Crazy Rich Asians: a Roundtable Discussion

Hollywood's Asian cinematic moment of the year had deeply contrasting significances for different parts of the Asian diaspora

Words by Shze Hui Tjoa & Michelle Fan


Crazy Rich Asians, the glitzy American blockbuster about a mind-blowingly wealthy family in Singapore, was released in the UK on 14 September. By now, we’ve all felt the buzz and heard the controversies - a lot of it from two cultural perspectives that the film claims to represent: Singaporeans and Asian- Americans. The debates tend to happen in isolation: the film is a triumph of representation; it also fails to represent Asians. The film is a step forward for Asians on the world stage; the film undermines the richness of Asian cultures.

As the hubbub settles, we have an opportunity for clarity. How do we bring together the Singaporean and American points of view on CRA to find a useful way to move forward? What does 'good' Asian representation look like in a so-called global frontier like Hollywood? Does a 'win' for one group of Asians mean a loss for others?

Shze Hui Tjoa and Michelle Fan are both cultural strategists based in the UK. Shze Hui is a born-and-bred Singaporean and the editor of a Singaporean zine, Hinterland, which advocates for alternative Southeast Asian voices. Michelle is a Chinese-born American and co-producer of a short film, The Feast, which will next screen at Underwire Film Festival and London Short Film Festival.

On Wealth

MF: So, what did we think about CRA? Apart from being overwhelmed by its glitziness?

SH: Well, I was struck by how straightforward its depiction of wealth was! I knew it’d be glamorous, but it attached so much aspiration to money, not considering that there might be other, more democratic ways of living a fulfilled life...

MF: Yeah. Though the movie’s portrayal of what wealth enables is interesting and varied … if we look at Eleanor, she carried herself with such dignity despite having sacrificed her legal career for her family’s sake. I respect that - that the film nodded to stereotypical ‘Asian’ values, like duty and family, instead of dismissing them as unenlightened.

Characters Eleanor, Nick and Rachel meet on-screen together for the first time

Jun (daikon*): Sure, Eleanor’s dignity comes from turning away from the pursuit of intellectual authority to marry and raise a family. But the only reason she is able to turn away is because she has the money to do so – and her husband is conscious of this: the ways in which it is not only her wealth but her heightened social privilege that sets them apart.

SH: I did find it interesting, though, that CRA ended without revealing whether Rachel would make a similar decision. We never find out if she pursues her ambitions in America, or lives a family-oriented, but less self-driven, life in Singapore.

the film nodded to stereotypical ‘Asian’ values, like duty and family, instead of dismissing them as unenlightened
– Michelle

MF: Well, I imagined that she and Nick would live between the two cities, commuting in first class. With that much money, they don’t have to make the either/or choice between individual ambition and social duty that most of us do.

SH: That’s so true. I suspect that this portrayal of wealth as a cure-all is a big part of the film’s mass-appeal, particularly for Singaporeans. It reinforces the simplistic narratives we’re used to hearing about how economic progress equals happiness.

MF: Yeah. I don’t think that this movie would have gotten the funding it did, if it hadn’t been so celebratory about wealth, and glamorous and escapist enough to attract a crowd during summer blockbuster season. But this also meant that it had to leave out other, less glamorous storylines that would have made for more nuanced representations of Singapore.

On Representation

MF: On the representation point, lots of people have been saying that CRA gives Asian people some representation, but not necessarily a kind that is dignified, fair, or beneficial in the long term...

SH: I agree. To me, it definitely didn’t rep Singapore. For one thing, there was its celebration of excess, in a country where over 80% of us live in government-issued flats. There were also no people of South Asian or Malay or Filipino background, except for a few servants. In Singapore, we already have a problem with minority-race, non-Chinese individuals being excluded from, or essentialised in, the media - and CRA did the same thing despite being hailed as a step forward for Asians everywhere.

Rachel and friend Peik Lin react to the Youngs' extravagant home

MF: I hear that. When CRA came out, it was inadvertently sold as a triumph for all Asians, when it’s really a triumph for Asian-Americans like me, in one very specific way - it feeds our profound hunger for representation in the American mass media [CRA was celebrated as part of #AsianAugust].

Jade (daikon*): The film wasn’t a triumph for me. I found the portrayal of wealth quite frustrating not just because it didn't reflect my experiences, but because it represented a lot of the harmful conceptions of success I'm trying to resist (both from the culture of the country I’m living in and the upward-mobility-seeking life approach of my migrant Chinese family).

