Crazy Rich Asians seminal rom-com
Movie brings minority Chinese view to the mainstream, writes Jamie Liew
Why is an all-Asian cast romcom getting so much buzz this summer?
Crazy Rich Asians opens Aug. 15 and people are calling it a watershed moment in Hollywood. Based on Kevin Kwan’s novel, the movie is about a Chinese-American economics professor who falls in love with a Chinese history professor who, unbeknownst to her, is from one of the wealthiest families in Singapore. The story has all the trappings of a good Hollywood chick flick — drama on the backdrop of a flashy wedding, mean girls, fashion, and the critical meeting of a girl and her boyfriend’s mother for the first time.
Much of the hype has focused on the fact there has not been a movie with an all Asian-American cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993 that does not rely on the favoured Hollywood trope of kung fu. This is an important acknowledgment; that Asian-Americans don’t have the same representation and opportunities in showbiz as others.
But, I think there is something else just as significant happening with Crazy Rich Asians that many may not realize. While I celebrate with my fellow ChineseCanadians and Americans, I am celebrating for the Chinese who speak Hokkien (a Chinese dialect that is disappearing) and the Chinese who have roots in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei — the culture depicted in the film.
I have to admit I was skeptical this film would satisfy me. For too long, I would see Asians on film that were watered down or simplified to feed an audience used to a particular formula. When I went to the early screening, however, I was pleasantly surprised that director Jon Chu did not hold back and gave his audience credit that they would “get it” and enjoy it. He gave us authenticity. I saw and heard familiar Singaporean accents, phrases, and Hokkien Chinese. I didn’t see an erasure of what makes the story unique in Kwan’s novel.
Growing up as ChineseCanadian, my family and I were easily lumped in with those who speak Mandarin or Cantonese; those who come from China and Hong Kong. Sometimes I would not fight the distinction, while other times I would try to tease out the differences to anyone who would listen. And that is why Crazy Rich Asians is more than just about Asian-American representation in Hollywood. It’s about understanding the nuance, the diversity and the richness in the variety of languages and culture that make up us Chinese. It is a story about how even while we may look like one another, we see and celebrate the differences among ourselves. Indeed, one of the film’s central axis turns on the difference between those who immigrated and those who stayed “home.”
For me, the movie is not just about Asian faces, but watching what I have always felt to be a minority Chinese view become mainstream on the big screen. In one movie, I saw many familiar sights: how at family gatherings, there would be at least three Chinese dialects flying across the room, depending on who was talking to whom; how my aunties would speak to me in perfect English, having been raised in the former British colonies, but with the familiar lilt of the Singaporean accent peppered with the region’s signature “lahs” and Chinese mixed with Malay words.
Then there was the food. I’m sorry to my Chinese brethren, but Chinese food from Singapore and Malaysia’s hawker stalls are the best. The satay, kuey lapis and oyster omelettes all featured in the film hail from the fusion between Chinese, Indian and Malay cooking in the region.
Most of all, with its main character, you see the pull between your cultural home and the home you have in North America and how you may not fully belong in either world.
And so, it is with pride that I urge you to go see Crazy Rich Asians. At the very least, it is a charming rom-com. But if you want the truth, this rom-com is a brilliantly disguised study on Chinese in Southeast Asia. I cried at the end not because Hollywood delivered on the romantic front, but because I couldn’t have been prouder.