The Identity Moment
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
Asians in America are having a very a significant moment right now.
So is Singapore.
Earlier in 2018, we have witnessed the historical Trump-Kim summit on June 12 that took place on the small island state. And now with the global movie release of Crazy Rich Asians, Singapore is no longer just a speckle south of Malaysia, nor will anyone mistake it to be part of China again.
It’s a big win for Singapore, the country. But is it for her people?
Well, yes and no.
The success of Crazy Rich Asians is a success for all things Asian. It has oft been touted in the media as “the watershed moment for representation in Hollywood”. No doubt about that, it is pretty monumental.
Finally, at long last, Asians can be perceived differently from stereotypes of old. No longer are we just your friendly neighborhood grocer, dry cleaner, dishwasher, Chinese takeout owner, nerdy friend, or plastic recycler. We can be fabulously rich, we can be schooled at foreign boarding schools, we can be ultra-modern and have fantastic taste too. This is indeed a momentous shift for the Asian immigrant identity as perceived in the West.
In other words, it touched the core of the Asian-American identity in its unabashed embracement of this story as their own.
But does it really reflect the Asian-American experience? Or is it a marker in time that any chance of representation is good representation?
Being Asian in America is very different from being Asian-American. The different flavors of cultural diaspora set us apart in our viewpoints, experiences and how we identity ourselves as “Asians”.
This is an opinion piece from the point of view of a Singaporean-born and bred Chinese living in America for over 20 years. It is also a discerning perspective from a cultural observer and translator who believes in multicultural and diverse representations in life.
AN OPINION BY LISA YONG
Crazy Rich Asians, which opened nationwide on August 15, 2018, is touted to be the first major studio big budget Hollywood movie, the first mainstream movie with an all-Asian cast. The one and only time this had happened was back in 1993 with The Joy Luck Club directed by Wayne Wang. That is a solid 25 years of waiting for change, a long time coming.
Now, Crazy Rich Asians is a box office hit with a sequel in the making.
Crazy Rich Asians: novel by Keven Kwan, movie directed by Jon M. Chu
Being Singaporean, of course I approached the book, and now the movie, with a healthy dose of skepticism.
I first read Crazy Rich Asians on my flight back to Singapore on a visit with family. It was a page turner, a very enjoyable and entertaining read. I appreciated it for what it is – a fun summer fiction – and definitely not something I can relate to personally, based on my own experiences growing up in Singapore.
It is true that there are many millionaires in Singapore. According to Credit Suisse Research Institute's 2017 Global Wealth Report, Singapore had approximately 152,000 millionaires in 2017. By 2022, the number of millionaires is expected to grow to 170,000, at a rate of 2.3 percent a year.
That’s a lot of millionaires for a tiny city state!
The Singapore elite do exist, just not as overtly flashy as the Singapore-born author Kevin Kwan wants you to believe. A millionaire in Singapore could easily mingle with the common folk and tuck into a $5 bowl of laksa at the local hawker stall in a T-shirt, shorts and slippers ensemble.
In a way, Crazy Rich Asians is an awesome PR gift to Singapore. The many sights and scenes of Singapore are glorious and enticing, they make it look absolutely fantabulous to the outside world. At times, I forget that I’m watching a Hollywood movie and not some glossy commercial made by the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board.
The movie is hugely entertaining, it is enjoyable, with a few laughs and insider references that only Singaporeans might recognize. Aside from the locations, there is really nothing authentic about this movie. It is meant for laughs, to prove a point – that Asians want to see themselves in films and will pay to do so.
It would have been fine if it’s just that - a fun Hollywood movie about Asians, by Asians, for Asians - without the aggravating media hype about how this is the colossal Black Panther-esque groundbreaking moment for Asian representation in America. Crazy Rich Asians took itself too seriously, and it became a problem for social commentary.
As a Singaporean of Chinese-descent, I find this to be both funny and infuriating at the same time. Here are the reasons why.
WHERE IS THE REPRESENTATION IN SINGAPORE?
