The blockbuster rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians, has earned much praise from critics and millions at the box office. The film has dominated discussions in entertainment news and talk shows, with many welcoming its all-Asian cast – a first for Hollywood in a long time.
One can easily see why this romantic comedy has become such a hit in the West so quickly: because Hollywood, and by extension liberal America, hungers for a win on diversity.
In Hollywood, the growing criticism of white men dominating the industry culminated in the outrage over #OscarsSoWhite in 2015, which pushed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the institution responsible for the Oscars, to pledge to diversify its members to include more women and minorities by 2020.
Meanwhile, with the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, latent tensions over race and socioeconomic inequality have escalated and shocked liberal America. The current society-wide crisis – from a resurgent white supremacy movement to the forceful separation of migrant families at the US border with Mexico to the many ugly revelations of the #MeToo movement – has left many Americans longing for reassurance that things are not as bad as they seem.
Crazy Rich Asians and other successful films that have cast minority actors in leading roles, like Get Out or Moonlight are seen as a response to bigotry. Judging by the astounding media attention and the overwhelmingly positive reviews Jon Chu’s film garnered, it seems liberal America got what it wanted: a self-congratulatory pat on the back for scoring another point on diversity.
In Singapore, the film produced mixed reactions. Some Singaporeans also celebrated it because its success meant that their nation has finally “joined the West”. Singapore can now be known for something glitzier than its chewing gum ban or its ironic moniker “Disneyland with the death penalty”.
Yet, other Singaporeans were incensed by the film’s blatant misrepresentation of their society. Crazy Rich Asians relegates Singapore’s brown Asians to the periphery. In the few scenes, they appear in the film, Malays and Indians play the roles of “servants” to rich folks of East Asian descent.
The film symbolically strips Singapore’s ethnic minorities of their dignity and agency for leading meaningful, non-dependent lives. Such representation reinforces the advantageous position of the Chinese, Singapore’s majority ethnic group. This “Sinofication” is basically the Asian equivalent of “whitewashing” – Hollywood’s favourite tool to make non-Western stories more digestible for Western audiences (think Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell and the all-white cast of Exodus: Gods and Kings).
The politics of Chinese identity inadvertently raised in the film is complicated.
The experience of being Chinese in America is different from the experience of being Chinese in Singapore. While Chinese Americans have always been aware of racism, some Chinese Singaporeans are only awakened to how their skin colour and culture define them in the eyes of others when they study or work abroad. Indian and Malay Singaporeans have these experiences on a daily basis at home.
There are also tensions between Chinese from Singapore and China – something that the film glosses over. China is seen to be increasingly intrusive of the domestic affairs of Singapore, reaching out to its Chinese diaspora there to advance its national interests to the chagrin of Singapore political elites.
As a result of all these nuances being ignored, the country depicted in Crazy Rich Asians resembles something like Singapore, but not quite.
Lest we forget, these sham depictions of Southeast Asia are not new. Back in the 1980s, critically acclaimed Hollywood films about the region such as Platoon and The Year of Living Dangerously either erased or marginalised the narratives of the local population. American actress Linda Hunt even won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for portraying a Chinese Australian male character by the name of Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously.
Literature has an even longer history of fraught representations of Southeast Asians. Take the German author Hermann Hesse, who won the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature. His literary essay about touring the streets of Singapore in 1911 described the Chinese as industrious, the Malays as gullible and the Indians looking like dethroned rajas. Other examples abound from the proses of Rudyard Kipling and W Somerset Maugham, to name a few.
It is, however, simplistic to say that misrepresentation is the primary problem with these narratives of Sham-East Asia. Rather, the big issue here is the conflation of race and market demands. The bigoted racial order in content is fuelled by the drive for profit in the market. For this reason, films set in Africa or Asia, are not quite about Africa or Asia, but about how Westerners (including Western minorities) see them.
This conflation of race and capital shapes narratives to appeal to someone from the US, Canada, United Kingdom or Australia – consumers who would lap up these cultural products from the centres of the Anglophone culture industry without hesitation. Protagonists need not be white, but they are often characters hailing from, or have a strong connection to these world republics of letters, to borrow the term from literary theorist Pascale Casanova.
It is for this reason that Chu was so preoccupied with finding Asian actors speaking with the “right” accent. His struggle was that “mainland Chinese actors can’t necessarily do an English accent properly or understand the strife of an Asian American character.”
Although some critics have discouraged comparisons between Marvel’s Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, there is one important similarity: They are both Western films “shot with a Western gaze and primarily for a Western audience”.
The success of Crazy Rich Asians seems to suggest that the phenomenon of Sham-East Asia is making a comeback. We might expect more to come depending on how its sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, or HBO’s film adaptation of Tan Twan Eng’s 2012 novel, The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) turn out.
If Hollywood truly wants change and diversity, it should seek to make film adaptations of under-represented Southeast Asian stories. It should dive into narratives without the need for a Western mediator in the form of a protagonist, antagonist or even supporting cast members, while making strong commitment to authenticity.
Ultimately, such films should not be “affirmative action” narratives solely meant to counter under-representation. They should be great narratives where diversity is a natural feature of the stories. Eka Kurniawan’s Man-Tiger (2004) would be a good candidate here, as would be Gopal Baratham’s novel Moonrise, Sunset (1996).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.