“Crazy Rich Asians” Is a Delightful Escape Into Chinese Culture and the Matriarchy

Crazy Rich Asians is an exciting revival of the romantic comedy genre, and the way it revolves around the outrageously wealthy is nothing short of an escapist fantasy to me. I’d imagine it would be an even more fantastical to those unfamiliar with Chinese and Singaporean culture, which has never been featured on such a global stage.

As a rags-to-riches love story, the plot itself is nothing we haven’t seen before in a Hollywood rom-com — but this time the rags are Rachel Chu’s (Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu) working class upbringing by her single mother who immigrated to America from China. This is in stark contrast with the riches of her boyfriend, Nicholas ‘Nick’ Young (Henry Golding), who unbeknownst to her is the heir to an old money dynasty in Singapore. Having dated for over a year, Nick decides it’s time to take Rachel home to meet his family, especially as he’s going to be the best man at his childhood friend Colin’s (Chris Pang) wedding. This seems innocuous enough until Rachel discovers that the wedding is the social event of the season in Singapore and not even a royal wedding could compare to the exclusive $40 million extravaganza. Suddenly she finds herself having to navigate the ups and downs of landing Singapore’s most eligible bachelor.

It’s the richness of Nick and Rachel’s cultural backgrounds that truly sets this film apart and makes it such an emotional experience for Asian-Americans to see themselves represented on the silver screen. (I use “Asian-American” here even though I’m Chinese-Australian because we don’t have a more efficient English phrase that means “member of the Asian diaspora who has grown up in the West.”) There are aspects that will be familiar to many ABCs (American-Born Chinese), like making dumplings with your family and struggling to speak Chinese to older relatives, but like Rachel, we’re also thrown into Nick’s insanely opulent world where people command fleets of private helicopters for bachelor parties and buy million dollar earrings at a whim.

The film opened August 15 in the US, but isn’t out in Australia for another week. Call me impatient but I’ve been waiting for a movie like this my whole life and so I’ve already been to two advanced screenings, once with another Asian-Australian friend and again with my mum who immigrated to Australia from China more than 25 years ago. I thought she might share my excitement at seeing faces that looked like ours playing not just background roles as chefs, accountants, or kung fu masters — but every role, from socialite to comedic relief. However to my disappointment, the importance of representation in media is largely lost on my mum and many other first-generation immigrants who have grown up in societies where they are the majority. This distinction between Asian-Americans and “Asian Asians” is a central conflict in the film. My frugal Chinese mum was only lured into seeing a movie at the cinema because our tickets were free. I told her about my plans to watch the film again when it’s officially released here so I could pay money for it and support it, and she scoffed at the thought and told my dad who mocked me as well. But this movie’s not for them. (Just kidding, this movie has something for everyone please support it so we can have the sequels!) (Update: A sequel is in the works!)

There’s been so much buzz around this film that you can’t have missed the fact that it’s the first Hollywood film in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast in a contemporary story. Not only is it momentous to see stories with Asians at the forefront, this film does one better by centering on the experiences of different generations of Asian women. All of them are well-developed and have their own unique motivations spurring their arcs — a far cry from the meek and submissive portrayals we typically see. Nick’s maternal grandmother, Shang Su Yi, has a smaller role in the film than in the book series but her significance is not understated. “Traditionally, this grandma is the head of the family,” my mum whispered with a note of reverence as the characters on screen spoke of filial piety.

The themes of matriarchy and the importance of mothers is central to the film. It seems so Asian to me that the main conflict doesn’t arise from a series of misunderstandings like they would in a typical white romantic comedy, but due to deliberate meddling by Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). As Yeoh herself has emphasized, Eleanor is not a villain in this story and her actions are motivated by the love she has for her son, and the family values that those in the West may not hold as dearly. I’ve seen a fair share of high school and college romances being broken up by parental disapproval and this film goes to show that even people in their 30s can’t escape that. My own mum seems to have eased off on the “only date Chinese people” rule; she’s discovered other cultures that also place a high value on family, so they’ve been deemed acceptable. I have no idea how she’ll react to me dating girls but she did laugh at the “rainbow sheep” line from Nick’s very stereotypically-depicted gay cousin, which I’ll take as a good omen.

