by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Crazy Rich Asians
CRAZY RICH ASIANS would be a film about the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie—the specifically ethnic Han “Chinese” bourgeoisie, that is. Indeed, while no small shortage of ink has been spilled over the movie, we might look at both the book and the movie side by side.
For the Most Part, A Capable Adaptation
THE FILM IS, for the most part, well-acted, with Constance Wu, Henry Golding, and Michelle Yeoh giving able performances. Golding, a newcomer as an actor, is particularly good at conveying casual charm. However, Wu’s character falls a bit short in fleshed out characterization, less because of any fault of Wu’s performance, but because her character-as the Cinderella whisked away by her Prince Charming to the wonderland of the film’s depiction Singapore—is devoid of any real characteristics apart from naivete and commitment to Henry Golding’s Nick Young, the heir of the vast Young family fortune. This is a flaw which extends back to the source material itself, in which Rachel—the “everyman” character who serves as a proxy for the reader’s perspective—is the least developed character.
Yet perhaps because these characters are not sufficiently comic in and of themselves to drive the narrative forward, the film makes the creative choice to make adjustments to a number of characters in the novel to serve as comic relief. This introduces a number of problematic elements right off the bat that seem to undercut the film’s aspirations towards inclusive representation.
For one, as has been noted by others, Awkafina’s Peik Lin is largely a black stereotype. It is also to be noted her extended family is made to consist of offensive stereotypes, including stereotypes of Asians with poor English and the “Asian nerd”. Notably, Peik Lin and her family are not characterized as such in the novel. Similarly, Nick’s cousin, Oliver, is made into a gay stereotype in the movie for the same reason. While such characters are generally detracting to the film, it is also a weakness of the film that it is is largely dependent on such characters to drive forward the motion of the plot when its main characters (Rachel, Nick, etc.) are not sufficiently dynamic to do so.
As with the novel, the film succeeds or fails based on its ability to convey luscious visuals of opulent wealth. Indeed, my own general impression of the novel was that probably about 70% of it consisted of descriptions of extravagant wealth and that minus these descriptions of wealth, the book would be something closer to 200 pages instead of 500 pages. The film does, in fact, offer skillfully conveyed rich visuals, even if this does become a bit over the top during a wedding scene which is supposed to provide the height of visual richness in the film (It is hard to realistically imagine a wedding which takes place in what seems to be an aestheticized swamp, for example). But the film’s camerawork and choreography during party scenes—particularly during the first party scene after Rachel’s initial arrival to Singapore—can also be skillful.
As the novel is a bit lacking in any forward motion for its plot and has some inconsistent characterizations of the Young family, for the most part, the film does a good job of streamlining some of the more uneven elements of the novel and injecting dramatic progression into the plot. Seeing as the wealthy Young family from which most of the film’s crazy rich Asians hail is somewhat inconsistently depicted as both obscure and famous, the film does away with this by making the Young family a household name in its version of Singapore.
From left to right, Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor Sung-Young, Henry Golding’s Nick Young, and Constance Wu’s Rachel Chu. Photo credit: Crazy Rich Asians
Similarly, the novel is somewhat lacking in any rising action that builds up towards a climax, hence the introduction of an effective mahjong scene in the movie to serve as the climax and several moments of overt conflict between Constance Wu’s Rachel Chu and Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor Sung-Young to ramp up tension as the film progresses.
On the other hand, a failure of the film which again returns to the source material is the failure to meaningfully graft together the main plotline following Rachel and Nick with a plotline involving Nick’s cousin Astrid and her husband Michael, who like Rachel is another commoner that has married into wealth. Whether with both the movie or the film, the former plotline greatly overshadows the latter, and one fails to see how the two plotlines are supposed to meaningfully relate to each other except as gender reversals of each other.
A Trickle-Down Worldview
AS HAS BEEN pointed out, the Singapore of the film would be an aesthetic wonderland constructed from what can only be described as the crystallization of an idealized Asian-American fantasy. The real Singapore is, of course, one of the world’s most economically unequal societies and Singapore’s wealthy have their riches precisely because of systematic inequality built into Singaporean society, political nepotism, and inherited wealthy—even while pretending that Singaporean society is a meritocratic one in which the acquisition of wealth is based on worthiness.
Such, then, would be the ideology underlying the film, insofar as the film is a celebration of Asian wealth. Although the film shows the excesses of wealth as well as the pettiness that the rich can engage in, the film still frames wealth as in some sense being founded on virtue—basically, the underlying notion of Weber’s Protestant Ethic as the spirit of capitalism , regarding the view of the wealthy as the inherently “virtuous” and “saved”.
The novel goes to odds to draw distinctions between “good crazy rich Asians” and “bad crazy rich Asians,” with “good crazy rich Asians” such as Nick Young still being “of the common people” despite their wealth and retaining a sense of noblesse oblige. Particularly with regards to descriptions of the greatness and virtue of Nick’s grandfather in the novel (cut from the film adaptation), the suggestion would seem to be that it is because of an innate sense of virtue, such individuals naturally accumulate wealth and, in this way, they benefit those around them. Indeed, one line in the film in which Rachel Chu engages in a dialogue with Princess Intan regarding micro-loans provided to women to allow themselves to raise themselves out of poverty, the worldview of the film seems to suggest something of a trickle-down notion of wealth.
