“Be observant and hide your strength. Lay low and bide your time” — Deng Xiaoping
I was expecting a Cinderella-Jane Austenesque Hollywood romantic comedy except with an all-Asian cast and requisite food motifs. Which it is, but there’s more to it. To begin with, the film is prefaced with a quote from Napoleon:
China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will move the world
A preface more typical for an action-thriller set against the backdrop of shifting global order than for a romantic-comedy ostensibly about the ways of the human spirit when at the intersection of class status, prejudice, and romance. Is Crazy Rich Asians also an allegory about the inner-workings of shifting global power as seen from the street level?
Yes. Especially when you consider this:
- Kevin Kwan, author of the novel the film is based on, turned down a movie option because it required the lead female character Rachel Chu to be White.
- Kwan and director John Chu turned down a lucrative *guaranteed* Netflix offer because they felt that this film *needed* to be seen by a wide mainstream audience.
So it was never about the money. They had something to say and wanted to be heard by many.
It’s 1995, London. Rain soaked and disheveled Chinese family frantically enters posh boutique hotel. They ask to be shown to their reserved suite. They’re denied and told to find a room in Chinatown. (Young surname can be either Chinese or Anglo, front desk was expecting Anglo). She asks if she can at least use the phone to call her husband. Denied again. After placing a call in a phone booth — with two adults and two kids crammed in there because it’s still pouring out — she and her family return to the hotel. An old man greets them like they’re old friends and announces to the petrified front desk staff that the family they told to fuck off just purchased the hotel.
The purpose of this scene is fourfold: first to secure audience sympathy for this family because it’s not always easy to sympathize with the crazy rich. Second, this provides insight into what motivates them. Third, to remind audience of the nature of Sino-Anglo relations at the everyday street level. Fourth, it foreshadows *payback time.*
And there’s a lot to pay back. Crazy Rich Asians is full of payback moments that have nothing to do with what’s going on in the film itself, but rather in reference to the history of insults — especially those produced by Hollywood — endured by Chinese and Asians in general.
Back to the first scene: Eleanor, the pissed off new owner, doesn’t fire anyone. She only sternly tells the front desk to clean up the muddy mess in the lobby. It’s a prelude to what’s to come in the film. It announces that this film, unlike The Joy Luck Club, isn’t made by yellow house niggers and none of the film characters are yellow house niggers. It’s as if Crazy Rich Asians takes its audience to a Chinese restaurant that doesn’t serve orange chicken or beef broccoli or eggrolls. Instead, it’ll be stinky tofu, beef intestine noodles, and chicken feet for dinner. Bon appetit.
Three jokes stand out. First is when the lead couple, Rachel Chu and Nick Young, arrive at Singapore Changi Airport. Rachel remarks:
Wow, Changi has a butterfly garden and a movie theater! All J.F.K. has is salmonella and despair.”
The second from the Singaporean father who tells his kids to “…finish your food, there are starving children in America.”
The third: “she just thinks you’re some trashy unrefined banana. Yellow on the outside, White on the inside.”
Together, these jokes tell a different story about the West in relation to the East that people are used to: US as a Third World nation, lack of sophistication racialized as acting White, and Asia — Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai specifically — as the center of economic and cultural gravity, displacing London and New York.
There are other scenes that reinforce this new way of looking at global power and order. The raucous bachelor party features White Miss Universe contestants from around the world as the entertainment. The White faces throughout the film are all tokens — the help — bartenders and band members. The kids are expected to return to Asia, not flee from it, for a better life.
Clash of Civilizations
Rachel Chu represents the American way. Her mom tells her: “You may speak Chinese and you may look Chinese. But inside (pointing to Rachel’s head and then her heart), you are American. You think like an American.” This scene references how Asians have typically been depicted in US media: either as perpetual foreigner or as outsider proving their American-ness. Here, she doesn’t have to prove her American-ness, it’s given that she represents American values and way of life. Instead, she has to prove her Chinese-ness and act as mediator and negotiator in a clash of civilizations.
The mahjong scene makes it clear that the conflict between Rachel and Eleanor was never about class prejudice, even if it cames off that way for much of the film. Come on, it’s not like Rachel is some Julia Roberts Pretty Woman skank (like the slutty gold-digging Kitty Poon character). She’s an economics professor at NYU who is frugal and obviously not a gold-digger and any business empire would love to have someone like her on their team. Eleanor in fact tells Rachel that it’s not about class background, it’s about her American ways. She doesn’t think Rachel can ever lose her American-ness to become Chinese. The familiar American immigrant story — the struggle to prove one’s American-ness — is turned upside down.
