2018 has turned out to be a bumper year for people of Asian descent.
Asians in America are having a very a significant moment right now.
So is Singapore.
Earlier in the year, we have witnessed the historical Trump-Kim summit on June 12 that took place on the small island state. And now with the global movie release of Crazy Rich Asians, Singapore is no longer just a speckle south of Malaysia, nor will anyone mistake it to be part of China again.
It’s a big win for Singapore, the country. But is it for her people?
Well, yes and no.
The success of Crazy Rich Asians is a success for all things Asian. It has oft been touted in the media as “the watershed moment for representation in Hollywood”. No doubt about that, it is pretty monumental.
Finally, at long last, Asians can be perceived differently from stereotypes of old. No longer are Asians just your friendly neighborhood grocer, dry cleaner, dishwasher, Chinese takeout owner, plastic recycler...We can be fabulously rich, we can be schooled at foreign boarding schools, we can be ultra-modern and have fantastic taste too. This is indeed a momentous shift for the Asian immigrant identity as perceived in the West.
In other words, it touched the core of the Asian-American identity in its unabashed embrace of this story as their own.
But is it?
Does it really reflect the Asian-American experience? Or is it a marker in time that any chance of representation is good representation?
We have mixed feelings about its success, and opinions galore to share.
An Opinion by Lisa Yong
Crazy Rich Asians, which opened nationwide on August 15, 2018, is touted to be the first major studio big budget Hollywood movie, the first mainstream movie with an all-Asian cast. The one and only time this happened was back in 1993 with The Joy Luck Club directed by Wayne Wang. That is a solid 25 years of waiting for change, a long time coming.
Now it is a box office hit with a sequel in the making.
Being Singaporean, of course I approached the book, and now the movie, with a healthy dose of skepticism.
I first read Crazy Rich Asians on my flight back to Singapore on a visit with family. It was a page turner, a very enjoyable and entertaining read. I appreciated it for what it is – a fun summer fiction – and definitely not something I can relate to personally, based on my own experiences growing up in Singapore.
It is true that there are millionaires in Singapore. In 2017, Singapore had approximately 152,000 millionaires. By 2022, the number of millionaires is expected to grow to 170,000, at a rate of 2.3 percent a year.
That’s a lot of millionaires for a tiny city state!
The Singapore elite do exist, just not as overtly flashy as the Singapore-born author Kevin Kwan wants you to believe. A millionaire in Singapore could easily mingle with the common folk and tuck into a $3 plate of nasi goreng at the local hawker stall.
In a way, Crazy Rich Asians is an awesome PR gift to Singapore. The many sights and scenes of Singapore are glorious and enticing, they make it look absolutely fantabulous to the outside world. At times, I forget that I’m watching a Hollywood movie and not some commercial made by the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board.
While hugely entertaining, I can’t help but feel annoyed with a few things that are just so wrong with the movie. As a Singaporean of Chinese-descent, I have something to say about how inaccurately Singaporeans are portrayed.
FORGET ABOUT NOT BEING ASIAN ENOUGH…HOW ABOUT NOT BEING CHINESE AT ALL?
Much has been said about the backlash of casting a half-white actor to play the male lead, Nicholas Young, in the movie. He is deemed to not being “Asian” enough for the role. How about not being Chinese at all?
Henry Golding is British-Malaysian, born in Sarawak, East Malaysian to an English father and a Malaysian mother with Iban ancestry. The Iban people are a sub-ethnic group of the Dayaks, the natives people of Borneo. In other words, besides the sore point of him being half-white, he does not even have a lick of Chinese blood in him.
Why is this important, you ask? Well, if you consider how the author, Kevin Kwan, waxed on about how the Young family revered heritage and tradition, it is a big deal. Old money, high society Chinese families in Singapore, Hong Kong or Taiwan all have a similar pure-bred mentality to that of blue blood Europeans or Americans.
Gorgeous as he is – and this is in no way a criticism or anything against his beautiful, exotic heritage – Henry’s look is just not right for this particular role. To the discerning Singaporean-Chinese, he is obviously an Eurasian, looking more Malay than Chinese.
If we are to believe that the Young family is all about the fuss of marrying into the right families, the favorite grandson of a very old-moneyed, traditionally-minded Chinese matriarch of the family would not look like Henry Golding.
If that’s the whole point about the story, then the casting director has regrettably missed its mark.
Now, if the author had described the Young family as having a Peranakan heritage – descendants from marriages between Chinese or Indian men and local Malay or Indonesian women from around the Malay Archipelago – then yes, casting Henry in this role is more believable.
But that’s another story.
We are in 2018, right? Just checking.
When a movie is supposedly hell bent on changing Western minds to appreciate that Asians can be affluent, sophisticated and stylish, one has to question why the heck are there so many scenes with these old-fashioned, cliché and gaudy red lanterns used as props every chance they get? Lest we forget we are actually watching an “Asian” movie with real Asian actors?
