‘Crazy Rich Asians’ the poster child of diversity? It’s only skin-deep

Audrey Jiajia Li says for all its charm, the movie reinforces the stereotypes that Asians are materialistic and Asian Americans are a ‘model minority’. Meanwhile, Singapore comes across as mono-cultural, rather than the multicultural country it is

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 2:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2018, 12:38pm

I have spent the past three years travelling between China, Singapore and the United States. So, when the American blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians premiered, I rushed to the cinema in its opening week.

The movie is based on the novel of the same title by Singaporean-American writer Kevin Kwan, with its picturesque settings shot in Singapore. What’s more, the film has an all-Asian cast. It has been a long wait – a quarter of a century since The Joy Luck Club in 1993 – for a Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast to hit cinemas worldwide. After all, Hollywood is often criticised for its lack of diversity and its history of “whitewashing”.

Crazy Rich Asians has been hailed for promoting racial diversity in Hollywood, and indeed the film’s outstanding performance in the US box office is evidence that, for Hollywood, diversity is not just the right thing to do, but can also be commercially profitable. The picture-perfect Chinese immigrant story also helps to boost confidence and even awaken Asian pride in some diaspora communities.

Many Asians, both in Asia and the West, also see the movie as countering stereotypical depictions of Asians. On this front, as far as I can tell, the report card is mixed.

Watch: Film review of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

Without question, the characters are easy on the eye. The confident male actors show off their sporty, well-toned figures in the film, something movie-goers usually see from white or black actors.

This alone is a far cry from early-day American movies, where East Asian immigrants were often derided as emasculated and asexual, or even from some more recent portrayals, like the sitcom Silicon Valley, in which ethnic Chinese men are seen as nerdy, non-assertive and socially awkward.

However, on a deeper cultural level, the movie doesn’t help much to dispel stereotypes, and in fact may have reinforced some.

Are you crazy? Rich Asians vs Kevin Spacey is no morality tale

Among the many stereotypes about East Asians, “being materialistic” must be in the top 10. In the movie, the extravagant first-class flights, lavish banquet dishes, the US$40 million wedding, the nouveau riche tackiness and transactional opportunism displayed all tell one story: money talks, and we love it.

For a long time, East Asian women have often been portrayed in the West as predatory gold-diggers using their feminine wiles. To its credit, in Crazy Rich Asians, the lead female character Rachel Chu, a university professor, is an independent woman who comes down on the side of free choice and true love.

The majority of the other characters though, from Rachel’s potential rivals who are interested in the “tall, handsome and crazy rich” heir of a real estate empire, to the snobbish cousin who insults the girl for not being born with a silver spoon in her mouth, showcase their frenzy about fortune and their unconcealed disdain towards the underprivileged.

Watch: A glimpse into the lives of Asia’s ultra-wealthy

It’s not hard to imagine that viewers may leave the cinema with the perception that those are the predominant values within East Asian communities.

The audience may also get the wrong impression that all Asians are rich and live fanciful lives. Last month, when I was studying at Stanford, I got a earful about the skyrocketing housing prices in Palo Alto and how rich Asian immigrants, particularly the Chinese, fuelled this.

There is some truth in it, of course. In recent years, Chinese money has flooded everywhere, and we see Chinese lining up outside Galeries Lafayette in Paris for designer bags and snapping up expensive Manhattan properties with cash in New York. Now we are seeing a backlash.

The crazy rich Asians of Hong Kong and what they spend big on

Even in Singapore, where the story is set, a worrying number of Singaporeans resent new arrivals from China. But not all Chinese are rich and eager to flaunt their wealth.

Also, the film may solidify the so-called “model minority” image of Asian Americans, with the characters presented all being hardworking and successful high-income earners. Many Asian Americans say this simplistic characterisation is inaccurate and detrimental, as it ignores the nuances and bigger problems in the extremely complex community.

Unfortunately, the movie inadvertently reinforces these two stereotypes, that “Asians are rich” and that “Asian Americans are a model minority”.

In reality, income inequality is a growing problem in many societies. In China, rising asset prices have primarily benefited the top income earners. In Singapore, a wealthy city state and an attractive destination for high-net-worth people from across the world with its low tax regime, an estimated 10 to 14 per cent of the population struggle to meet basic needs.

And Asian Americans are today the most economically polarised ethnic group in US, with income inequality nearly doubling over the past five decades, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Centre.

Lastly, Singapore is a multicultural country. Although ethnic Chinese account for 76 per cent of its population, it also has Malay, Indian and other minorities. Singaporeans try hard not to have their country labelled as the “third China”. The fact that all the gorgeous rich people featured in the movie are ethnic Chinese, while only a few helpers are Malay or Indian, is an unfortunate oversight.

The growing inequality in ‘crazy rich’ Singapore

I remember that when I was in Massachusetts last year, my American landlord asked me where I would go when I left the US. “Singapore,” I replied. “Is that a coastal city in China?” he asked. I guess I can’t blame him when a study shows that 40 per cent of Americans have never travelled abroad.

As we celebrate a blockbuster for its groundbreaking diversity, it would have been nice if the movie had helped its audience gain better appreciation of the diversities of its settings, from the Asian American communities in the US to the nation of Singapore.

I may be asking too much from a movie. After all, it is a cheerful one to spend two hours on.

Audrey Jiajia Li is a freelance columnist from Guangzhou