I will admit it: I liked Crazy Rich Asians. In fact, I liked the movie so much that I went to watch it twice at the cinema. This does not appear to put me in good company, since most of the film’s fans seem to be motivated by trite Asian empowerment, whilst normally thoughtful commentators are calling it a “disappointment” and a “missed opportunity”. Inevitably, the film has also fallen victim to those saying it is not representative enough of the Singaporean society it aims to depict.
Yet all of these views rather miss the point, and miss the film’s true genius. Yes, Crazy Rich Asians contains a charming if generic tale of the poor-girl-conquers-rich-family; yes, the film gives uneducated western audiences Asia’s own Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, of which many would be unaware; and yes, it is a glorious exposition of pan-Asian pride and “arrival” – the film’s opening sequence in a London hotel almost seems a gratuitous assertion of the changing balance of power between Asia and the West. Yet all of this represents only a superficial comprehension of the film, and mostly, one still understood through an inherently western lens.
Rather, Crazy Rich Asians is a profound social commentary about the state of the Chinese diaspora, its diversity and depth, and the gravitational forces that are pulling it apart. What Jon Chu (and author Kevin Kwan) have done is bring into focus the central question vexing much of Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and Los Angeles: who owns Chinese identity? To understand the real meaning of this film is to understand the transcendent nature of what it means to be part of the Greater Chinese world.
There are here essentially two main stereotypes of this Chinese diaspora, and two Chinas, being juxtaposed against each other (at this point I am going to note that I use various monikers with caution, and expect the reader to understand the general thrust of the label rather than be unhelpfully bogged down by the minutiae of definitions). A third China is for now not tackled, but we will touch on it below.
The first, represented most prominently by Eleanor Young (rather than, I think, by her own mother-in-law) is that of the historic “overseas Chinese” community, who by and large left China before 1949, and in the greatest numbers during the upheavals of the 19th century. These are the communities which populated India, Burmah and Malaya, before sometimes going on to Britain or further afield. The Chinese of Singapore, where Crazy Rich Asians is set, and Malaysia, where it is partly filmed, are central to this, as were the former Chinese communities in Bombay, Calcutta and Rangoon amongst others. Families of this ilk regard themselves immutably as the guardians of true Chinese culture as handed down by millennia of history prior to the 20th century. Their China is “China”; all else, whether the contemporary Mainland or the migrants to America, is ersatz.
The second group, depicted principally by Rachel Chu, is that of the classic American-born Chinese (“ABC”), somewhat unfairly maligned in the film as a “banana”. But the term “ABC” hides a multitude of sins, since there are plenty of families of Chinese descent in the US who are far more traditional and in-line with Eleanor Young, than is the protagonist here. Really, the story is of Rachel’s mother Kerry, whose story is not explicit in the movie but who can readily be inferred as one of the post-1980 New China emigres (as indeed related in the books). This cohort, whilst being “Chinese”, were already Chinese of the post-Cultural Revolution era and bear all the marks of that rootlessness. Their story of emigration is far different to that of the pre-1949 generation and it is telling in attitude, outlook, habits and behavior of their children. This is particularly true of the US where assimilation is most culturally demanded, but also to a lesser extent in Canada and Britain. For them, there is not a lot tying them to the China their parents escaped other than the occasional longing for bubble tea and mahjong.
The film also adds a few other Chinese ingredients into mix. The Mainland is barely mentioned, presumably in order not to offend the new owners of Hollywood studios and allow the movie a chance to be shown in the world’s second largest market. Instead though, Hong Kong (through cousin Eddie Cheng) is used as a proxy for the Mainland’s gauche, parvenu ways – and ironically, since Hong Kong is rather more brash and arriviste than they would like to think, this proxy is very fitting. It is perhaps a nuanced little dig at all those Hongkie elites who think so much of themselves. Next the grandmother, Shang Su Yi (again not named in the film but in the books) is a veiled reference at the legendary domineering of Shanghainese women. Taiwan, with all its crypto-Japanese influences, is probably the largest omission from the storyline, being referenced only in passing. Lastly there is Singapore itself which, although portrayed as a centre for overseas Chinese, is actually a modernity unto itself – as represented by the Goh family of nouveau riche ah beng’s and ah lian’s. Much of Singapore is barely recognizable for the traditional Chinese of London or even KL; in terms of “real Chinese culture”, Malaysia actually is what Singapore thinks it is – thus making the filming location at the Villa Carcosa in KL, even more poignant.
