Crazy Rich Asians (Pt. 2): Flawed Representation

In Part 1 of our analysis of Crazy Rich Asians, the overall benefits to Asian-American representation in media were discussed. Undoubtedly, there were many positives. It had been 25 years since Hollywood had seen a movie with such a commitment towards Asian representation. In the box office, the film was an unquestionable success, representative of an overall positive, if not overdue development for most Asian and Asian-American audiences.

However, for many Asians and Asian Americans, the achievement of Crazy Rich Asians was far more complex than this simple narrative. Whispers of a different conversation began to accompany the central narrative of Asian-American representation. With all the positives, there were, as some argued, equally as many adverse distortions in the film’s portrayal of Asians that made some question whether these developments are positive at all.

William Wang (left) and Jenny Tam (right) presenting discussion questions for the audience at ASUxSUA’s November 9th Crazy Rich Asians: Film Showing & Discussion event.

William Wang (left) and Jenny Tam (right) presenting discussion questions for the audience at ASUxSUA’s November 9th Crazy Rich Asians: Film Showing & Discussion event.

The New York Times reports, “A primary worry is that the Warner Bros. film focuses on Singapore’s Chinese, the dominant ethnic majority, at the expense of Malays, Indians and other ethnic minorities who collectively account for about a quarter of Singapore’s 5.6 million people.” This is one key critique of Crazy Rich Asian’s portrayal of what it means to be “Asian.” One quick review of the main cast and this is evident. Henry Golding (Nick), Constance Wu (Rachel), Awkwafina (Peik Lin), Gemma Chan (Astrid), and Michelle Yoh (Eleanor) all represent what is “best” about being Asian. Fair skinned, tall, and at the end of the day, remarkably Americanized for a movie that’s supposed to be about promoting Asian experiences.

The cast of Crazy Rich Asians pose for a group photo at the LA premiere on August 7, 2018. The remarkably East Asian presenting cast has been critiqued for not being representative of Singapore’s ethnic minorities, accounting for over a quarter of the country’s population.

The cast of Crazy Rich Asians pose for a group photo at the LA premiere on August 7, 2018. The remarkably East Asian presenting cast has been critiqued for not being representative of Singapore’s ethnic minorities, accounting for over a quarter of the country’s population.

As those who carefully watched the movie may have noticed, South and Southeast Asians in the movie were given roles only as security guards and domestic helpers -- a wholly unfair and hackneyed depiction of the Singaporean populus. The general belief in the idea of having movies like Crazy Rich Asians on the big screen is that Asians and Asian-Americans deserve to have the novel experience of seeing people on the big screen who look like them and represent them -- playing important characters and starring in big roles. However, when this experience is restricted to those who externally match the light skinned, East Asian presenting actors and actresses on screen, one must question exactly whose Asian experience we are ok with representing. Why are we deluded into thinking that calling the film “Crazy Rich Asians” is ok when essentially none of us can remember a time when western media allowed South and Southeast Asians to embody the category of being “Asian?”

“one must question exactly whose Asian experience we are ok with representing…”

Constance Wu partially addressed these critiques in a tweet shortly after the films release, stating:

“…for those of you that don’t feel seen [by the film], I hope there is a story you find soon that does represent you. I am rooting for you. We’re not all the same, but we all have a story.”

Although her recognition of the issue is welcome, it doesn’t fix it. We must be aware that with every positive step we take, there is more work to be done. For every marginalized ethnicity western media is finally “ok” with taking a step onto the big screen, there are ten others waiting in the shadows, unfortunately anxious to be granted the same opportunity by the dominant white majority. This power structure is intrinsically problematic, with minorities waiting in the wings for a chance to simply be equals -- a gateway to representation ultimately dictated by the unseen, deeply ingrained white supremacist sentiments present in Hollywood.

A scene involving actor Ken Jeong as Wye Mun perfectly captures how in the film, what it means to be an “Asian” cool enough to be on the big screen is wholly defined by westernized, white perceptions. Wye Mun at one point adopts a stereotypical Asian accent speaking to Rachel Chu, repeating her surname until the joke devolves into staled “ching-chong” jokes of Hollywood’s past. However, Wye Mun abruptly stops, speaking with perfect Americanized English, ““Just kidding… I went to Cal State Fullerton,” as if to assure Rachel and the audience alike that in no way was he “that type of Asian.” He was the “cool” type of Asian, an Asian that was as westernized and white as possible, and having an accent simply would have been an unfathomable part of that image.

