Growing up in the ’90s as a second-generation Chinese-Canadian, I never really saw anyone who looked like me on TV. It was rare enough that, when I saw Kristi Yamaguchi skate across my television screen for the first time, I instantly jumped from the couch and sat cross-legged directly in front of the TV—something my mom would normally scold me for doing (“You’ll ruin your eyes!” she’d tell me). But this time was different. She realized right away how much it meant for me to see Yamaguchi on screen.
After that, I wanted to be just like her. I begged my mom to sign me up for figure skating lessons and dreamed of winning a gold medal in figure skating one day. I even decided to “change” my middle name to Kristi, signing everything, “Madelyn Kristi Chung.”
But it wasn’t until recently that I realized why I was so obsessed with Yamaguchi—and it wasn’t just because I wanted to be a professional figure skater. It was also because I saw myself in her, something that just didn’t happen very often when I was a kid. Growing up, I was surrounded by mostly white people in my everyday life, and there were rarely characters on TV or in the movies who looked like me. It made me feel like an outsider.
The sad thing is, while there have been a few characters over the years who I could identify with, things really haven’t changed all that much.
That’s why the upcoming release of Crazy Rich Asians is such a huge deal to me. The film, which hits theatres on August 15, is based on the best-selling book of the same name and has been lauded as a major step forward for Asian representation on the big screen. It’s directed by a Chinese-American director, Jon M. Chu, and features an all-Asian cast, making it the first major Hollywood film to do so since Joy Luck Club… which came out 25 years ago. To say it’s a big deal for the Asian community is an understatement. It’s the movie we’ve been waiting for, because we finally get to see ourselves on screen and portrayed in an accurate, positive light—and not in the stereotypical or “token” sense that Hollywood has typically relegated us to.
I never saw Asian women in pop culture—and that taught me that we were less important
Of course, I remember seeing some Asian characters on TV and in movies when I was growing up. But they were always stereotypes: immigrants with heavy accents (I’ll never forget Ling Ling’s mother in The Hot Chick and her infamous “Ling Ling, you forgot your bling bling!” line); nerdy, socially-awkward students like Rory Gilmore’s BFF, Lane Kim, in Gilmore Girls; or hyper-sexualized femme fatale types, like Lucy Liu’s Alex Munday in Charlie’s Angels. These types of portrayals made me wonder, “Is this how the outside world views me? Either nerdy and uncool or super sensual and sexualized?” It was frustrating; I knew there was so much more to me than that.
At the same time, I started becoming interested in fashion. I don’t think I was actually conscious of this at first, but in the absence of anyone who looked like me, white celebs became my new idols, or at the very least, fashion inspiration. Soon, I went from someone who was so obsessed with Kristi Yamaguchi that I wanted to be her, to longing to look more white, with lighter hair, lighter eyes, tanned skin. The lack of representation and misrepresentation in magazines, ads, movies and television led me to believe that Asian women weren’t as important, or as beautiful as white women. All of this—combined with growing up in a predominantly white town where I stood out because I looked different and couldn’t really relate to the cultural experiences of my classmates—made me start to resent my Chinese roots.
In fact, part of me kind of wanted to be white. I sassily told everyone I was Canadian when they asked me where I was from, and the fact that I couldn’t speak Cantonese, only English and French, was a point of pride, as if it was more proof of my Canadianness. (For the record, these days, I really, really wish I could speak Cantonese so that I could converse more freely with my elders.) I even changed my dating habits, sticking to Caucasian men because mainstream media taught me that Asian men weren’t as attractive as white men.
Seeing people who looked like me in pop culture helped me overcome self-hatred
Obviously, things have changed since my teen years. But it took a lot of healing for me to become proud of my cultural identity. A lot of that came from growing older and realizing the beauty and importance of my Chinese roots. Being around my elders has helped. Learning more about my culture has, too. But small steps towards better representation have also been imperative. Seeing Kristen Kreuk, who is of Chinese and Dutch descent, play Clark Kent’s love interest, Lana Lang, on Smallville was game-changing for me—finally, here was an Asian actress who was playing a character that wasn’t nerdy or hyper-sexualized. She was simply a normal girl who worked in a coffee shop—okay, and fell in love with a superhero.
Thanks to social media, I was exposed to more Asians in the media, including bloggers like Aimee Song (@songofstyle), who quickly became my new style icon. More recently, Kim’s Convenience, a CBC sitcom that centres on a Korean-Canadian family living in Toronto, is what comes to mind in terms of great representation. It’s one of the few TV series my entire family can binge-watch together, mostly because there are storylines we can each relate to.
And then there’s Crazy Rich Asians. When the book was published in 2013, I dismissed it based on the name alone—the last thing I wanted to spend my time on was a book that reinforced stereotypes about Asian people. But after a friend of mine told me it was a great beach read, I decided to bring it along when I went on a cruise with my family. I finished it in two days, immediately downloaded the e-book version of the sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, and read that within two days, too. The story was a juicy love story filled with drama, fashion references and a ton of Chinese expressions, which, for the record, I was super proud to know and recognize.
So, you can imagine my excitement when I learned Kevin Kwan’s best-selling series would be turned into a major motion picture. In a world where white actors are still being cast in Asian roles (Emma Stone playing Allison Ng in Aloha, for example), Jon M. Chu being hired as the film’s director—and his mission to hire an all-Asian cast—was literally the best outcome I could have hoped for.
Crazy Rich Asians’ importance goes beyond casting
But Crazy Rich Asians also demonstrates that representation goes beyond who’s playing what character. The story centres around Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American professor who falls in love with Nick Young (Henry Golding), whose Singaporean family is the titular “crazy rich.” When she meets Nick’s family in Singapore, Rachel struggles to find acceptance because they come from different worlds. This storyline, as Wu has said, shows “[Asian] culture is more than skin deep.” Just because the characters share the same heritage, it doesn’t mean they share the same experience, something Crazy Rich Asians illustrates perfectly.
The movie also showcases Asians in different types of roles, not just the classic stereotypical characters. For the first time in a long time, we’ll see Asians portray complex characters on a big screen. “It’s not just about diversity or putting someone of colour in a movie,” director Chu said at the first public screening of the film. “It’s about showing a character in its full colours and that they can have layers. They can be a villain, a hero, a love interest or a comedic person.”
And not to be shallow, but can we talk about the hunky, shirtless Asian men in the trailer? It’s a refreshing change from the nerdy, geeky, “unattractive” Asian men we are used to seeing in mainstream pop culture. Not only is Crazy Rich Asians challenging Asian stereotypes, it’s also redefining North American standards of beauty by putting more Asian men and women into the spotlight, in a different light than they’re usually portrayed.
But above all, the movie looks fun. And it doesn’t just appeal to Asian audiences, but to the masses. It’s the big-budget, modern-day romcom we Asians have been waiting for, and it’s exactly what the Asian community needs right now: to share our vast and unique experiences with the rest of the world, especially since the opportunity to do so on a bigger scale is rare.
This is why Crazy Rich Asians is more than just a movie to me. It’s the type of representation that I’ve longed for since I was child. It makes me proud of my heritage and my roots, and it’s something I can relate to on a much deeper level than any other movie I’ve seen. It’s finally showing people “like me” the right way. And here’s hoping it’ll open the doors for even more representation of Asians in the media moving forward.