Singapore is not a monoculture. It is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country with people who have originally migrated from China, India and Indonesia back in the early 1800s. Like Hong Kong, Singapore also used to be a British Colony.
Today, Singapore’s ethnic communities comprises the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian and Peranakan (Straits-born people of Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage).
Racial Harmony Day in Singapore. Photo Credit: davidwoon-justathought.blogspot.com
Immigrants are very much the cultural fabric of the Singapore story. Just like in the U.S., Singapore is a melting pot of cultural diversity, ethnic languages and belief systems. In a similar vein, racial prejudices and tensions still exist today. Diversity is Singapore’s strength. Racial harmony is its foundation for national stability.
With a broad, vacuous stroke of homogenization, Crazy Rich Asians does a great disservice to Singapore by portraying Singaporeans to be mainly affluent Chinese people who speak with an affected British accent. For a mainstream American audience who know nothing about Singapore, this will be the new unwitting generalization.
Stereotypes need to be challenged all the time. Why are they introducing new ones while we struggle to dispel old labels?
FORGET ABOUT NOT BEING ASIAN ENOUGH…HOW ABOUT NOT BEING CHINESE AT ALL?
Much has been said about the backlash of casting a half-white actor to play the male lead, Nicholas Young, in the movie. He is deemed to not being “Asian” enough for the role. How about not being Chinese at all?
Henry Golding is British-Malaysian, born in Sarawak, East Malaysian to an English father and a Malaysian mother with Iban ancestry. The Iban people are a sub-ethnic group of the Dayaks, the natives people of Borneo. In other words, besides the sore point of him being half-white, he does not even have a lick of Chinese blood in him.
Henry Golding plays Nicholas Young; the Iban cultural dance in Sarawak
Why is this important, you ask? Well, if you consider how the author, Kevin Kwan, waxed on about how the Young family revered heritage and tradition, it is a big deal. Old money, high society Chinese families in Singapore, Hong Kong or Taiwan all have a similar pure-bred mentality to that of blue blood Europeans or Americans.
Gorgeous as he is – and this is in no way a criticism or anything against his beautiful, exotic heritage – Henry’s look is just not right for this particular role. To the discerning Singaporean-Chinese, he is obviously an Eurasian, looking more Malay than Chinese.
If we are to believe that the Young family is all about the fuss of marrying into the right families, the favorite grandson of a very old-moneyed, traditionally-minded Chinese matriarch of the family would not look like Henry Golding.
If that’s the whole point about the story, then the casting director has regrettably missed its mark.
Now, if the author had described the Young family as having a Peranakan heritage – descendants from marriages between Chinese or Indian men and local Malay or Indonesian women from around the Malay Archipelago – then yes, casting Henry in this role is more believable.
But that’s another story.
We are in 2018, right? Just checking.
When a movie is supposedly hell bent on changing Western minds to appreciate that Asians can be affluent, sophisticated and stylish, one has to question why the heck are there so many scenes with these old-fashioned, cliché and gaudy red lanterns used as props every chance they get? Lest we forget we are actually watching a “Chinese” movie with real Asian actors?
Outdated representation of Chinese aesthetics in Crazy Rich Asians
For the clueless, red lanterns are really only relevant during Chinese festivals. They are actually quite conventional and unremarkable in the way they are used. The Chinese lantern has also evolved so much in its aesthetic expression that the traditional red is viewed as rustic and unsophisticated. Thus, no self-respecting high society Chinese family would be caught dead with these outmoded lanterns in their possession for any occasion.
The reality of red Chinese lanterns in real life
It is funny and insulting at the same time why Hollywood insists on depicting “Chinese-ness” to mean red lanterns hanging in every celebratory scene – at the church wedding, and the ultimate god-awful inclusion of giant Chinese fans in the wedding party scene. This is what Singaporeans would call obiang, a local slang that describes something as garish and outdated, in bad taste. A quick check on IMDB revealed the team responsible for production design (Nelson Coates) and set decoration (Andrew Baseman). Interesting to note that that they are two white dudes who are probably nostalgic for this kind of ethnic kitsch.
