Crazy Rich Asians: fighting stereotypes on Asians or promoting America?

By September 11, 2018 blog, culture No Comments

Crazy Rich Asians, romantic, Cinderella-like comedy, N°1 at the US box office, and highly mediatized, is the first Hollywood studio production to feature an exclusive Asian cast in decades. A breath of fresh air, considering the small number of Asians in leading cinematic roles. Asians remain the least represented minority on American television due to the tendency of “whitewashing” Asian actors and even using Caucasian actors to play Asian roles[1]….

Crazy Rich Asians conveys an unusual representation of Chinese for Hollywood, but what does this movie actually tell us?

First, it challenges racial stereotypes, while showing

  • Chinese citizens speaking English like Westerners… even with a British accent
  • Chinese men who aren’t nerds, geeks, doctors, engineers and hard working
  • Asian men looking surprisingly sexualized.

1

Camera deliberately lingering on the athletic body of a male character getting out of his shower; Rachel, the heroin, craving for boyfriend’s body and imitating a Tex Avery horny wolf…

  • Chinese young women who are not pathologically inhibited nor portrayed as sexual, evil “dragon ladies”, rebellious Chinese women who dare to say no
  • No kungfu-fighters
  • No strange, spiritual or culinary practice; “Asian mysticism”

Crazy Rich Asians opens in New York City and depicts the story of Rachel Chu, the daughter of a single mother having immigrated from China, who became a brilliant economy professor.  Rachel’s boyfriend Nick, also an ABC (American Born Chinese), invites her to his hometown of Singapore to attend his best friend’s wedding, and meet with his family. This is when Rachel discovers that Nick belongs to one of the most established and wealthy families of the region. We understand that Nick is pressured by his parents to come back to Singapore and take over the family Empire, as his father will soon retire.

Crazy Rich Asians is an immersion within the world of Asian tycoons, jetsetters and ultimate luxury. Singapore is depicted way ahead of New York City in terms of wealth, modernity, dynamism, which are also mixed with picturesque traditions like exotic street food and tropical sceneries.

Crazy Rich Asians (1)

It also captures the duality between:

  • The elite of the Chinese-Singaporean “old money” families: educated abroad, speaking English with no Chinese accent, tasteful, fashionable and rather discreet about their money

Crazy Rich Asians (2)

  • On the other side, the bling & ostentatious behaviors of the “nouveaux riches”, wearing most extravagant clothes, turning their mansion into the Chateau de Versailles’ “hall of mirror”, indulging in selfies and everything golden and expensive…

Crazy Rich Asians (3)

This explains why we see little product placement from luxury brands in this movie, beyond a flash appearance of a Mercedes car, and an exclusive vintage Rolex and Richard Mille watch. Most extraordinary luxury objects appearing in the movie, like this $1.5 million pair of earrings that were actually lent by private collectors. Contrary to Sex and the City, the movie did not turn into a luxury brands’ logo festival. Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t depict the conspicuous, logo-driven consumption associated to China, but unveils the concealed universe of the Chinese ultra-rich.

The generational gap is also well noticed, between:

  • The world of the parents and grand-parents, still attached to traditional values – a concept of marriage based on transmission, auspicious rituals (Rachel’s mother recommends her to wear a red dress as “symbol of fertility” when she first meets her boyfriend’s parents) and hierarchy.
  • The world of the children, who studied abroad, acculturated to a cosmopolitan lifestyle, they are more individualist and romantic; and still deeply attached to their family, although striving to trace their own path in life and often unfamiliar to Chinese traditions.
Crazy Rich Asians (4)

Rachel mistakenly drinking the water for fingers rinsing

Yet, the movie sometimes concedes to a Western representation of Asians:

  • Most Asians portrayed are “bananas” – “yellow on the outside, white on the inside” – and appear somehow whitewashed. The story is set in Singapore, recently named most expensive city to live in, former British colony and more international environment than most Mainland Chinese Cities – which may have been less aspirational for Westerners.
  • The main character, Nick Young, supposed to be from Chinese pure blood, actually looks like a mixed race of white and Malay, Japanese-British-Argentine actor Sonoya Mizuno plays Ms Lee. And oddly, we hardly see any dark-skinned human within the film (except in servants’ roles), in a city yet gathering 25% of Malays and Indians.