The ultimate choice about where Rachel’s going to lead her life and her relationship is left up to her. Winning Eleanor’s approval is very much tied up in how she has to overcome this gap between the mainland-Asian and diasporic-Asian experience. I’m sure every Asian-American (-British, -Australian, -Canadian etc.) can identify with Rachel in some way. She’s had to exist within two very different worlds, and we see this in the contrast of her introductory scene where she uses game theory to master poker, to the climactic face off she has with Eleanor over a game of mahjong.

The moment that hit me the hardest was when Rachel’s mum (Kerry Chu, played by Tan Kheng Hua) gently tells her daughter that though she looks Chinese, and in her head she may be Chinese, when it comes to her heart (and here she switches from Mandarin to English), “you’re different.” I truly haven’t felt as seen and called out on this level since I read my enneagram type. It spoke to me so much because it’s true. I never feel like more of an outsider than I do when I visit China because I know that on the surface I can blend into the crowds but if anyone tries to talk to me, my limited vocabulary will single me out as being different.

On a lighter note, that flipping back and forth between Chinese and English is something my mum does too. When she has something important to say that she really wants my brother and me to understand, she’ll suddenly switch to English. But for the most part, we speak Cantonese at home and it was such a novelty to hear my own language being spoken on the big screen. The first time I saw the film, the head of the person head was blocking all the subtitles but I didn’t need them! There are throwaway lines that aren’t even subtitled at all and the fact that I could understand them made me feel an even deeper connection to the film.

Much like how the settings of New York and Los Angeles often act as another character in a film or TV show, here Singapore shines as a metropolitan city with its world-class airport, futuristic gardens, delectable hawker markets and more. The film has been criticized for not showing the diversity of cultures and languages within Singapore, a country with four national languages. In the books, the characters are impressively multilingual and speak a wide variety of languages and dialects in addition to English, Cantonese and Mandarin — whether it’s Singlish, Malay, Tamil or more, but apart from a few lines of Hokkien, these aren’t as represented and the characters with speaking roles are mostly East Asian.

Hollywood loves to whitewash roles with the excuse that they just couldn’t find an Asian actor for the part. Crazy Rich Asians proves them wrong with a cast filled with household names and newcomers alike. We know Constance Wu can carry a show from her four seasons on Fresh Off the Boat, killing it as Jessica Huang, a domineering mother to rival Eleanor herself. I’m sort of scared of Michelle Yeoh but I also really want her approval. Gemma Chan was born to play Astrid. Like Vanity Fair‘s Joanna Robinson says, she’s actually perfect but you still really like her. Astrid has long been my favorite character from the books and she also gets to deliver the best line in the film. I love her a casual amount. Also I don’t usually care for men but we can all agree that leading man Henry Golding is incredibly charming.

There are also quite a few Asian comedians featured in this film. Ken Jeong, Ronny Chieng and Jimmy O. Yang all bring some com to the rom. It’s Awkwafina who you might have seen in Ocean’s 8 earlier this year, who really steals the show as Rachel’s college roommate Peik Lin. Seeing so many familiar Asian faces together truly heightens the experience. Stay for the mid-credits scene where an appearance by Harry Shum Jr. set off delighted screams of recognition from both the audiences I was in.

I’d be remiss not to mention the music! Even though I knew it was coming the second time, the upbeat Mandopop opening number that plays over your typical lineup of Hollywood film studio logos made me tear up instantly and the tears did not stop pricking my eyes until well after I got home. The soundtrack is stacked with Asian talent including a magical cover by Kina Grannis. For me, the standout song is the Mandarin version of Coldplay’s Yellow, which director Jon M. Chu fought to use in the film. It’s still stuck in my head even though there was only like one lyric I understood from it. For me, being familiar with the tune but not fully comprehending the lyrics totally captures the diasporic experience of that fog when someone speaks to you and you understand what they’re saying but you don’t have the vocabulary to reply properly.

