Jon M. Chu is on a mission: “We can sugarcoat it all we want, but the moment you bring up an Asian-led movie, there’s one example to point to, and that’ll be us,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in an interview. “To be on the biggest stage with the biggest stakes, that’s what we asked for.” He’s talking, of course, about Crazy Rich Asians, the film adaptation of Singaporean author Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel released this week in US theaters.
When Scarlett Johansson adorns Ghost In The Shell posters and Emma Stone plays an Asian character in Aloha, the release of a major all-Asian film feels like an antidote to the whitewashing that Hollywood is notorious for. Constance Wu — who has been brave and unflinching in speaking out about race and representation in the industry — plays the female lead in Crazy Rich Asians.
The film won’t open until August 22 in Singapore, but Singaporeans are watching the hype unfold online, one glowing review after another. The film has an impressive 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Chu has described the film as “more than just a movie, it’s a movement.”
But while it’s definitely significant that Hollywood is finally producing an all-Asian film, the anticipation for this film demonstrates that representation can mean different things to different groups of people, and that there is a divergence between the needs and priorities of Asian Americans and Asians in Asia. As a Singaporean of Chinese descent, I feel that the film’s depiction of my home is startlingly flawed.
How Singapore is typically depicted in Western films
The film follows Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu, who travels with her boyfriend Nicholas Young back to his home in Singapore to attend his best friend’s wedding. There, she discovers that Nick comes from an obscenely rich family, and is plunged into a world of ridiculous extravagance and lavish parties.
Major Western productions tend to see Asia in very particular ways. We could be the “rising Asia,” all glittering skyscrapers and futuristic urban design, or the rustic, impoverished-yet-inspiring backdrop for slumdog millionaires. We are dumplings and kung fu, curry and tech support, wise gurus who talk in riddles for all your “eat, pray, love” needs. We are obscenely wealthy people throwing lavish parties.
But this is not what we are. A continent as massive as Asia can never be as simple as the stereotypes imposed on us. Asians — a population of more than 4.4 billion people — are not a monolith, and our need for representation and empathy can’t be addressed by nonwhite casting.
The all-East Asian cast of Crazy Rich Asians is also a misrepresentation of Singapore at the most basic level, obscuring Malay, Indian, Eurasian, and more populations who make the country the culturally rich and unique place that it is.
Singapore is a tiny Southeast Asian country that many might have heard of but not many know about. We don’t exist in the minds of people living overseas as a fully fledged, complex society, but as a caricature.
As a freelance journalist covering Singapore for foreign publications, I’ve heard the same stories over and over again, solidified into tropes that supposedly define us: wealth, anal levels of micromanagement (“you guys ban chewing gum, right?”), the caning of American teenagers. There are people who think we’re in China, and many don’t realize we speak English as our first language.
In recent Western productions, Singapore has been the shiny city backdrop for action sequences like in Hitman: Agent 47, or the bizarre smoky, steamy pirate hangout on stilts like in Pirates of the Caribbean. A British television show digitally altered scenes actually shot in Singapore to make it look, according to them, “more like Singapore” — by which they meant doing things like changing the street signs from English to Chinese. None of this contributes to deeper understanding or appreciation of our lived experiences in Singapore; it only exoticizes.
Chinese Singaporeans enjoy many privileges based on their race
As a Chinese Singaporean, I grew up enjoying the privileges of the dominant racial group. As of 2016, 76.1 percent of Singapore’s citizens claim Chinese ancestry; at no point in my life here have I felt under- or unrepresented because of my race.
While Singapore has its fair share of colonial hang-ups — white people in Singapore enjoy a significant amount of privilege — Chinese Singaporeans can be confident that their interests will not only be served but usually be dominant in national affairs.
In fact, the matter of whether Singapore is “ready” for a non-Chinese prime minister is apparently still up for debate, quite like in the United States back in 2008, pre-Obama.
When it comes to representation, what I would like to see as a Singaporean is something that reflects my country and society in all our diversity and complexity, and helps audiences make connections between our experiences and theirs.
Crazy Rich Asians does nothing to improve the situation. It’s touted as a win for representation in the US because of its all-Asian cast, but the focus is specifically on characters and faces of East Asian descent, which plays into issues of racism and colorism that still exist, not only in the US but in Asia. Ironically, in Singapore, Chu’s all-Asian boast is nothing more than a perpetuation of the existing Chinese dominance in mainstream media and pop culture.
The story of Crazy Rich Asians — and the racialization of “crazy rich” behavior, as if batshit levels of extravagance don’t happen elsewhere — also does little to combat the othering of Singapore and Asia.
Reading the book was a strange experience; while I knew it was about my home, there was very little in it that I found recognizable, which is why I have little hope that the film will help anyone see Singapore as anything more than “kooky Asia,” stuffed with materialistic, flamboyant billionaires with bedazzled lifestyles.
Promoting Singapore’s decadent wealth papers over its problems
Kwan, the author, and Chu, the filmmaker, are free to write and make whatever they like. It would be unrealistic and undesirable to expect Singaporean writers to write only one way, because Singapore can mean so many things to so many people.
But touting Crazy Rich Asians as some sort of progressive win is false, especially in a context when there are already so few nuanced representations of Singapore and Asia in Western media. And when someone as lovely and woke as Constance Wu is saying that this narrative of the absurdly rich and privileged in a highly capitalist city-state is “a very important story to tell,” we see a divergence in the priorities of Asian-American people of color and Asians in Asia.
Singaporean motivations when demanding representation stem from the same place: a desire to be portrayed in all our complex, nuanced, contradictory glory; to recognize ourselves onscreen, and for others to recognize us as the fully formed people and community that we are. This is important because it affects the way people perceive us and, by extension, the way in which they connect or stand in solidarity with our struggles and challenges.
As it is, people outside Singapore have little knowledge of the curbing of civil and political rights, or of issues like inequality and poverty, which means Singaporeans working on such issues have difficulties finding solidarity, while foreign governments are happy to prioritize trade deals over human rights. Promoting an image of Singapore as a megarich hub of excess papers over the urgent struggles that people face on the ground.
Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t meet this need, no matter how nice it might be to see Asian faces in a Hollywood film.
This essay is adapted from an article on the Establishment.
Kirsten Han is a Singaporean freelance journalist and editor-in-chief of New Naratif, a platform for Southeast Asian journalism, research, art, and community building. She also curates We, the Citizens, a weekly email newsletter covering Singaporean politics, social justice, and civil society.