Crazy Rich Asians: the startling revelation of homogeneity in diversity and multiculturalism

In the days leading up to the release of Crazy Rich Asians, I was fascinated by how the reviews were framing the film. There was plenty that remarked on how historically monumental it was, given its contemporary setting and all-Asian cast. Indeed it was. And yet, there were some that mused on the fantastical aspects of the film (ie. the opulent wealth), as if it’s odd to see Asians surrounded by so much money they could afford to buy jewellery worn by royalty, or on a whim, take a private jet to a private island. Would it be fantastical if those characters were white? I think not.

Closer to home, it’s with a bit more critical lens; chief of which is its lack of diversity and how it doesn’t really represent the “real”, everyday Singapore. Given the film’s title and its subject matter, what is considered authentic here though? The food courts and HDB flats (the equivalent of council flats for those of us who are more British-inclined) or the high-flying lifestyles of the private school, overseas educated trust fund heirs to conglomerates? We chide at the film’s embrace of abundant post-colonialism: the British accents, the ties to England — yet, isn’t it a reflection of Southeast Asia’s colonial history? In the East-meets-West culture we promote, our command of English, and the colonial buildings we fight to preserve as part of our heritage. And yet, when Henry Golding (the Sarawak-born, mixed race lead actor) was cast, many question his identity, critical of his “Asian-ness”, or for some, it’s yet another “Eurasian” face on the screen; but none, however, seemed to want to acknowledge his indigenous identity, one the actor seemed to be proud to proclaim.

When faced with seeming homogeneity in our so-called proclamation of diversity and multiculturalism, we seemed to be very uncomfortable with this representation; preferring instead to impose what we deemed to be ‘authentic’ in a film featuring an all-Asian cast, except it’s a cast that’s unlike that of Joy Luck Club, released 25 years ago to cinema-viewers. I remember Joy Luck Club — it was quintessentially “Asian”: dire; serious; as if to be Asian, one needs to let go of all joys in life and just be miserable. And suddenly, faced with the opulence and the flashiness that the Asian 1% lives (fast cars, loud parties) in Crazy Rich Asians, the dire seriousness of being Asian is under threat.

On a personal note, I loved the film. Not because it finally represented me per se, but it’s finally an Asia that’s truly familiar, if not reminiscent of people and scenarios I’ve encountered or heard about. While living in the UK, (East) Asian culture was pretty much Chinese, with Hong Kong being the closest and most familiar. Since moving back to Borneo, the assumption has pretty much been that I must partake in the pan-Asian (or perhaps I should say global now) fascination with anything K-related (pop, drama, fashion, etc.). But Constance Wu’s character of Rachel Chu, described as being a “banana” was somewhat more familiar (case in point of a lost-in-translation conversation surrounding some of the actors in the film who were popular in Singaporean sitcoms, of whom I have no knowledge of — so again, it’s that assumption of so-called collective knowledge; as if by being ‘Asian’, or by moving back to Asia, I must be immediately attuned to whoever was/is popular).

Wu’s character is reminiscent of how easily people are judged within their own ethnicities. She looked Chinese, but she’s not Chinese “enough”. She’s educated (an NYU economics professor in gamification theory) but it’s the ‘wrong’ education because it’s American, not British. It’s interesting. It’s also very much familiar to a Southeast Asia that’s still negotiating its complicated post-colonial past. And for the uber rich depicted in the film, the old world (boarding schools, Oxbridge, British accents) still holds the ultimate social status even if a Chinese matriarch holds the family together. The British have left, but the English sensibilities haven’t.

I can only speak for myself, and others with whom I’ve had this conversation with after watching the film. Crazy Rich Asians speaks about a particular class of Asians in a national context that is often extremely uncomfortable about class, where the national propaganda speaks of multiculturalism and diversity but in a superficial manner that reflects their homogeneity more. And I’m not merely talking about Singapore, even if recent studies have shown that it is becoming more segregated by class, with people who go to private schools being less likely to mix across the class divide. In Malaysia itself, the race card trumps political discourse for as long as the country has claimed independence, and the narrative of the formation of Malaysia is itself rooted in divisions of ethnicity and class. Elsewhere, I’ve reflected on the casual discriminatory remark thrown around without anyone batting an eyelid; where even among different Chinese ‘ethnicities’ (e.g. Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese), division reign.