It’s ridiculous that anyone thinks a single film can capture the Asian experience, whatever that even means, but this film is a great start toward showing a wider breadth of it. In the end my mum said the film was 幾好 (pretty good) but she’ll just wait until it’s shown on free-to-air TV to watch again. Meanwhile I’m counting down the days till the Australian release so I can get on the crazy ride and experience it all over again.

Fiona is a massive fangirl living in Sydney, Australia who is happy to talk to you forever about Supergirl, Charmed, Person of Interest, Buffy & Angel, Wicked, Marvel superheroines, YA books, desserts and so much more. At any time you can find her surrounded by a growing pile of books and comics that she will read soon, she promises. One day she’ll go to all the Disneylands in the world but for now she’s trying to figure out how to draw on her new art Instagram.

Fiona has written 1 articles for us.

25 Comments

  1. Fiona!! This whole review is amazing!! “the diasporic experience of that fog when someone speaks to you and you understand what they’re saying but you don’t have the vocabulary to reply properly”–so real.

    I saw this movie with my mom last night and it was so great. Also, she tried to bring her mom too. But my grandma isn’t interested in American things…

  2. Fiona I absolutely LOVED this! Thank you so much.

    This part?? This part was GREAT.

    “The moment that hit me the hardest was when Rachel’s mum gently tells her daughter that though she looks Chinese, and in her head she may be Chinese, when it comes to her heart (and here she switches from Mandarin to English), “you’re different.” I truly haven’t felt as seen and called out on this level since I read my enneagram type. It spoke to me so much because it’s true. I never feel like more of an outsider than I do when I visit China because I know that on the surface I can blend into the crowds but if anyone tries to talk to me, my limited vocabulary will single me out as being different.”

    YES.

  3. This is brilliant and you must have written it so quickly, because the film only just came out, but this piece has like a whole lifetime of depth to it. Fiona I’d love to read more of your writing.

    Also: “bring some com to the rom” I’m cackling.

    • I actually saw 2 advance previews 2 weeks and 1 week ago so I had some time for it to sit with me but yeah I somehow wrote the majority of this thing in a day because turns out I had many feelings bottled up. Thanks, Suzy!!

  4. ASTRID ? Also I agree with you re. being charmed by the lead guy even though dudes aren’t really my thing.

    This movie was such a fun ride, and I really appreciate reading your perspective in this great review!

    • Astrid is my new One True Love ? (I say this about so many people) Right! I just watched To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and I found Peter Kavinsky really cute in it and I was like who even am I???

  5. See, as someone who grew up next door to Singapore (literally across the Causeway) and was raised on Singaporean media, I really wished they hadn’t pushed the “this is the BEST representation for Asia!!!” angle because it’s just alienated me and many others from the movie.

    As a racial minority in Malaysia, I didn’t have this experience of seeing myself represented in local media – the closest I’d get are news reports about how we’re all criminals. I had to move to the West to see anyone vaguely close to myself.

    But then Crazy Rich Asians comes out and it’s in a country that’s familiar to me – and it’s Whitewashed. Well, Chinese-washed. But same idea. This is supposed to represent us? Really?

    My family’s fairly well-off and has some connection to the sort of people in the movie. It’s NOT NEARLY that homogenous. And why does Peck Lin need to go all AAVE? Not even Singaporeans who’ve spent time overseas do that unless they’re trying too hard.

    People keep accusing critics like us of wanting this movie to “Represent the entire Asian experience”. We get that that’s not possible. What we’re trying to say is that it’s not even representing the ACTUAL REAL COUNTRY IT’S SET IN. This isn’t Wakanda (and hell even Black Panther made an effort to represent the diversity of Africa). This is a diverse country rooted in multiculturalism – and that gets so lost in Crazy Rich Asians.

