assert on the world. It’s the villains that have grappled with the philosophical questions. It’s Hollywood that assigns a judgment call and dramatizes it. Those poor villains, they get a bad rap! Victims of Hollywood’s fake news. After all, history is written by the victors and in the movies, the victors are always the “good guys”. The superheroes are the writers of all these superhero movies. Supervillains would write different stories.

What would a Buddhist politics look like?

In my previous post about my objections to Buddhist philosophy, my newly minted PhD friend Danny pointed it out to me that my question wasn’t refined enough. And that there was much to potentially dig into. Instead of objecting to potential Buddhist impotence as far as political philosophy is concerned, I should rather direct my enquiry towards what could a Buddhist political philosophy look like. But embarking on this query is likely a multi-year endeavor that asks me to not only dig deeper into my understanding of Buddhist philosophy and its more political moments in history, it also asks me to understand the intricacies of politics.

So, here are the questions I’ll be ruminating on:

Given disarming concepts in Buddhist philosophy like emptiness, not-self, and impermanence, what kind of political system would come out of this? Especially since these are counter to fundamental ideas in the capitalist world view.

Ideas of agency, how are they different? Do Buddhist consider agency in the same way a Abrhamaic follower does and a capitalist does? How is it different and how do they create legal systems differently as a result.

What do successful Buddhist political entities look like in history? From Akbar, who converted to Buddhism after experiencing a life of bloodshed, to Emperor Wu of Liang, who promoted Buddhism in China, and the founding of Japanese society on explicit Buddhist principles molded with Confucian ones, there are plenty of examples of Buddhist politics in the past. What light do they shed on modern politics, especially when modern Buddhism encounters modern ideas.

How does the monastic order, its rules, systems, and especially intents, translate into modern secular society. Can a society be built on similar principles? More importantly, what is the Buddhist approach to leadership? Especially given that masters are respected, ideally, for the level and quality of their realization. Is this at all different from the Platonic philosopher king?

What role does meditation play in building a political system? Does it prioritize meditation as a prerequisite to rule? Or a key part of diplomatic and policy decisions? How does it thus view other governments without this priority?

These are just a few of the questions I’m curious about as I explore this large area. There are certainly books pertaining to Buddhist ethics, economics, and even politics, but I believe there hasn’t been a concerted effort in the books that I’ve seen, as study of Buddhist thought by Westerners is still nascent.

I hate that it’s difficult to make close friends in your 30’s

This year I turn 34. It’s almost ten years past the age of 25, the alleged age in which scientific studies tell us that we lose friends and are unable to make new friends.

In my experience, talking to and observing friends and acquaintances and testing out making new friends, I find that the study checks out. It really is hard to maintain adult friendships and to create new intimate ones.

There are few things I hate in this world, and this is one thing I hate. I hate that it’s so hard to make new close friends. I rail against it. And I try my best to beat back against the inevitable oceanic waves of peoples’ busyness, their incumbent social circles, and the work they already have to do to maintain their current relationships. I want the new interesting people I meet to become close friends.

Not to disparage our 20’s but I do think that the 20’s are a time when we are in a specific place in our development. Our careers are just taking shape. Our senses of what we like in life and in people are just gaining steam. University ending, first jobs testing out, first independent travels to other cities and countries, etc. In my 30’s, I feel a stronger sense of who I am, more reflection into where I’m going, the people I like, and inevitably less time. My rationale is, if I know myself so well, if I am a more solid person, than don’t I want to seek out people and connect with more people intimately on that basis? And connect to people older and in a similar place to where I am?

It boggles my mind that more people don’t feel this way. After all, although I get a lot out of coffee chats and dinners with interesting people, my most rewarding conversations are the ongoing ones that I have with close friends, where we mull over ideas and themes over the course of months instead of minutes and between their ups and downs of life instead of between our sips and tips at a coffe table. These are the conversations that seep into my being and change the way I actually think about life and the world. How challenging can ideas and feelings really be when they are experienced in sound bytes? What I want are close relationships that threaten, challenge, and comfort me in deeper and deeper ways. Knowing about a person doesn’t add much value to either person, but developing a lasting growing friendship is priceless.

The irony here in 2018 is that it’s now so easy to click a button and get a new Facebook friend, but it’s comparatively that much harder to make a close friend.

So then the question is how to do that? Ultimately, it does boil down to methodology. Maybe it’s doing walks instead of coffee, or exercising together instead of dinners. Maybe it is asking more challenging questions like these instead of what do you do and where are you from. But I do think it also boils down to one’s own willingness and persistence, actively keeping up with people that you want to hang out with and pursuing them until there’s experiences and break throughs that make the relationship something you are both invested in and cultivating. It’s a hard ask in this bustling and busy world, but I think it’s worth it. We have to lobby against our own programming.