With a bit of imagination, the use of Chinese lanterns can be modernized and tasteful. The Chinese lantern has been updated to reflect more contemporary tastes over the years. These are examples of modern renditions of the Chinese lanterns in au courant Chinese restaurants that can be found in cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Hongkong to Taipei and Singapore.
Modern interpretations of the Chinese lantern in Asia
This is the modern Chinese aesthetic – nostalgically fresh, symbolically sophisticated.Asia is not stuck in the sixties of Western expectations, the West should keep up with the times, especially Hollywood’s prop departments, for goodness’ sake.
WHAT’S WITH THE CRAZY ACCENTS?
Now that Crazy Rich Asians is in the mainstream consciousness, does the world think that all rich Singaporeans have fanciful British accents?
Did you wish you had subtitles so you can understand what these rich kids are saying?
In the movie, all the offspring of Singaporean-Chinese families either speak with a mumbling British or urban American inflection. Almost none of the Singaporeans depicted in the movie, except for one – bless her heart – speaks Singlish, the beloved Singapore slang.
Most intolerable is the way “local” girl Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and her “local” father (Ken Jeong) are portrayed with their over-the-top American drawls and hip-hop swagger. This is especially jarring when they play out in contrast to the mother, performed by veteran Singaporean actress, Koh Chieng Mun, who is the only cast member in the movie to speak with full-on Singlish. How can the mother sound so Singaporean while her husband and daughter behave like they’re from another planet?
Ken Jeong as Goh Wye-Mun, Awkwafina as Goh Peik Lin
A Singaporean girl does not go from growing up all her life in Singapore to spending short years at Stanford, California and come back to Singapore speaking like a gangster rapper from Queens, New York.
Awkwafina, originally from Queens herself, is well-known in the US for her YouTube videos in which she performs her Asian gangster persona, raps and speaks in African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
In Rolling Stone’s profile of Awkwafina, it was revealed that director John M. Chu seemed to have implicitly chosen Awkwafina for this role in an attempt to rewrite Peik Lin as a trope.
Some people have accused her of appropriating black culture for the characterization. To quote writer Muqing M. Zhang, a law student at UCLA School of Law and a writer on race, gender and radical Asian-American politics:
“Awkwafina’s Peik Lin is a “minstrel-esque performance of the ‘sassy Black sidekick’ caricature, complete with the actress speaking in forced African American Vernacular English (AAVE).”
No doubt Awkwafina is a stand-out comic relief in the film, perhaps giving credence to the fact that Asians can be funny too. But in these problematic times, race and ethnic identity is such a crucial conversation to engage at all levels. Cultural appropriation should not be passed off lightly as comedy.
Awkwafina essentially plays herself, not the character Peik Lin. She could have tried harder, to be true to her character, to be a good actress. But that’s not the point, I suppose. Watching Awkwafina play a Singaporean girl is like watching Kevin Costner play Robin Hood with his full-on American accent.
They become unfortunate caricatures of themselves.
As a creative myself, I do appreciate that the director, John M. Chu, is at liberty to do whatever he wanted with his movie, his vision for the story.
Nevertheless, I have to ask John this question:
How is it OK for him to elevate his vision of Asian-Americanness by diminishing another’s Asian culture?
How is that any better than the whitewashing of Hollywood on minority representation - something that he, as an Asian-American, should be more mindful of?
Amidst this hoopla about what representation means in the media, this is what bothered me most about Crazy Rich Asians.
In her Op-Ed for Colorlines, Muqing M. Zhang, summed it up quite nicely when she wrote:
“Because of the relative newness of “Asian American” as a unifying identity and the heterogeneous nature of Asian America, we—East, Southeast and South Asian Americans—have not built a cohesive and rich culture that is distinct from Blackness, Whiteness and our families’ home countries in Asia. The fight for media representation has become one of the most prominent rallying cries among Asian Americans. But if we wish to subvert White hegemony, we must step away from the imitation of Whiteness’ exploitation of Blackness.”
I would add that Asians in America should not exploit Asians in Asia either.
Misrepresentation is a fate worse than under-representation.