East versus West
How Eleanor breaks down the salient differences:
East: Family oriented, sacrifice self for family
West: Individualistic, follow your passion
East: Happiness is an illusion, seek contentment instead
West: Pursue happiness
The Young family making dumplings together scene is touching because it shows how family traditions are passed on and connect different generations together. The work it takes to make that moment possible is much more than anyone realizes, Eleanor tells Rachel, and that work requires self-sacrifice, which she doesn’t think Rachel is prepared to do for the family. Question arises: is this East-West binary necessary? Is it possible to be family oriented AND individualistic?
Crazy Rich doesn’t answer those questions and perhaps they’ll be answered in one of the planned sequels. In the meantime, Rachel, in recognizing that a half-win — accepting Nick’s marriage proposal — is still a loss because Nick would lose his family, takes a gamble — rejecting Nick’s first proposal and letting Eleanor why she did that –that gives her a full win: marriage proposal with Eleanor’s blessing. Is this an instance of American values winning or of Rachel proving her Chinese-ness?
Why the Film Is Effective
There’s usually some truth to every stereotype and telling people to not trust their own eyes isn’t an effective way to win people over unless maybe it’s on a college campus full of students with mental disorders. So instead of making everything opposite day, as the less sagacious tend to do — eg. Asians ARE lazy, they’re NOT good at math, they ARE lactose tolerant, they HAVE big penises — they bring back all the racist tropes and archetypes of Asians that Hollywood has shown. The weird Asian dweeb, the status obsessed dragonlady bitches, the arrogant asshole (damn he was funny), the asshole with a chopstick up his ass, materialistic and gold-digging Asian bitches in bunches, the ostentatious nouveau riche with their Versailles decor…it’s all there and it’s all true. Asians, after all, are human and humans are, by definition, pathetic assholes. Difference is that in this film, these bitches and assholes *don’t define* what it means to be Asian and a few of the characters come pretty close to living up to the Prince Charming and Cinderella archetype that’s been mostly reserved for White and (more recently) Black characters. None of the deeply flawed Asian characters are foils to make White or Black characters look better. They’re just there to show us their — and our — humanity.
- Grandma, the Matriarch of the family speaks Mandarin, not English. If this is an old money Chinese-Singaporean family, then her first language would be English. Founder of modern Singapore Lee Kuan Yew’s first language was English, then Malay. He didn’t learn Mandarin until his late 30s because by then he was becoming a prominent politician. In fact, until past 40 years, many Chinese Singaporeans didn’t speak Mandarin. They spoke other Chinese dialects instead. Mandarin is common now because of government campaigns to promote the language and it’s what’s taught in school. (Singaporeans are expected to be bilingual in English and an assigned language based on ethnicity).
- There’s no paparazzi in Singapore, partially because of the strict privacy laws and Singaporeans don’t give a shit about who is who. That’s why so many Hong Kong and Chinese entertainment stars and billionaires live in Singapore.
- Singaporeans tend to be understated and frugal. (Lee Kuan Yew ruled Singapore as a British Headmaster would a boarding school. Boorish behavior you’d see on mainland China isn’t tolerated). The kind of flash we see in this film is more common in mainland China and, to a lesser extent, Hong Kong.
- Some of the conversations sound more like pretentious middle-class talk rather than candid discussions between those who attended British boarding schools, Oxbridge, and Stanford (Rachel Chu). Referring to the party as a “soiree” and the excessive politeness when dissing each other are examples.
- What’s with Peik Lin’s Blaccent? Ok ok, that’s probably Awkafina’s natural voice but it’s weird in Singapore context.
- Ken Jeong’s American Valley Boy accent. Yeah, I know that’s how he talks naturally. But doesn’t work in Singapore context.
- Stream of water down the wedding walkway? How does that work?
- “Two thousand years of guilt tripping their children” should be changed to “shaming their children.” Chinese culture is shame culture, not a guilt culture. Anglo culture is a guilt culture (thus their obsession with charities to assuage guilt they feel from fucking over other people whereas Chinese don’t feel guilt when they do the same).