Singapore and the Spotlight

By Isabelle Cruz Editor

As an Asian American, I was always distant from Asian media unless my family forced me to interact with it. It never really interested me because I was so Americanized. The first time I saw an advertisement for “Crazy Rich Asians,” it was at the 626 Night Market in Arcadia, where people were tabling to get support. I was surprised that I was intrigued by the premise. It made me think: Have I ever seen any kind of movie where Asian Americans are the leads, play a role that doesn’t have to do with any stereotype, and actually weave culture into the plot?

Funnily enough, I got invited to an experience of a lifetime: to attend the premiere for the movie, where I learned how it felt to be “seen” in the media as something other than a geek, a martial arts master or a gang member. It was overwhelming, in a good way. I’m sure this is how the majority of Asian Americans felt after seeing this movie. The spotlight is on the Asian community.

“Crazy Rich Asians,” directed by Jon M. Chu, is about upper class Asians from Singapore, who come from old money and are raised under strict traditions. They are not the same as Asian Americans, who grow up estranged from their roots. I felt this film did a good job at uniting Asians and Asian Americans, and the overall response to the film was overwhelming support. It sold out theaters, non-Asians watched it and gave support, and it led to calls for more films with a diverse cast (this movie had an ALL Asian main cast from various Asian nationalities).

This movie is a huge break for Asian representation in Western media, at least for this generation. Representation is how other people learn you exist. Wherever they are watching, clicking or viewing from, and popular films can be a way to show audiences new worlds. Hopefully the response to this film is a driving force to keep representing Asians in the media and supporting Asian American productions.

The movie is based off of the novel of the same name. Written by Kevin Kwan, the story was inspired by Kwan’s own wealthy roots in Singapore. The plot starts when Nick Young (Henry Golding) asks longtime girlfriend Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) to accompany him to his best friend's wedding and to finally meet his family in Singapore for the first time.

Some might have recognized Wu from her previous role as the mom on the hit television show “Fresh Off The Boat” or Golding as the host of the BBC’s “The Travel Show;” it was interesting to see them do big movie roles. They had good chemistry on screen (and off), and the way their characters developed seemed genuine and organic, especially the way Golding looked at Wu in the scene when they dance at the wedding reception.  

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Golding and Wu in Crazy Rich Asians/Warner Bros.

Some highlights of being a ‘crazy rich Asian’ were shown through the movie’s setting. Those that aren’t familiar with the country of Singapore might not suspect that a small country in Southeast Asia is the third richest country in the world. The level of wealth is shown through Nick’s Singaporean friends and family. There are scenes of characters shopping at top designer boutiques, as if spending a couple million dollars on a shopping spree is a normal thing. The movie also dives into the culture of Singapore by showing places like Lau Pa Sat’s Singaporean delicacies or the Peranakan Houses, historical homes of Chinese immigrants all the way from the 15th century. I can say I learned a lot about this place without traveling there.

The movie showed the sacrifices people are willing to make for the ones they love. Nick’s mother and grandmother pulled the most weight, trying to pull him and Rachel apart. Nick’s family is very traditional, and they care a lot about protecting their image and their inner circle. From Nick’s family’s point of view, Rachel is the Asian American commoner who was keeping Nick from coming home. She didn’t bring anything to the table aside from American values such as independence and choosing your own happiness over family. There is a scene where Nick’s mother calls Rachel “Chinese American” as if it were an insult. However, Rachel made Nick think about his choices and what he was willing to give up — to be happy or to be the obedient son that chose family first.

The main ethnic group shown in this film is light skinned East Asians. According to a 2016 survey, the population of Singapore is actually 76.1 percent Chinese, 15 percent Malay and 7.4 percent Asian Indian. The movie lacks Southeast Asians that would normally be found in Singapore. Despite that drawback, I think it was okay for this movie to focus on the relatively homogenous group in Singapore that is wealthy and privileged. It is still good to keep in mind this isn’t the only kind of Asian out there.

The comedy in this film is enjoyable, even though some jokes are taken too far. There is a scene where a character tells his kid to eat his food, criticizing how skinny Rachel was and how the kid would end up like her if the chicken nuggets were not eaten. It’s normal for certain Asian communities to be criticized or to openly criticize others about their body shape, but it’s a joke that lands differently depending on who's hearing it. Based on my experience as an Asian American, I’ve noticed that traditional Asians in this culture have a general beauty ideal which favors light skinned, skinny bodies. There is always that one relative at the family gathering that brings up “not eating enough” but also “needing to eat less and exercise more.” It makes me uncomfortable, personally, but I understand it is a result of starvation culture and they can’t help it. So when it is pointed out as a joke in the movie, I roll my eyes at these comments. It’s not a totally bad thing, but it is a ‘thing’ in this community.

Overall, I would say this movie had a great plot, tone and casting. Despite my few criticisms, I would say this is a win for the Asian community and I hope there will be continuing support for people of color in Hollywood movies. I highly recommend this movie if you’re in for a rom-com full of laughs and life lessons, or if you’re a hopeless romantic that wants to someday fall in love with a rich person.