MF: But watching CRA, I was struck by this scene where Henry Golding saw his mom after returning from America, and she said, “Your hair is so messy”. When I was growing up, seeing that moment on film would have been priceless - it would have helped me to understand that when my own mother said similarly critical things, she was expressing care, not just hating on me. A scene like this might seem quotidian to someone who grew up in Asia, and is used to seeing their culture on-screen. But I didn’t have that luxury.

Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor Sung-Young

SH: Okay. But for me, another problem was that almost no characters in the film spoke Singlish. Granted, the characters were educated overseas - but it was so jarring to hear them using British or American ‘code-switched’ accents even when speaking to their families. CRA didn’t make non-Singaporean audiences work hard to ‘catch up’ with the intricacies of my culture, the way I had to constantly catch up with British or American culture in order to pass as ‘educated’, while growing up in post-colonial Asia. It never challenged the asymmetry in knowledge across Asia and the West.

it’s really a triumph for Asian-Americans like me, in one very specific way - it feeds our profound hunger for representation in the American mass media
– Michelle

MF: That’s interesting, because as an American - even a Chinese-American - I did feel challenged to do some catching up. For instance, parts of the soundtrack felt like well-known Chinese or Singaporean cultural references that I couldn’t understand. In the same vein, I do think that there were these little moments when people of Asian heritage might feel especially spoken to. Like when the blonde beauty queens hired for Colin’s bachelor party were so tokenistic, the way that Asians usually are in Hollywood films. Or when the Coldplay song Yellow was covered in Chinese, as if the director was reclaiming a historical slur. Moments like that might unsettle the sense of knowledge and self-assurance that white people are used to feeling when they step into a cinema.

SH: I guess that overall, we can agree that CRA was more a triumph for Asian-Americans than for Singaporeans.

MF: Yeah. It reminded me of Riz Ahmed’s description of the 3 phases of representation for POC actors in the UK. Phase 1 is playing generic brown people, shouting in the background of Homeland. Phase 2 is playing more nuanced characters, but still in situations involving terrorism. And Phase 3 is playing characters whose race is incidental. To me, CRA feels close to Phase 3 for Asian-Americans.

“As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder than it’s taken off you and swapped for another. The jewellery of your struggles is forever on loan, like the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the crown jewels. You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative."
– Riz Ahmed

SH: Whereas to me, as a Singaporean-Chinese, it feels like a move in the opposite direction. Compared to the nuanced roles that I’m used to seeing Asian people play on Asian TV, CRA feels like a bland, stereotypical Phase 1 representation. Ultimately, Singaporeans will never get a shipworthy representation of ourselves unless a local director makes the film - I’m excited for the release of Shirkers, for example. As long as we’re represented by other people, it’ll always be a shallow projection.

MF: Overall, though, I’m glad that CRA came out, with all its inadequacies. Because it’s inspiring debate, and has got people like us thinking about what should be evolved in the future. I see it as a foot in the door, and am hoping it’ll bring up more opportunities later.

On Creative Industry across Cultures

SH: It’s funny that this film ended up feeling like such a non-triumph for Singaporeans. Because when it came out, a lot of us were excited - it’s one of the few times we’ve been portrayed in-depth by an outsider, rather than used as a generic Asian backdrop. The fact that we get excited about this shows something about the relative power that America still has in many ways, to direct our sense of identity.

MF: Yeah, I can see why it’s so important to be portrayed in a dignified way - because when America turns its eye on you, you’re being held up on the big stage. And it’s not easy to just be emotionally removed from the depiction that emerges - a powerful entity is telling you and everyone else what you are.

The fact that [Singaporeans] get excited about this shows something about the relative power that America still has, in many ways, to direct our sense of identity.
– Shze Hui

SH: Exactly. Defenders of the film always say: judge the film for what it is, a fluffy rom-com and not a realistic social commentary about Singapore. But the film’s audience around the world will still absorb its ideas. Singaporeans have the money phallus: we’re very insecure about having money but relatively little cultural heft. And this film intensifies all those insecurities. That’s why it’s hard to take.

MF: I see that the filmmakers have used money as an unthreatening shorthand for power - portraying Asian affluence and glamour isn’t threatening in the way ‘foreign’ cultural norms can be. So white Americans, let’s say, can watch and understand right away why these people command fascination. This could lead to public understanding that Asian stories are worth representing. But this is isolating too - it conflates success with money and status - not exactly forward-thinking. And the story genericises and belittles your cultural richness in order to achieve a degree of Western acceptance.

portraying Asian affluence and glamour isn’t threatening in the way ‘foreign’ cultural norms can be
– Michelle

Jade (daikon*): I feel we can't justify the harm the representation of East Asian affluence causes in favour of gaining (white) cultural power. It feels like the same assimilatory stuff East Asian diasporics in the West have been victims of forever. I guess I'm wondering what's the actual extent of the cultural clout gained and what does it achieve?

