Crazy Rich Asians: The return of Sham-East Asia?


Cast member Constance Wu poses at the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians in Los Angeles, on August 7, 2018 PHOTO/Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

While Chu’s film is celebrated as a diversity win in the West, in the East it’s seen as more of the same Western gaze.

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.

Al Jazeera for more

Comments are closed.