As Asian Americans celebrate greater representation in cinema, Keshia Badalge takes a critical look at how Crazy Rich Asians is portraying Singapore
As a Singaporean watching Crazy Rich Asians, it is easy to see why the film is such a draw this summer. The movie, based on the best-selling book by Kevin Kwan, follows the Chinese-American Rachel Hu to Singapore to attend her boyfriend’s best friend’s wedding. The set is glamorous and amazing and quite unlike any romantic comedy Hollywood has ever seen, the story unfolds in Singapore – a country 21 hours away by plane from New York–, and the cast is Asian, funny, strong and beautiful.
I believe many Singaporeans will agree that they feel a pride in being able to recognise some of the actors and actresses in the movie. I myself have seen Pierre Png, Fiona Xie and Tan Kheng Hua many a times on our local Channel 5 and Channel 8 Mediacorp prime time serials. I am especially fond of Tan: she is a household name here, many families have eaten dinner and laughed along while watching her play the loud and sassy Margaret Phua on Singapore’s longest-running sitcom ever, “Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd.”
It’s heartwarming to see Singapore represented through her and many of the cast members. What I don’t see, though, is the gleaming diverse racial representation that the movie has branded itself as. In Singapore seeing more “crazy” “rich” Chinese is not a milestone; it is more of the same.
Singapore is a multiracial country of Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians. We celebrated our 53rd year of independence earlier this month on the 9th of August. As a Singaporean of mixed heritage (I am part Caucasian and part Chinese, Thai, Sri Lankan) it is uncomfortable for me to see Singapore portrayed as a metropolis for the wealthy Chinese, with other races as a backdrop, serving the only “Asian” population that is recognised by Hollywood.
The key difference is that Singapore is a country where the Chinese (East Asians) hold the majority in both demographics and political power. In 2016, 76.1% of Singaporeans responded that they were of Chinese heritage. In politics, every Prime Minister in Singapore has been Chinese, the first being the late Lee Kuan Yew from 1959 to 1990, and the current Prime Minister being his son Lee Hsien Loong since 2004.
Singapore already strikes the posture of a country that is “crazy rich” in its mainstream media image. I travel often for work, and have heard the comment: “You’re from Singapore? Isn’t everyone really rich there?” from people all over the world. It seems to be Singapore’s claim to fame, and is somewhat true: Singapore has the 4th highest GDP in the world. In 2014, research by Boston Consulting Group found that millionaire households make up 10% of Singapore’s population, putting Singapore in third place for highest density of millionaire households in the world.
Whilst the claps and cheers are loud in America, a success for American racial and social politics does not translate to the same in Asia. The Chinese in Singapore do not have the same need to be represented as successful and confident that Asian Americans do in the United States. In this island-state, having a movie about rich Chinese people is not a means to catapult a demographic from the shadows to the spotlight; it is just giving stage to the people who are already visible.
This is a movie that has gotten a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. At The Washington Post, Allyson Chiu reported that ”[East]Asian men have long been perceived as less attractive and desirable compared to men of other races” and “the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ movie could help change stereotypes about Asian men.” Whilst this might be the case in the US, Henry Golding, who is technically British-Malaysian, is part of a group that dominates the media in Singapore. Here in Singapore, Golding would be regarded not as “Chinese” but “Eurasian,” the latter being one of the 4 main demographic groups, used to describe someone of part Asian and part European heritage. “Eurasian” models are scouted on the streets and are everywhere in street bulletins, ads and commercials.
This is not to say anything about Golding as an actor. It is just to explain whilst this may seem like a win in the US, the casting does little to subvert colourism and the favouring of white and East Asian features that we are familiar with in Singapore. As America applauds this cast for being more Asian than anything Hollywood has seen in years, Singaporeans do not necessarily see the cast in the same light, or come to the same conclusions about the ethnicities they represent.
Chiu goes on. “I developed an attachment to Rachel’s character long before I even knew there was going to be a movie. Not only is she a rare Asian American female protagonist, her character is complex. She’s multidimensional and embodies a host of relatable Chinese and American traits. She’s real, not some caricature, and in this film, she’s the star,” Chiu says.
Chiu seeing the Chinese American character as the star of a movie, someone she can relate to, is also perhaps a sign that this movie is meant to portray the American culture as attractive instead of the Singaporean one. The real Singapore, one she may not have experienced or looked for, is fair-skinned and dark-skinned, speaks English as well as Singlish (a Singaporean creole), Chinese, Hokkien, Malay and Tamil. Our MRT (train) stations announce that the door is closing in multiple languages. Singaporeans do not all look like the typical light-skinned (East) Asian American, neither should a movie staged in Singapore and played by several Singaporeans be made the prime example of fair representation for Asian Americans.
While Crazy Rich Asians is a great opportunity for Asian and Asian American actors, writers and directors to have a chance at the spotlight, perhaps this win is only powerful when kept in an American context.
At its core, representation is not just a matter of ticking off boxes to get certain ethnicities (or in this case, Asian-looking faces) on screen. It also matters who the characters are and what role they play in the story. People of colour seeking media representation in America need to be mindful of using the rest of the world as a playground to explore and legitimate their diasporic identities.
Do we need to hold up a movie with a diverse cast against additional moral scrutiny? The director Jon Chu certainly had good intentions and should be given a thumbs-up for sticking to an Asian lead actress, even when Hollywood thought she may be better as a Caucasian woman. There is no reason to detract from that, or the excitement people rightfully feel about the representation they’ve waited years to see. At the same time, the context of the movie should be scrutinised if it is to become the rallying call for more Asians to be seen on screen. If the movie wants to capitalise on its Asian-ness, then the culture and heritage it represents should be looked at more closely and depicted with sensitivity.
If anything, I hope this movie will promote the local film industry in Singapore, and the Singaporean writers and filmmakers who are trying to show all the facets of Singapore, not just the glamorous sides. Zachary Tang, a production assistant on the Crazy Rich Asians set, for example, is a filmmaker who is attentive to local nuances, I’ve appreciated his shorts, and hopefully his experience on this big production set can support his work on Singaporean films in the future. There are also existing Singaporean movies that truly move Singaporeans because of the heartfelt, local stories they tell, such as: Ilo Ilo by Anthony Chen about a domestic maid and er relationship to a Singaporean child; the Ah Boys to Men series by Jack Neo about Singaporean men in military service, I Not Stupid also by Jack Neo, a tearjerker about the stresses of children going through Singapore’s education system; Homerun by Neo, about two poor Singaporean siblings having to share a pair of shoes to attend school; and 3688 by Royston Tan about a Singaporean parking attendant who dreams of being a Mandopop star.
If Singaporean authorities choose not only to use the film to market rich and modern Singaporean tourist experiences, but also to propel a more diverse Singaporean narrative to the spotlight, if movies about dark and light skinned Singaporeans (and other Asians), some turbaned, some with hijabs, some with permed hair, could grace movie theatres together and cause such a sensation, then it would not only be Americans applauding, but millions of Asians in the continent and around the world, who can finally see themselves represented as who they are. It would be beautiful.
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Keshia Badalge is a design and culture writer from Singapore. She is currently working on stories about hunger, disparity and aging in Singapore. You can follow her on Instagram at @Keshia_n_b or send her an email at email@example.com
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