Commentary

Commentary: The (Crazy Rich) Asian Experience

The Phillipian

I remember finishing the novel “Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan in just three days. I never thought that it would become a motion picture, but I’m glad it did. Contrary to most movies based off of books, this one didn’t ruin it. In fact, the film has been generating buzz in the Asian community. Much of the praise and attention surrounding the movie can be attributed to the entirely Asian makeup of the cast. In last week’s paper, Andy Zeng ’20 argues that despite this achievement, the film as a whole is of a “tacky and shallow nature” and serves to reinforce many Asian stereotypes. When I first read Zeng’s article, I felt that “Crazy Rich Asians” had been wrongly accused.

What Zeng misses is that the movie’s intention is not to refute stereotypes. Rather, the film — written, adapted, and directed by Asians — presents distinctive values and traditions in a way that helps audience members who did not grow up in Asian countries understand them. I also disagree with Zeng’s characterization of various family values and cultural components in the movie as “Chinese,” since these families had left China centuries ago and speak a mix of Mandarin, Cantonese, Singlish (Singaporean English), and Malay. They have morphed into such a melange of Asian elements and Western fashion. The characters sport cocktail dresses, enjoy Chinese songs from the 1980s, love satay, and make dumplings in steamers. It would be inaccurate to label their portrayals as simply “Chinese.”

In addition, Zeng argues that the luxurious depiction of the Youngs, the main family in the film, exemplifies the stereotypical public view of Asians as “materialistic.” But though their lifestyle is extravagant beyond compare, the movie characters are not everyday Asians. They are crazy rich Asians. The families are “the biggest developers in all of Singapore,” and have amassed significant amounts of wealth over centuries. The audience should be prepared to see a group of special Asians and know not to relate this to Asian stereotypes, which are universal and apply to the entire Asian community.

As the audience, we enter Nick’s world of dim sum, courtesy for elders, and obsession with family background through the perspective of female lead Rachel Chu, a New Yorker, who is raised in America by a mother who desperately wanted to leave her daughter’s Chinese past behind. Zeng is not necessarily wrong in that the film contains American values, and it is no surprise that Rachel embodies American qualities. But Zeng goes on to say that these American attributes “overwhelm the shreds of Chinese culture.” I would disagree. The film’s American perspective is not a result of “whitewashing,” nor does it overwhelm Asian representation, as Zeng suggests. In my opinion, Rachel’s American identity acts as a lens that allows the audience to better resonate with the astonishment and shock she experiences as she gets to know her boyfriend’s family history. The American nature of “Crazy Rich Asians” buffers culture shock and acts as the lens through which the audience can understand Rachel’s journey in finding her roots.

Coming from a public school in Beijing, I initially distanced myself from the Asian-American label and refused to believe that any part of me could become American. This movie precisely showcases the difference between growing up in an Asian country and growing up with Asian roots in another country. Director Jon M. Chu claims that one of the main reasons he wanted to direct the production was that “it was a story that [he] had lived growing up and thought [he] was alone in.” I found genuine familiarity in details like the mock-politeness of Eleanor, the adaptation of a Cambodian gong, the incorporation of a Chinese rap song that I had saved to my playlist months ago, and even the way Nick’s grandmother examines Rachel, saying that she has “a nose of good fortune.”

“Crazy Rich Asians” is not cheap. On the contrary, I think it’s amazing that the movie can seamlessly incorporate Asian elements into scenes in an honest and familiar manner, which other movies often fail to do. Further, the story celebrates character breakthroughs. In the end, Nick realizes that the snobbishness and stubbornness of his family does not have to control his prospect of a good life, and Rachel no longer feels insecure about her lack of a crazy rich background. In fact, these developments hint at shifts in cultural values on a larger scale.

When I first saw the trailer, I doubted that a movie brimming with Asian cultural references would be able to enter, not to mention succeed, in an overwhelmingly white-dominated film industry. But I am pleasantly surprised to see sales continue to climb and unprecedented numbers of people experience the beauty and depth that “Crazy Rich Asians” brings to the big screen.

Skylar Xu is a three-year Upper from Beijing, China and an Associate Multilingual Editor for The Phillipian. Contact the author at zsxu20@andover.edu.