Crazy Rich Asians (8)How come only Asians would attend this grand wedding, whereas the couple must have studied abroad and seems so cosmopolitan? Isn’t this comforting the prejudice that Chinese are anti-social and remain within their community?

  • The Chinese heroin, Rachel, wouldn’t really match Chinese beauty standards and speaks strange Mandarin.
  • The clothing style of the protagonists would be too western or too Chinese (eg. Rachel dressed in the “pretty doll style in the beginning of the movie).

Crazy Rich Asians (6)

The most disturbing aspect of all is the underlying ideological message. At the end of the movie, Nick Young, the main character, refuses to take over the real estate business his parents and grand-parents had built from nothing, decides to build his life in New York City, and marries Rachel Chu. Rachel wins the battle against Nick’s mother (played by Michelle Yeoh), who was against this marriage, as Rachel “didn’t belong to their world”.

Nick’s mother clearly stands for traditional family values, which are presented in a narrow-minded way: family being defined by blood and a pretext to racial and social exclusion. She also places family success as ultimate goal: sacrificing one’s individual happiness to contribute to the prosperity of the family for the next generations.

Rachel, coming from a modest background – with no family apart her mother, and having become this brilliant, self-confident economy teacher, thanks to her own merit, stands for opposite -modern and inclusive – values and individual freedom. Whereas, Nick seems stuck with the “destiny” traced for him by his family. She also proves her disinterest for Nick’s money and embodies therefore a revisited American Dream “for Millennials”, where love and self fulfilment matter more than material success.

This confrontation between the mother and the girlfriend, a leitmotiv of many comedies, acquires here a symbolic meaning, which ultimately proclaims the America as most aspirational life model. The prodigal son decides not to return to Singapore, and builds his life in New York City, to become a self-made man – fulfilling the American Dream.

Crazy Rich Asians appears like the glamorous version of the TV series Fresh Off the Boat, released in 2014, one of the first shows focusing on an Asian-American family in twenty years. Fresh Off the Boat showed the struggles of a Chinese family from Taiwan, to conciliate their Chinese culture with the need to “assimilate” to America, while they settle in a white suburb of Orlando.

Crazy Rich Asians (7)Fresh off the boat, starring Constance Wu, the actress playing Rachel Chu in Crazy rich Asians

And both features end up carrying the same US supremacist message and promote assimilation instead of multiculturalism (the ultimate objective being to “fit in”) under the pretext of fighting racial prejudice and claim an inclusive society.

And this message comes at a time when America seems to experience a neo “Yellow Peril”, through a double threat:

  • from the outside, with Donald Trump engaging an economic war against China, which would “threaten” American jobs[2]
  • from the inside, with the fear that the Asian “model minority” (almost twice as likely to have a college degree than the average American), as reflected by the lawsuit conducted against Harvard University’s admissions, accused to give lower ratings in personality ratings to Asian-Americans.

Not to mention an enduring racism, with Asian men clearly not really considered as attractive potential partners by many American women: on dating apps, white, black and Latina, would give Asian men a rating between 1 and 2 stars less than what they usually rate men.

“Crazy Rich Asians” has a Napoleon quote at the beginning of the movie: “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.” China is already moving the world, but Crazy Rich Asians is a demonstration of America’s soft power – Hollywood – to fight against this reality.

 

[1] Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (a Japanese role), Emma Stone in Aloha (in the role of Allison Ng), etc.

[2] In that context, Crazy rich Asians featuring this ultra-niche of Asian billionaires, as if all Asians / Chinese were rich, when U.S.-born Asian men earn 8 percent less than white men and that white men and women are twice as likely as Asians to hold executive positions, might give the wrong idea…