The film “Crazy Rich Asians” is progressive for the East Asian-American community when it comes to representation in Hollywood films, but it isn’t an original storyline in the overall Asian community, nor does it do justice to the diverse minority groups of Singapore.
The “Joy Luck Club,” which was released in 1993, was the last film to have an-all Asian cast that isn’t a period piece or a martial arts film.
The “Crazy Rich Asians” film is an adaptation of the book written by Kevin Kwan, which is loosely based on the author’s upbringing in Singapore. Some of the characters are also loosely based on real people.
Rachel Chu, the female protagonist (played by Constance Wu), is an economics professor at NYU that grew up in a single-parent household. She is a first-generation Chinese-American who falls in love with Nick Young (played by Henry Golding), a rich Chinese-Singaporean socialite who comes from old money.
Michael Li, a Chinese-American junior biology major, said that as a person who has watched Asian-American films all his life, the storyline of a rich man picking up a poor girl is not new. It’s a Cinderella story that is commonplace in Korean dramas, but still quite enjoyable to watch. He related to Rachel’s character the most.
“Rachel being an Asian-American was very accurate. It isn’t uncommon for first-generation Asian-Americans to lose a sense of culture and for them to butcher their native languages,” Li said. “In Cantonese, there’s even a phrase for Asians who are raised in Western countries (‘jook sing’ 竹升), and it’s meant to tease them as whitewashed.”
The movie, released in the U.S. on Aug. 15, has topped the box office three weeks in a row, making over $101 million so far.
Karen Liang, a Chinese-American junior biochemistry major, said that she would like to see more films based on the “American Born Chinese,” also known as the “ABC,” because it would allow for people to connect and feel proud of their Asian cultural identity that has been established in the U.S.
“I believe the Chinese-American narrative explored by this film is someone who is born to live up to their parents’ dreams/expectations. It’s more parents shaping their child(ren)’s future than them themselves,” Liang said. “I think the film gave a great representation of it, especially when they made that clear distinction between “pursuing individual passion versus maintaining family tradition for the greater good.”
Although the film talks a bit about the Chinese-American community, it focuses on the rich 1 percent of Asia, which stereotypes Asians as being materialistic.
Sangeetha Thanapal, a Singaporean activist, political commentator and blogger, said that the “rich Asian” stereotype overshadows exploited, underpaid workers in Singapore, as well as oppression of Singaporean minorities, such as the Malay and Indian indigenous peoples and domestic workers from the Philippines, Indonesia and other parts of South Asia.
In an article for Wear Your Voice magazine, Thanapal says that the film is not a milestone for diversity since it’s not representative of Singapore. She uses the term “Chinese Privilege” to describe the discrimination of minorities. In the context of Singapore, she says that the Chinese are not the oppressed but are the oppressors, and that people are celebrating putting a Western racial framework onto domestic workers and colored minorities.
“This movie is actually perpetuating the state of racism and Islamophobia in Singapore. The only Brown people in the movie are opening doors or in service of the elite Chinese in the movie,” Thanapal said in her article. “Minorities only exist in the periphery of the film.”
In a similar piece on Facebook, Thanapal adds that the film is not refreshing because this is the everyday life of Singaporean minorities and it is only diversity for Western audiences who don’t understand the complications of race in other parts of the world.
“Asians in the Global North are so happy to see themselves that they don’t care about the context in which this is happening,” Thanapal said on Facebook. “The novel barely made a splash in Singapore when it was released because Chinese people writing about being Chinese is so commonplace here.”
As for the overexploited workers, they are seen as an invisible workforce. According to a 2017 report called Bonded to the System, conducted by Research Across Borders, an independent research consultancy, 60 percent, or 140,000, maids in Singapore work in exploitative conditions.
These exploitative conditions include working excessive hours or days, with 84 percent of people surveyed saying that they worked more than 12 hours a day and more than a third saying they lived in poor living conditions. Other issues examined in the survey are wage manipulation, hazardous work, no respect of labor laws, low or no salary, physical violence, sexual violence, confiscation of documents, restrictions of communication and medical and nutritional neglect.
By showing South Asian people and Indian people as workers, the film celebrates the oppression of brown peoples as well as ill-treated persons.
The rich-Asian stereotype fails to recognize the hundreds of millions of people in China that are impoverished. According to the World Bank’s 2018 Poverty and Equity Brief, as of 2017, there are 18.75 million people in China living below the international poverty line, $1.90/day. The data from 2014 says that 129.5 million people live on $3.20 a day and 429.6 million people live on $5.50 a day.
Li’s personal experience of China, based on his family’s hometown in the outskirts of Guangzhou, elaborates on the idea that the film doesn’t show all aspects of Chinese society.
“Most people in China are not well-off, and there is a strict de-facto caste implementation of wealth where villagers often are unable to earn more money based on where they live,” Li said. “Therefore, my experience of coming from a town in China is not exact with what I saw of rich Singaporeans. What was portrayed is not what I expect most people to recognize.”