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!