    • I feel you. It’s like those futuristic movies where the setting has all these Asian influences but there’s no actual Asian people. Like they’ve taken the location of Singapore but put in different inhabitants. Hopefully with the success of this movie we’ll see better representation of more diverse cultures within Asia but I agree that it’s so slow going.

  6. I was living in Singapore at the time of the movie trailer’s appearance. I loved the book, but the Singapore of the trailer didn’t look like the Singapore I was experiencing at the time. Where are the aunties and uncles of the hawker centres? Where are Malay and Indian and non-East Asians? I understand this is still huge progress for Hollywood still and I am still looking forward to the movie, even with those caveats.

  7. S’up from Singapore. Throwing my two cents in here (literally, worth less than the American two cents — about 30% less, give or take).

    My issue isn’t at all that Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t feature enough brown folks. Crazy Rich Malays aren’t a thing (not this side of the Causeway, anyway) nor is representation in a movie satirising our capitalist overlords the hill I wanna die on. It’s that there is literally nothing revolutionary to me about an all-Chinese movie set in a (real! actual!) Chinese-dominated country. It’s just like watching an all-white movie set in America — except even worse, because all the Americans are played by Brits, and they look down on your accent. It is utterly unsurprising that the only sliver of Singaporean life that Hollywood is interested in belongs to the hyper-elite, the hyperbolic, and yes, the Chinese. I’d recommend this article instead of the one you linked to up there: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/08/17/hollywood-has-no-time-for-crazy-poor-asians/ (Western media coverage of Singapore around this, too, has been cringeworthy — I’m just waiting for the chewing gum ban trope to surface and I’ll have the complete set! — but also pretty much par for the course.)

    I do genuinely understand why (East) Asian Americans(/Australians) see this as a win and I’m glad y’all have this moment. But I do wish it could’ve been done without using the rest of the world as a mere backdrop to your own race issues. We’re not asking that one movie represent all Asian experiences (this is one hell of a strawman), only that you think more critically about what this one movie represents and why you feel it was important that this story had to be told, and more importantly that Asian Americans’ experience of this movie, too, is not the only Asian perspective that is worth hearing. Neither is it really heartening to think “oh but this’ll open the doors for more better movies!” when the next one in the works is… a sequel set in the same world.

    Anyway, I’m not personally particularly invested in whether CRA succeeds or not. But more broadly I’ve noticed the distinct lack of allyship (if not straight-out dismissiveness) of American friends, and the aggression and condescension of more far-removed American “anti-racist” activists to Singaporean critics. And every time it’s been sad and disappointing on a most personal level. Makes you feel small and kinda shitty, y’know? Wasn’t really ever planning to write out my own thoughts about it (see 1. apathy about CRA & 2. apathy of Americans about Singapore) but Autostraddle is a platform I respect, so yup, $0.015.

  8. FIONA!!! What an incredible review!!

    I saw the movie with two straight friends (BORING) so I feel like this is the place to ask if anyone else really wanted Astrid and Rachel to run away together because like????

    And then I went home and realized that Gemma Chan played a bisexual character that hooks up with Katie McGrath in some (super problematic) episode of a tv show so that might have been amping that vibe, but like I stand by it.

    • KATIE HAVE YOU BEEN READING MY MIND???

      That scene on the beach with Astrid and Rachel was so cute right they should totally run away together!!!

      I still haven’t seen that episode of Dates because I know it’ll end me hahaha

      • If it wasn’t the movie it was they would have seen that THEY WERE PERFECT FOR EACH OTHER and then been like lol look at that we’re both suddenly so single…

        I…would not recommend watching that ep. Not to spoil anything but it has some real vicious biphobia and it’s GROSS. Or maybe just skip past the first half of their initial meeting and get to the good stuff.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.