Between the stunning high-end fashion, the lavish party scenes and the drool-worthy food, there is a lot that makes Crazy Rich Asians memorable—and that’s in addition to its groundbreaking all-Asian cast. And yet, it wasn’t the much-talked-about bridal scene—which, during the red carpet in Toronto, Ken Jeong described as “the most beautifully-shot wedding scene I’ve ever seen in any movie”—that stuck with me long after I left the theatre. Instead, it was a few quick lines of dialogue from Jeong’s character, Wye Mun Goh, that I cannot stop thinking about.
Let me set the scene for you: During her trip to Singapore with low-key super rich BF Nick Young (Henry Golding), Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) visits her friend from university, Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), at her family’s home. And by “home,” I mean Peik Lin’s palatial family mansion, which is covered in gold and Gucci. When Peik Lin’s father, Wye Mun Go, first meets Rachel, he greets her in broken English with an over-the-top Chinese accent.
“Nice to meet you too Chu. Koo koo ka Chu you, poo poo,” he says. Then, just as my brow started to furrow and I wondered wtf was happening, he completely blew my mind. “Nah, I’m just kidding.” Wye Mun says, dropping the fake inflection and speaking American English. “I don’t have an accent, nah I’m just messing with you.”
That line, though delivered like a casual dad joke, calls out a longstanding Hollywood trope of Asian characters who speak pidgin English with a thick accent—and in doing so, breaks down years of Asian stereotypes. And it was very intentional.
“That was workshopped by me and [director] John Chu,” says Jeong. “We were just doing a deliberate misdirect at everything, so it was a lot of tongue-in-cheek.” And clearly, it worked. With just a few words, Jeong gets audiences to reconsider what they were expecting his character to sound like—and simultaneously throws shade at the history of casting Asian characters as unintelligent foreigners.
Awkwafina explains that when an accent sets a community back, when it’s done to mock or when it’s done with evil intention, that’s where she draws the line as an actor. “I think a bad representation, you know especially in the Asian- American community, is to make fun of the way that people think that we speak,” Awkwafina told FLARE during the Toronto red carpet for Crazy Rich Asians. “So, you know, in an Asian American movie you want to be speaking how you speak.”
It’s important to note that the problem with accent roles isn’t the accents themselves—plenty of characters in Crazy Rich Asians have accents, but no one has the exaggerated or generic “Asian” accent that has historically been played for laughs in Hollywood. Classic examples include Mickey Rooney’s racist portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, but the use of accents as a source of humour still persists. Just look at the current discussion about The Simpsons’ Apu, voiced by a white actor (Hank Azaria) who’s doing an exaggerated and inaccurate Indian accent. These portrayals are the difference between portraying people of colour as the lesser “other,” and authentic representation—which is what we’re now seeing in films like Crazy Rich Asians.
Nico Santos, who plays Nick Young’s cousin Oliver T’sien, also believes it’s important to represent how people speak, but in the same way that it isn’t sufficient to have only one dimensional token Asian characters, it’s not OK to have one generic type of accent—true representation requires more than that.
“I don’t think people should be afraid of portraying people with accents, especially Asian accents,” says Santos. “People with accents exist and just because they have an accent doesn’t mean they’re less intelligent or what-have-you. But it’s important to portray them as real complex characters and [to make sure] the accent isn’t a joke; they have to be like real people.”
That’s definitely the case in Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel, where different characters have different accents based on their background. For instance, hottie-with-a-body Nick Young has a English accent because of his elite UK private school upbringing, and his friends and family have a distinct Singaporean way of speaking—nuances that Kwan made sure translated to the big screen. “There will be many accents and there will be Singlish, and we were really purposeful in choosing actors and choosing performances really emphasized the different accents that are in South East Asian, that’s one of the things we really wanted to show,” the Crazy Rich Asians author and executive producer told Channel NewsAsia ahead of the film’s release.
While not everyone will be able to catch the nuanced differences in how the various characters speak, it’s incredibly powerful for those who do, like Vox reporter Stephanie Foo. “When I heard an aunt’s Malaysian accent, an uncle’s more bougie, British-educated Malaysian accent, a friend’s Malay accent—I cried,” she wrote in her review.
For Jeong, it’s less about how these characters speak and more about who they are—and representing that accurately on screen. He notes that his father grew up in Korea and has an accent, and if Jeong were playing him in a film, that accent would be a necessary part of the role.
“It’s not so much about the accent, it’s more about the character behind the accent and to have a layered, multidimensional character,” says Jeong. “I think that’s really what this movie about.”
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