On the other hand, “bad crazy rich Asians” are framed as having let their wealth go to their head, as well as being utterly lacking in class. Although a point which comes off far stronger in the novel, Crazy Rich Asians is also at odds to distinguish between the sophistication of “old wealth,” such as the Youngs, and the uncouthness of the nouveau riche. To this end, despite that China is the obvious elephant in the room for a novel about crazy rich, ethnically Chinese Asians, very few mainland Chinese feature as members of the dramatis personae of Crazy Rich Asians, and otherwise the novel is filled with denigrations of newly wealthy mainland Chinese for flaunting their wealth and failing to have culture.
Nonetheless, the novel evidently still relishes in wealth for its own sake—cultured or not—with such a large bulk of the novel consisting of descriptions of wealth in such a manner as to be almost pornographic. And the extravagances of “bad crazy rich Asians” are still relished in by the narrative in a manner that one finds generally undermining of the claims of the narrative that the nouveau riche lack the discreet charm of “old wealth.” Sentences like, “Twenty minutes later, as Bernard sat in the diamond-shaped Jacuzzi on the uppermost deck while a half-Portuguese girl tried to swallow both of his testicles under the bubbly water jets, a white Sikorsky helicopter appeared out of the sky and began to descend onto the yacht’s helipad” are occasionally peppered throughout the narrative, with no small amount of glee.
And the aspiration towards nobility proves a defining feature of the plot, with it evident that Crazy Rich Asians subscribes to what seems to be a bloodline theory of virtue. The climax of Crazy Rich Asians hinges on the revelation that Constance Wu’s Rachel Chu may be the child of a still living Chinese man currently in jail for corruption. While Nick’s family, who place great importance on the family image, thus oppose the marriage, the narrative itself suggests that if this was really Chu’s background, this would make her unworthy in some way—through having inherited some measure of moral taint from her biological father, as though she could not be her own person no matter what her biological father may have done in the past. Yet when it is revealed that Rachel’s true father is a classmate of her mother’s who sought to save her from her abusive husband. This apparently makes all well again, since then Rachel is once again descended from a bloodline of moral purity.
Internalization of White Colonial Tropes
WHAT THEN, is the role of China in the film? Although set in Singapore, the political and economic rise of China obviously figures heavily in the prominence of real-world crazy rich Asians in contemporary times, hence why a novel about a fictive imaginative version of such individuals would become a bestseller. The film centers this by using the epigram of Part Three of the novel as the movie’s opening epigram, a purported quote from Napoleon Bonaparte: “Let China sleep, for when she awakens she will shake the world.”
But, again, Crazy Rich Asians is strangely at odds to get away from real-world mainland China, marked as it is by the messiness of 20th-century Chinese history and stories heard the world round of the uncouth, rather than cultured, behavior of real-world crazy rich Chinese. Instead, Crazy Rich Asians displaces Chineseness onto the diasporic imaginary of Singapore, with the Young family having left China for Singapore in the Qing dynasty, avoiding the messiness of 20th-century Chinese history and carrying a cultural imaginary of premodern wealth dating from imperial China into contemporary times.
This is where the film shows its hand, in that the film seems to be aspiring towards creating an aristocratic image for ethnic Chinese, in line with, say, European royalty. This is also why the means by which the only shows non-ethnic Chinese in positions of servitude is quite striking.
While some have spoken of this as the film erasing Asian racial diversity in favor of depicting an Asia (stood in for by Singapore) which is solely ethnically Chinese, this is not the case. Rather, the point is to have ethnic Chinese step into the position of the colonial master occupied by Europeans, served by brown people—a framing that comes off strikingly in the film in a scene which Rachel Chu and Peik Lin react with terror to being surrounded by the Gurkha security guards of the Young family, who are first figured in this scene in terms of a brown-skinned, racialized threat to two young, East Asian women, and afterwards in a position of colonial servitude to their ethnic Han masters, the Young family.
Indeed, given that the film seeks to step into the shoes of white, colonial aesthetic tropes, one notes that it proves quite striking that the Young family is described as colonizing the terra nullius of the wilds of Singapore in order to establish its contemporary riches in a manner not too dissimilar to how western colonizers thought of as Asia. This, then, would be the foundation of the aristocratic nobility of the Young family.
This apparent prejudice against non-ethnic Han in the movie has been ably pointed out both by ethnically Han and non-ethnically Han Singaporean commentators, perhaps most strikingly in an essay by Sangeetha Thanapal, who has written at length about the discrimination against non-ethnically Han residents of Singapore in the past. This is in part why my discussion of this point will be brief.