Neither the Youngs or the Chus exist in China today, but the conflict between them raging everywhere from Singapore to San Francisco, is deep, passionate and fierce. The overseas Chinese community of pre-1949 are both proud and condescending precisely because the China of their heritage is still so dominant. Crazy Rich Asians is fundamentally a homage to, and the story of, this peculiar overseas Chinese world and the enormous struggle it has faced in being the bearer of the one true Chinese light, whilst being weighed down on one side by the cultural Revolution of Mainland China, and on the other by the cultural dilution amongst ABCs. Even for western audiences, this is obvious: the stereotype of that thrifty family that keeps the plastic wrapping on the dining room chair set (think Fresh Off the Boat) is real – but it is also specific to southern Chinese families who went overseas. Northern culture, which now dominates middle class life in Beijing and even Shanghai, is not thrifty but rather garish profligacy that throws money at anything. Not for them the lessons of trauma and hard work. And as a final insult, we are now in a world where Simplified Chinese characters, by sheer scale of the PRC’s importance, is the default Chinese – no foreigner today would dream of learning anything Traditional.
I would be inclined to make the lazy assertion that those who do not get Crazy Rich Asians are just too shallow to appreciate its many levels. Yet I cannot, because the true beauty of the film is precisely that such people are a part of the story; the very fact that they do not fully comprehend it is emblematic of the great contradictions which Chinese are posing to each other. This movie is aimed at multiple audiences, and satisfies each in its own way. Its enduring strength is the way those audiences will respond differently and no-one really finishes with the same viewpoint on who they sympathise with and support – Eleanor or Rachel? The grandmother or Kerry? Indeed many modern PRC Chinese may not think any of the story is relevant to them; but it is more so than they may ever realise.
Being myself from a Chinese family of southern provenance who arrived via Calcutta to Britain, my instinct is to agree that our true culture is that transmitted through the strict guardianship of overseas Chinese communities. But having spent the greater part of my life in the Mainland and having had the rare privilege of knowing Beijing as far back as the 1980s, I understand also where New China and its impulses comes from. These Three Chinas – the PRC, overseas Chinese and ABCs – are all locked in the kind of conflict which is characterized by the (Anglo-American) maxim of being “separated by a single language”. The reason the film is so successful is that it stirs so much in each of these various Chinas, but does so both severally and collectively. Just one example is the soundtrack, which includes everything from the Shanghai jazz scene of the 1930s to the world of 1970s Cantopop covers, to Chinese contestants on The Voice. The sheer range of the music, its roots and influences, is a story of Chinese culture through the ages.
So whilst Crazy Rich Asians can come across as pedestrian to the uninitiated, the complicated and nuanced realities which its showy aesthetics overlay are important. I am sure that Jon Chu set out to tell this very story of divergence and disruption, knowing that each of his audiences would find something different to enjoy (and criticize it for). But even if he did not, for those who truly understand the complex tapestry that forms the world of the Chinese diaspora, he has created a masterpiece that repays watching, and poses socio-cultural questions of us which will not only not go away, but will only become more prominent. This painful dilemma is the challenge being faced by tens of millions across the world, parents, grandparents and others, who this film is designed to represent and tell the story of. To look at Michelle Yeoh is to feel the grip of generations over our Chinese souls and on some level, to think, “I understand why she is us, and we are her”. It speaks powerfully about our identity, and forces us to contemplate what it is to be without it. This is a seminal work of Chinese cultural existentialism, cleverly wrapped in pop culture – it is an Asian Banksy; it is MC Hotdog expressing Hegel.
It is not so much about “seeing ourselves on screen”, so much as “what is to become of us?”. Perhaps in the next installment, we will be told.