SH: Yeah, it’s definitely a tension for artists who operate from the cultural periphery. Many of the Singaporean actors in this movie - like Pierre Png and Tan Kheng Hua - are cast as poor outsiders or ‘nouveau riche’. Whereas back home, they’re heavyweights who play urbane roles. Their peripheral parts in CRA say so much about lack of cultural authority that Singaporean identity carries, versus American-Chineseness. As a Singaporean artist, you always struggle to decide how much you should compromise, in order to make yourself legible. If you want to break into larger Western markets, then you have to be prepared not to succeed on your own terms.

Pierre Png as Michael Teo, the insecure entrepreneur husband of Nick's sister Astrid, played by Gemma Chan

MF: That aligns well with how Asian-Americans have been labeled ‘model minority’ because we are able to code-switch very expertly - to present ourselves in a way that makes people around us feel comfortable.

It’s weird - you do have to fit into a certain shape to please a powerful majority - but fitting into the shape well gives you power. Once you accumulate power, you can break that shell a bit. I wonder if CRA is a vehicle to do this. It’s going, Yes okay fine, we’ll fit into a palatable definition of our culture for now - but once this breaks the box office, we want more than $30 million to make the next one. [The sequel is now in its planning stages; Kevin Kwan is developing a new drama with Amazon.]

SH: Yeah, CRA really captures that mentality, of having to choose and present the side of your identity that is most saleable, with the long game in mind.

Rachel with her mother Kerry, played by Tan Kheng Hua

On Global Power Dynamics

SH: On that struggle of having to pick your most ‘useful’ side - pragmatically, our nation has never officially disowned its colonial past - you’ll notice that in the film, the rich people have all gone to Oxbridge. People of a certain generation still see the West as a place of aspiration. But maybe CRA is a sign of how the tide is turning - maybe it’s becoming better to present as Asian than as Westernised.

MF: Funnily enough I read all the Oxbridge references and American accents as a reiteration of the West’s continued dominance. It’s as if I don’t have the muscle to think of the US as a loser. But I guess I see that - the film is about going back to your roots to move forward.

SH: For sure. There used to be a stereotype a few years ago that if you were white, you could move to Asia and find work easily. But this is no longer true - Shanghai is the new city of aspiration, rich white parents rush to teach their kids Chinese. It’s as if they’re are becoming aware that they’re no longer at the top simply by virtue of their passport or skin colour - and they’re struggling to catch up with this world that they previously thought was beneath them.

MF: On that point, there are lots of recent examples of Asian people self-orientalising to flex their cultural muscle. One of the songs in CRA - My New Swag by Vava - has a music video that uses super-traditional Beijing opera imagery. It’s like she’s turning the Western gaze back around: ‘I’m turning your ignorant stereotypes into a signifier of dominance.’ [Koreans and Chinese-Americans are doing it too.]

Jun (daikon*): However, I would note that this film has been criticized for shoring up a homogenized and hegemonic pan-Chineseness that sits uncomfortably given China's neo-imperialist actions and ambitions. There is no pan-Chinese identity, nor any pan-Asian identity, and so while this film may be a triumph for some people (Chinese Americans), it can actually be used against others. Kirsten Han wrote a really good piece about this.

Obviously there's no need to go in depth about this because this is not what the film is about! But any discussion of "Asian power" in my view has to be conditioned with at least a nod to this, particularly in light of what is happening in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and as a result of China's neo-colonial work in the One Belt One Road initiative in African states.

SH: It’s dangerous to conflate China, the country, with Chinese-populated regions — many times, China seems more like a neo-imperialistic threat than a benign emancipator to us.

There is no pan-Chinese identity, nor any pan-Asian identity, and so while this film may be a triumph for some people (Chinese Americans), it can actually be used against others
– Jun

MF: I guess that it all depends on your background - if you’re Chinese and raised in the West like me, the power feels uplifting rather than scary. And we want to feel it as such… it’s a new narrative of what success can be: about being yourself, rather than aspiring to be someone else. That’s what the film is about, right? The Asian characters come back home, and from there, they move on.