One generally doubts that well-meaning Asian-American supporters of the film and novel consciously mean to discriminate, but it should be apparent that the film unconsciously imbibes of ethnic Han discrimination against darker-skinned populations. For example, outside of Southeast Asians, when residents of China’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang come up in the novel—which occurs twice—this only ever with reference to Xinjiang as a terra nullius for future business investment. This something which seems quite monstrous to suggest particularly in the present, in which over 1 million residents of Xinjiang are imprisoned in re-education camps, perhaps with the aim of clearing the way for Han to resettle Xinjiang.
Of course, this may hardly be a concern for Asian-Americans lost in an imagined reflection of themselves through the lens of American racial dynamics, rather than the actualities of Asia itself. Perhaps returning ultimately to the dream of the “model minority,” in having Asian-Americans become the equal of whites—apparently inclusive of having the cultural capital of blue-blooded, aristocratic, white members of the bourgeoisie, or to mimic white colonial history.
A Fantasy of Imagined Asian-American Homeland?
PERHAPS THEN, the ultimate failure of Crazy Rich Asians is that it internalizes the racial and class dynamics that it supposedly works towards overcoming.
It is not surprising the film belies no small amount of Nietzschean ressentiment as undergirding its worldview, as figured immediately in the film’s opening in which Eleanor Sung-Young buys a hotel to spite a high-class British hotel manager that insults the Young family for being Asian or other scenes in which an Asian character outwits an elitist, white character that are relished in as moments of glorious comeuppance. The next step, then, is for Asians to demonstrate that they, like white people can also be crazy and rich.
Indeed, author Kevin Kwan, who is Singaporean-American, has stated in interviews that he was inspired by his grandfather’s stories about the wealthy of Singaporean. The attempt would appear to latch onto this imagined glory of the social elites of a mythologized homeland, in which Asians are not only the majority, but can be crazy and rich, just like wealthy, white people in America.
That is is decidedly an Asian-American fantasy can be observed one finds no small amount of self-orientalism in the film. Apart from orientalist tropes creeping into the setting or the dress of Asian characters, strikingly, the choice of the film’s musical soundtrack in such a manner corresponding to the western imaginary of Asian music.
Much of the film’s soundtrack consists of Hong Kong songs which are used in such a manner to emphasize their “Asian-ness”. More often than not, these songs are not the music listened to in contemporary Asia today—which is, funnily enough, oftentimes the same western music listened to around the world, as part of a globalized culture which largely originates from Euro-American cultural production. And apart from those songs, of the soundtrack of Crazy Rich Asians is Chinese language cover songs of western classics. This would point to what the movie is truly about: Simply an attempt at an Asian cover of western opulence, never mind what the moral stakes are of this equation.
IN CONCLUSION, we can read Crazy Rich Asians as inflecting a worldview in which “equality” has been reached through the establishment of Asian bourgeoisie. This would be not surprising. After all, in other struggles for racial equality in American history, there, too, were those voices who claimed that racial equality would be reached through members of a minority group being able to constitute a bourgeoisie that would defend the interests of the group as a whole, as in the notion of a “black bourgeoisie”.
Hence the celebration of crazy rich Asians. But with the contemporary political and economic rise of China, now, too, does this include an element of the imagined, utopic homeland which is Crazy Rich Asians’ idealized version of Asia.
Unfortunately, this ideal is actually far from exclusive, in fact only rather narrowly pertaining to East Asians and specifically ethnic Han. In this way, this fantasy only internalizes and recreates, rather than overcomes, racial and class divisions among Asians.
Nonetheless, in examining the apparently endless amount of reviews and criticisms which have been written Crazy Rich Asians, in all, I came away feeling rather hopeful for Asia America. In the past, Asian-Americans have seen fit to hitch their wagons to individuals or creative works questionable political underpinnings simply because this seemed like a win for represent. Fresh Off The Boat was, for example, initially celebrated because of its Chinese-Taiwanese-American protagonists, never mind Eddie Huang’s long history of racism and sexism. When I criticized Huang and Fresh Off The Boat for this some years ago, sometimes it seemed to me that many Asian-Americans were furious with me for having anything other than an attitude of uncritical adulation towards their hero.
Yet this uncritical celebration did not take place with Crazy Rich Asians. Moreover, there has been a rather striking awareness of how the film represents an imagined Asian-American fantasy, rather than an accurate depiction of Asia proper. Asian-Americans have sometimes been at odds to distinguish Asia-America and Asia, as was quite visible in the misrecognition that The Great Wall was an example of Hollywood whitewashing when all signs are that this took place because of the Chinese side of the production. However, events in the past years have thrown the disjuncture between Asians and Asian-Americans into stark juxtaposition, such as the Peter Liang trial.
This perhaps signals that something has changed among Asian-Americans in the past few years. In this way, it may be that the ultimate victory for Asia-America is not in Crazy Rich Asians itself or celebrations of it, but in reactions against Crazy Rich Asians. In this sense, there may be hope for Asia America yet. We shall see.