Kevin Kwan, right, author of the book Crazy Rich Asians, with the film adaptation’s cast members Henry Golding and Constance Wu, at its premiere in Los Angeles, California, on August 7. Why do Asians expect a film to represent all of them and even look to Hollywood to produce such a film? Photo: Reuters
Anson Au
Anson Au

Crazy Rich Asians is just a movie. Let’s not confuse Hollywood with reality

Anson Au says Asians need to stop quibbling over whether the representation of Asians in the film is fair. The real problem is we believe the myth that Hollywood is the arbiter of cultural representation

The film Crazy Rich Asians has ignited a cacophony of congratulatory jubilation, expectation and resentment on both sides of the ocean and among Asians everywhere. Most reactions belong to two camps.

One, prominent among Asian immigrant communities, argues that the movie marks a breakthrough in Asian representation by virtue of its all-Asian cast, and holds the promise of further representation.

The other camp, by contrast, faults the film for its failure to accurately portray the ethnic diversity and economic realities of Asians living in Asia.

These critical voices mostly come from a handful of Asian countries, including Singapore, where the film was set, and from Hong Kong.

Both sides reveal an uncomfortable truth in cultural politics: the hegemonic power of Hollywood.

And Asians have become so influenced by its power that we can’t even see the real harm its myths can cause.

The issue at hand isn’t whether, or who thinks, Crazy Rich Asians is a good or bad representation, it’s that we, as Asians, actually expect a film to represent all of us and look to the Hollywood film industry to produce such a film.

Watch: Review of Crazy Rich Asians

Hollywood is dominant in the global film market. But its relatively unchallenged position as the market leader is the result of a long history of cultural rejection of other national productions.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, European co-productions were dismissed by the American film industry for their lowbrow appeal (such as the spy thrillers and horror films of the 1960s and 1970s) and apparent blandness (deemed “Europuddings” in the 1980s and 1990s).

During this time, Hollywood sharpened its appeal to transnational audiences by fronting a lifestyle myth: that people everywhere are the same in a consumer culture, in which youth, sex, money are equally objects of desire, so every national cultural identity can be welcomed into a giant happy family with a single identity.

Coupled with bullying the competition, on the strength of a roaring US economy, Hollywood soon got what it wanted.

What resulted was a march towards an internationalisation of culture, where people of distinct cultural traditions are increasingly bound together by the same norms and values.

Watch: Cast of Crazy Rich Asians talk about stereotypes

But the problem is, such internationalisation sands down the differences that make every culture unique, making each into a saleable narrative dictated by Americans.

European identities were what Hollywood films said they were, not what Europe said about itself. Now, it’s Asia’s turn, as our lofty expectations of its productions show.

We hold Americans accountable for representing us because we privilege Hollywood’s interpretation more than our own.

We’ve accepted the dominance of Hollywood and essentially American culture, even in matters of personal identity. And if we accept that Hollywood is King of the Hill, then we also accept that we’re its subjects.

To understand the power we cede to Hollywood, just compare our reception to Bollywood films. These are often exaggerated melodramas divorced from reality. But no Indian in India or America is up in arms over how poorly their romantic lives and economic realities are represented.

And even though select Bollywood movies are screened in Hong Kong, no Hongkonger is crying out over the fact that they don’t capture how the poor aren’t mingling with the rich.

Watch: People let loose in a Bollywood dance class

There is one other reason for Asians not to take cinematic representation too seriously: there is no evidence that shows positive representation of minorities in films causes any positive changes in attitudes towards minorities, as measured by the number of racially motivated crimes or by the values directly reported in values surveys.

At the same time, precisely because people do take cinematic representation seriously, Asian communities are understandably wary of how a film like Crazy Rich Asians is perceived in the West.

Resentment against Asians has steadily mounted in some overseas communities, particularly in the United States and even Canada, where immigration rates have soared. Wealthy Chinese who flaunt their riches are especially eye-catching.

Many descend upon the largest North American cities as if to announce their arrival to the world – swarming luxury goods stores, buying property en masse, blaring the engines of their Porsches in downtown streets, etc.

It’s often joked about, with a kernel of truth, that at the campuses of the most prestigious Canadian universities like the University of Toronto, one can easily track where the rich Asians are – just follow the line-up of luxury cars.

Watch: Crazy Rich Asians offers a glimpse into the lives of Asia’s ultra-wealthy

Research shows that visible wealth inequalities can stir resentment. A film like Crazy Rich Asians, which portrays Asia’s uber-rich, may well feed into the stereotype of rich Asians who are uncaring of the plight of the locals.

Some have already lashed out. In one case, a lawyer in California (which is already the most accepting of American states), has cited Crazy Rich Asians as proof of the stereotype about the inherent moral deficiency of Asians.

Both the foreign racist backlash and Asian quibbles over representation are driven by a belief in Hollywood’s myth that its films define reality, which can’t be further from the truth.

We need to stop treating Hollywood as the moral compass for humanity. Only then can we take away its power and regain our own to embrace our own cultural identity. What others say about a man does not matter if he knows who he is.

We should know who we are, and it shouldn’t come from what Hollywood says.

Let’s just take Crazy Rich Asians for what it is: fiction.

Anson Au is a scholar and writer whose work covers culture, health and politics. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Seoul National University Asia Centre and at Yonsei University, as well as a PhD student in sociology at the University of Toronto