My point being, when I watch a Southeast Asian film made supposedly for me, a fellow Southeast Asian, I feel even more isolated and excluded. Malaysian films are essentially that: Malay; whereby diversity is represented through food and language. So when I watch a Malaysian film that is supposed to be quintessentially ‘Malaysian’, it isn’t about or for me, it actually makes me feel less affinity to this place that has embraced its Malaysian-ness, whereas for some, if not many, home is Sarawak, with a radically different historical trajectory. And Like Joy Luck Club and countless other Asian films that have made it big in the West, these films are always grim, serious drama. If it was a comedy, it referred very specifically to in-jokes, languages in, and cultures of Malaya.

This lack of in-betweenness was revealing, as if telling those of us not specifically Malay or Chinese educated that we don’t belong because we’re never authentic enough. Much as Henry Golding was always criticised for not being “Asian enough”; as if others deemed more authentic — and yes, more homogenous — have attained the rights to decide who we are. The fact of the matter is, Crazy Rich Asians was generic in its storyline. Strip away the Asian cast, it can be about anyone. It just so happens that the film is set in Singapore, with an all-Asian cast. It normalises the Asian-ness, and honestly, do you really believe the real crazy rich Asians aren’t mingling within their own kind? But this normalisation, as skewed as it may be for some, is what matters to me: I don’t need to be exoticised further than the Malaysian or the Sarawak government has already exoticised the place I come from. Asians aren’t grim and serious all the time. And for me, that’s why this was more relatable: it’s easy on the eyes, it’s fun, it’s engaging, it has gorgeous sets and colours, and riveting music.

Yes, it’s about a privileged class of Asians. Don’t pretend they don’t exist beyond the minuscule 1%. Many of us had a Western education because we were ‘privileged’ enough to attend the right schools, to be at the right place, to find our own identity — pathways forged by parents who worked hard, who still have a complicated relationship with postcolonialism. Many still have close ties to England, be it through family, or that postgraduate education in Oxford/Cambridge.

It was also interesting, from a media studies perspective, that many commentators failed to explore the mechanics of the Hollywood film industry, an industry where numerous studies have shown is scant on minority representation. Someone like Golding — a complete newcomer with no professional acting credentials to his name (hosting doesn’t really count) — would not have been cast as a lead in a mainstream Hollywood film. Many dismissed his Eurasian looks as another form of whitewashing, but none wanted to acknowledge his indigenous identity. It harks back to how easily we assign labels on people based on what we want to see, rather than what we hear. But in a Southeast Asia that is so easily defensive about race, ethnicity, language, accents, gender, sex, many can barely look beyond the British accent.

For me, Crazy Rich Asians broke another milestone which were swallowed by the criticisms on diversity. Jon Chu’s direction lingered on the male bodies numerous times throughout the film. In one specific scene used in the film’s promotional materials, Rachel is seen openly admiring Nick’s body. It’s clear their relationship was also sexual in nature, breaking this Victorian notion of shame surrounding sex, and the enjoyment of sex, within the Asian context. On the big screen, the pairing of Rachel and Nick is enabling the world (the film retained its top spot at the box office for the third week at the time of writing) to see an unmarried Asian couple enjoying themselves; it is allowing the audience’s gaze to linger on the (Southeast) Asian male body.

That’s also important to acknowledge. As much as the criticisms on the lack of diversity represented are important criticisms to recognise, it is also equally important to remember that diversity and multiculturalism, as much as it exists in tourism promotional materials, people remain segregated within their communities on a macro level in reality. On a micro level, the discrimination and segregation occurs subconsciously on a daily basis. In fact, it says more about inequality than it probably means to. These are important conversations to have, let’s not get defensive about it either.

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