For the clueless, red lanterns are really only relevant during Chinese festivals. They are actually quite conventional and unremarkable in the way they are used. The Chinese lantern has also evolved so much in its aesthetic expression that the traditional red is viewed as rustic and unsophisticated. Thus, no self-respecting high society Chinese family would be caught dead with these outmoded lanterns in their possession for any occasion.
It is funny and insulting at the same time why Hollywood insists on depicting “Chinese-ness” to mean red lanterns hanging in every celebratory scene – at the church wedding, and the ultimate god-awful inclusion of giant Chinese fans in the wedding party scene. This is what Singaporeans would call obiang, a local slang that describes something as garish and outdated, in bad taste. A quick check on IMDB revealed the team responsible for production design (Nelson Coates) and set decoration (Andrew Baseman). Interesting that they are two white dudes of a certain era who are probably nostalgic for this kind of ethnic kitsch.
With a bit of imagination, the use of Chinese lanterns can be modernized. The Chinese lantern has been updated to reflect more contemporary tastes over the years. These are examples of modern renditions of the Chinese lanterns in au courant Chinese restaurants that can be found in cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Hongkong to Taipei and Singapore.
THIS is the modern Chinese aesthetic – nostalgically fresh, symbolically sophisticated. Asia is not stuck in the sixties of Western expectations, the West should keep up with the times. Especially Hollywood’s prop departments, for goodness sake.
WHAT’S WITH THE CRAZY ACCENTS?
Now that Crazy Rich Asiansis in the mainstream consciousness, does the world think that all rich Singaporeans have fanciful British accents?
Did you wish you had subtitles so you can understand what these rich kids are saying?
In the movie, all the offspring of Singaporean-Chinese families either speak with a mumbling British or urban American inflection. Almost none of the Singaporeans depicted in the movie, except for one – bless her heart – speaks Singlish, the beloved Singapore slang.
What the frickity-frack?
Most intolerable is the way “local” girl Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and her “local” father (Ken Jeong) are portrayed with their over-the-top American drawls and hip-hop swagger. This is especially jarring when they play out in contrast to the mother, performed by veteran Singaporean actress, Koh Chieng Mun, who is the only cast member in the movie to speak with full-on Singlish. How can the mother sound so Singaporean while her husband and daughter behave like they’re from another planet?
A Singaporean girl does not go from growing up all her life in Singapore to spending short years at Stanford, California and come back to Singapore speaking like a gangster rapper from Queens, New York.
Awkwafina, originally from Queens herself, is well-known in the US for her YouTube videos in which she performs her Asian gangster persona, raps and speaks in African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
In Rolling Stone’s profileof Awkwafina, it was revealed that director John M. Chu seemed to have implicitly chosen Awkwafina for this role in an attempt to rewrite Peik Lin as a trope.
Some people have accused her of appropriating black culture for the characterization. To quote writer Muqing M. Zhang, a law student at UCLA School of Law and a writer on race, gender and radical Asian-American politics:
“Awkwafina’s Peik Lin is a “minstrel-esque performance of the ‘sassy Black sidekick’ caricature, complete with the actress speaking in forced African American Vernacular English (AAVE).”
No doubt Awkwafina is stand-out comic relief in the film, perhaps giving credence to the fact that Asians can be funny too. But in these problematic times, race and ethnic identity is such a crucial conversation to engage at all levels. Cultural appropriation should not be passed off lightly as comedy.
Awkwafina essentially plays herself, not the character Peik Lin. She could have tried harder, to be true to her character, to be a good actress. But that’s not the point, I suppose. Watching Awkwafina play a Singaporean girl is like watching Kevin Costner play Robin Hood with his full-on American accent. They become unfortunate caricatures of themselves.
I won’t even bother arguing about authenticity because there is really nothing authentic about this movie. It is meant for laughs, to prove a point – that Asians want to see themselves in films and will pay to do so.
Sure, the director is at liberty to do whatever he wanted with his movie. Nevertheless, how is this OK when you elevate your own Asian-Americanness by diminishing another’s culture? How is that any better than the whitewashing of Hollywood on minority representation?
In her Op-Ed for Colorlines, Muqing M. Zhang, sums it up quite nicely when she wrote:
“Because of the relative newness of “Asian American” as a unifying identity and the heterogeneous nature of Asian America, we—East, Southeast and South Asian Americans—have not built a cohesive and rich culture that is distinct from Blackness, Whiteness and our families’ home countries in Asia. The fight for media representation has become one of the most prominent rallying cries among Asian Americans. But if we wish to subvert White hegemony, we must step away from the imitation of Whiteness’ exploitation of Blackness.”
I would add that Asians in America should not exploit Asians in Asia either.
Misrepresentation is a fate worse than underrepresentation.
See what others are saying about Crazy Rich Asians HERE
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