Crazy Rich Asians had audiences and media critics cheering well before it hit theatres—and for good reason.
The book-turned-film follows the story of New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she travels to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Goulding), to be his date to a family wedding. What she doesn’t realize is that her boyfriend’s family is, as author Kevin Kwan puts it, “crazy rich.” We’re talking massive mansions, closets full of couture and private-jets-flying-to-even-more private-islands rich.
But while there’s no question that Crazy Rich Asians is a major step forward for on-screen representation, some cultural experts wonder if the film’s over-the-top opulence could reinforce negative stereotypes about Asian materialism—perceptions that have become prominent in certain parts of Canada.
Case in point: a poster promoting the film in Vancouver bus shelter was recently defaced with racist graffiti. Slurs like “stupid chinx” and “money laundering thiefs” were scrawled on Wu’s image and “pathetic” was written across the side of Golding’s face. “Horrendous. Not surprising given the amount of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiments in Vancouver these days,” wrote Twitter user @sallyyuelin in response to the image. Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu also responded to the photo on Twitter saying, “Nothing will shake us. Sorry. We still here.” The problem, unfortunately, is that racist stereotypes are, too.
In Vancouver—a city that makes a cameo in Kwan’s novel, described as a hub where rich Asians have homes and fortunes—the image of the “mega-wealthy” Asian is everywhere, says University of British Columbia graduate student Nicole So.
“UBC has a nickname: the University of a Billion Chinese,” she says. “You do see Ferraris and Lamborghinis at the parkades, and some wealthy international students coming in [from Asia] and being flashy with their clothing, large Marc O’Polo logo shirts and designer bags.”
In addition, many Vancouverites blame wealthy Chinese buyers for the city’s soaring housing prices—which some argue has fuelled racism against Asian Canadians. Of course, this level of wealth isn’t an accurate representation of nearly 760,000 Vancouver residents who identify as East and Southeast Asian, but So says people end up creating generalizations based on these conspicuous groups, reducing various cultures and experiences to one stereotype.
As an example, So points to criticism of shows like Kevin Lee’s controversial reality series, Ultra Rich Asian Girls. The web show, which first aired on YouTube in 2014, is similar to other reality shows about lifestyles of the rich and wannabe-famous, but the stars were not received the same way as say, the cast of The Real Housewives franchise. Cast members spoke to CBC about how some treated them as if they were to blame for Vancouver’s unaffordability. These racist perceptions also made their way onto the Ultra Rich Asian Girls YouTube page, with comments like “Get out,” and assertions that Asians are “ruining the economy for real Canadians and Americans.”
With these responses in mind, So wonders if Crazy Rich Asians will be able to unpack stereotypes and nuances in a way that makes Asian experiences more relatable to North American audiences—or if it could further fuel the existing “rich Asian” stereotype.
Breaking down the “rich Asian” trope
The flashy, brand-obsessed Asian consumer stereotype is not a new phenomenon; it’s one version of the “model minority myth,” says John Paul Catungal, assistant professor of critical race and ethnic studies at UBC. It feeds into the well-worn trope that through hard work and determination, Asians have “made it” in North America, especially in the realms of business and higher education.
“The myth serves as a wedge to pit people of colour against other people of colour, and people of colour against poor people,” says Catungal. He adds that Asian success is often used to “blame other racialized folks for not reaching the same standards.”
The resulting stereotype of wealthy Asians has also motivated discrimination against Asians themselves, such as the early 19th century laws restricting Chinese immigration, which Catungal says were mostly based on the idea that Asians were “stealing jobs” from Canadians to the point of threatening the Canadian economy and culture. He adds that often, public discussions about housing affordability, property markets and universities continuously lump all Asians together—including those who have been Canadians for generations—as villains and perpetual foreigners.
As a result, Catungal says we can’t underestimate the power of a film like Crazy Rich Asians, which could perpetuate the tendency to paint all Asians—including those who are poor and in precarious work conditions—with the same brush, limiting our conversations about Asian economic disparities in North America.
Rachel Chu to the rescue
While the majority of us have yet to see beyond a two-minute trailer of Crazy Rich Asians, it’s worth noting that one character could potentially challenge the tired portrayal of Asian eliteness: the protagonist, Rachel Chu.
In Kwan’s book, Rachel, a Chinese-American economics professor raised by a single mother, serves as a direct contrast to the other characters, most of which are either newly rich, like Awkwafina’s character Goh Peik Lin, or from old-money established families, like Nick Young (Henry Golding). Throughout the novel, she provides readers an opportunity to interpret the over-the-top materialism—such as the Young’s sprawling mansion and a bachelorette trip that includes a private jet and all-expenses paid shopping spree—through the eyes of another, more relatable Asian character.
“I’ve had enough of being around all these crazy rich Asians, all these people whose lives revolve around making money, spending money, flaunting money, comparing money, hiding money, controlling others with money and ruining their lives over money,” Rachel tells Nick in the book.
And, especially when we’re talking about the movie, it’s important that she’s Asian—in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Kwan revealed that early on, a producer was interested in adapting the novel for the big screen, but only if Rachel’s character was white. But that would have been far more othering. As an Asian character, some cultural experts say Rachel could open the door to more nuanced and diverse Asian characters on screen.
According to Eleanor Ty, professor of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, aspects of Rachel’s upbringing, such as being raised by a single mother and “working hard to get where she is,” provides an alternative to Kwan’s other Asian characters, including her boyfriend’s mother, who disapproves of her lack of family wealth.
But while Rachel is a “refreshing and defiant rebel to the [novel’s] matriarch,” Ty isn’t confident that she will be enough to counter the “crazy rich Asian” stereotype in the movie.
“It’s hard for one character to hold out against a whole other cast,” she adds. “The trouble with film is that the visuals and sheer extravagance of the people and material goods on display can sometimes overwhelm that character.”
Crazy Rich Asians is still a positive step forward
In all its fun and humour, a film that features alternative representations of a range of Asian characters, is still a powerful vehicle for challenging existing narratives—and creating new ones.
Vincent Pham, a communications professor at Willamette University, says the messages that Crazy Rich Asians puts forth matter for a simple yet significant reason: “It speaks to the total lack of representation that Asians have in mainstream Hollywood blockbusters,” says Pham, who has published research exploring the cultural and historical representations of Asians in media.
He adds that Asians in the U.S. and Canada are “so starved for a story that puts Asian faces, bodies and voices at the center,” that the hype surrounding Crazy Rich Asians is in part, based on whether it can pave the way for more films, which further explore the nuances and realities of Asian experiences. “There isn’t one perfect movie that can fill the need for representation and fully represent complex characters and problems in a community—but on some level, they should try,” says Pham. In other words, the reason this summer comedy is getting so much buzz is because audiences care about what it means for representation in Hollywood, and what it could mean for future films.
So admits that rom-coms aren’t her favourite genre, but she will likely see Crazy Rich Asians after it gets released on August 15—acknowledging that it “may not be the end all be all, but a baby step” for Asian representation.
“Asian identity is more than just the food we eat, how we look, or the types of cars we drive,” she says. And hopefully, Crazy Rich Asians will help show that.
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