Wye Mun’s speaks to Rachel and Awkwafina, a scene where he switches from a mocking Asian accent to an American one

Wye Mun’s speaks to Rachel and Awkwafina, a scene where he switches from a mocking Asian accent to an American one

And herein lies a plethora of other problems that, if picked apart, reveals how much work there is to be done regarding the fair representation of marginalized communities on the big screen. Accents are a daunting obstacle for many Asian-Americans who wish to assimilate and escape the daunting “forever foreigner” stereotype, a term explained by Mia Tuan in her book Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites?: The Asian Ethnic Experience Today, where no matter how long Asian-Americans have lived in the country, they are still not seen as true Americans due to uncontrollable external factors such as their appearance or their accents. According to an article written by Celeste Yim of VICE, for comedians, “The Asian accent gets a shocking amount of laughter [on stage,] probably 200 to 300 percent more than for other accents.” Yim goes on to elaborate that “It's clear that, to so many, the ‘Asian accent’ is a mark of inferiority.”

“For every marginalized ethnicity western media is finally ‘ok’ with taking a step onto the big screen, there are ten others waiting in the shadows, unfortunately anxious to be granted the same opportunity by the dominant white majority.”

Although the Asian accent is a very real experience for many in day to day life despite its overuse in deprecating comedy, Asian-Americans themselves have difficulty in overcoming the perception of it being inferior. Playwright Lauren Yee elaborates in the article, “Whenever I hear an Asian accent in a play or movie, I immediately inwardly cringe and I can't always tell you why. It's my first reaction.” In fact, “We all feel that visceral reaction of shame,” elaborates Jenny Yang. It’s clear that the perception of having an Asian accent is inferior, and that the perception of inferiority is synonymous with being “forever foreign,” and being less “American.” Even within the Asian-American community, where Asian accents should theoretically be a very accepted and natural part of the assimilation progress, there is a clear hierarchy with Americanized accents being seen as superior, while Asian accents are seen as shameful.

Discussion moderator Jenny Tam (left) discusses the Crazy Rich Asians: Film Showing & Discussion event with attendees.

Discussion moderator Jenny Tam (left) discusses the Crazy Rich Asians: Film Showing & Discussion event with attendees.

Asian Americans are rooted in a pernicious tug-of-war battle between not wanting to be considered a “forever foreigner,” but in the process of their integration, become an “honorary white,” neither of which should be our ultimate goal. To shame accents only succeeds in reinforcing the value system that the dominant culture judges us by. This leads Asian-Americans to be ashamed by the very things that make us who we are, and thus lead to skewed representation of who we are on the big screen. We must tread carefully, analyzing both our intent and our impact as we wade through seemingly calm waters, but falling victim to the deceptively strong undercurrents that will sweep us off our feet to places we never wanted to go.


References

[1] Horton, Anisa Purbasari. “‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Is, Indeed, Asian Enough for Us.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 18 Aug. 2018, www.fastcompany.com/90220430/crazy-rich-asians-is-indeed-asian-enough-for-us.

[2] Ives, Mike. “For Some Viewers, 'Crazy Rich Asians' Is Not Asian Enough.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Aug. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/08/16/world/asia/crazy-rich-asians-cast-singapore.html.

[3] Rao, Sameer. “Singaporean Critics Ask Who 'Crazy Rich Asians' Really Represents.” Colorlines, 23 Aug. 2018, www.colorlines.com/articles/singaporean-critics-ask-who-crazy-rich-asians-really-represents.

[4] Tseng-Putterman, Mark. “One Way That 'Crazy Rich Asians' Is a Step Backward.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 23 Aug. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/08/asian-americas-great-gatsby-moment/568213/.

[5] Yim, Celeste. “Why People Who Know Better Still Laugh at Asian Accents.” Vice, Vice, 8 June 2017, www.vice.com/en_us/article/xw8wm4/why-people-still-laugh-at-asian-accents-an-invesgation.