CINEMA: Crazy (Not So Rich) Asians

Culture, Feature

Man, diversity is trending like a motherfucker, and although it’s something many of us MTV kids have been waiting for, since time; making sure it isn’t a passing trend is the new mission for all involved in this movement. It’s hard not to question why the inclusion of those who tick the ‘other’ box is suddenly being embraced by mainstream outlets. By now people of colour are already tired of standing up when they say, sitting down when ‘they’ say and dropping everything, when THEY say.

In a time when I thought my well of ideas would burst open and I’d have a million articles to write and express my inner most deepest feelings, instead I froze up. I observed the platforms that were being ‘given’ and ‘provided’ and couldn’t find my voice even when I tried. Over the past few years I watched the #poc #woc #blacklivesmatter #staywoke #metoo narratives unfold online and felt even more confused than before, but I put it down to writers block and kept living.

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Director Jon M. Chu’s film Crazy Rich Asians just became the highest grossing romantic comedy in a decade. Reaching $165.7 million as of this weekend. Starring Michelle Yeoh, Akwafina, Ken Jeong and Nico Santos the movie overflows with decadence, luxury, fine things and fun amidst the strict, non-tolerant to anything other than just do what you know you’re supposed to be doing (become a lawyer, doctor…Prime Minister would be good) world that goes hand-in-hand with cultures who’ve kept their traditions despite westernized influences and dilution. Chu’s screenplay takes you to ‘exotic’ Malaysia and Singapore, and if you’re from those lands (as I am) the mere sight of the pasarmalam (night market) or the use of the word ‘Alamak’ (Oh My God) on a cell phone projects you into a ridiculous deep nostalgia you can’t help but zone in on. Even though your mate from Zimbabwe is next to you balling her eyes out at the unjust heartbreak portrayed on the screen, you forget to ask her if she’s OK (not cool Aleyna) because you’re momentarily homesick and lamenting over the fact that had you not come to New Zealand, become really westernised and chose to disobey your parents at every turn, this could have been your life, once, too.

The beauty of this movie is that it is a romcom – the type of movie which I do and can safely appreciate with my mum – it won’t cause us to talk about our world views or politics or sociology. It is the type of movie where we both simply agree – he’s cute, she’s pretty, that bad guy is actually an asshole and the grandma should keep her 2 cents before she exposes the truth and debunks the entire climax which alludes to fairy tales being a real-life realistic goal to strive for. In romcoms, I don’t remind my mother that I’m radical and potentially a dud child, and she doesn’t remind me that she’s old school. It works.

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“You’re what’s considered Eurasian” she explained to me around the age of 10. “How?” I wondered… You’re Indian and dad’s Chinese and Filipino. I’d watched movies with Spanish content and appreciated the expression and how the language made you feel like you’re allowed to yell at your lover even when you just want them to pass the salt. I’d watched ‘Real Women Have Curves’ featuring America Ferrera and felt less ugly, embarrassed or bad, my 5ft curvy body couldn’t fit anything even at Glassons. I realised tall Caucasian figures were the basis for the pattern making – another Kiwi experience I’d made a conscious-thought-out-decision not to take personally. The term Euroasian sounded too close to European to me and growing up in New Zealand looking Māori or Polynesian made me feel like I wasn’t Euro anything, I simply wasn’t interested in the Euro part – especially after experiencing racism for my skin colour.  I have lived this way since I came into consciousness – dating a white boy once and dumping him immediately for calling Kanye West a racist because he rapped ‘A white man gets paid off of all of that’.

ME: You can’t say he isn’t right Tom!

Tom wasn’t having it and neither was I. My mum’s one chance to welcome home a white boy was obliterated in that moment and my ‘activist’ ‘radical’ sensibilities were birthed and cemented into time.

I identified myself in the female protagonist played by Constance Wu. She was raised in America and free to follow her passions – naive to the benefits of strict traditions. When her mother tells her ‘But you were raised here’ I recognised a strong, very defining statement, of the reality that once you leave your homeland a part of it lets you go too. It sounds sad but one thing having a Kiwi identity affords you is the liberty to not have to conform, to follow your dreams and become an artist if you want to. You’re free from traditional expectation. The catch is, when you’re away for too long, expectation is all you want. ‘One tight slap’ on the face and a good scolding from your Aunty for leaving a wet towel on the bed (culturally insensitive) doesn’t seem so bad when you’re homesick.  

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In my experience coming from a Euroasian family who immigrated elsewhere, I have access to the traditions but am not obligated to follow them. In my case my parents only spoke English to me, something I was deeply sad about for years. For them we didn’t need Tamil, Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese or Mandarin in New Zealand. ‘Better you go learn French’ my Grandma would casually say to me at the age of 14.  “So I could speak to who?!” I’d balk back. At that time I was not concerned with the array of cute boys who could (and would) speak French in my life. Survival as a little brown female in a Western world was my primary concern, it would be a long time after that in which I’d care about boys.

I was one of those girls who didn’t have to go to temple with the rest of the family because the ceremonies would be long and I’d get bored – my mum assumed. This meant I missed out on weddings and funerals. Chinese New Year was the best though, because in Malaysia there’s this tradition called angpow, where if you’re a child, upon arrival you receive a red envelope filled with money. This part of our culture was one my parents happily let us participate in (maybe it was their version of a DIY economics class). As the visiting foreigners my brother and I would tour the city driving from cousins’ house to aunt’s to great-great-grand-mothers “of your uncle’s second wife’s sister” collecting red envelopes, allowing aunties to feed us and pinch our cheeks – so long as they gave us envelopes.

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My parents immigrated to New Zealand because dad couldn’t handle the fact that the jungle laid land he grew up in and loved so much had given way to a concrete jungle and capitalist priorities. Mum felt the country was becoming corrupt and so we moved to NZ where my younger brother and I enjoyed the fact that we could say ‘fuck’ freely – simply telling our mates our parents were taking us to Whakatāne to holiday. At the time, this felt awesome, now, I understand it’d quite likely be considered culturally insensitive.

What’s interesting in Jon Chu’s narrative is the empowerment it leaves women, particularly Asian women. Whether the character be a single mother who ran to America to raise an illegitimate daughter or an heiress with a shopping problem and unfaithful husband, the movie celebrates the strength of women. It reflects the fact that in many societies across the world it is a woman’s love, strength and patience, resilience and care that should be celebrated and not ignored or taken for granted. In Jon Chu’s film it’s these traits of being a traditional woman that become vital fibers in the fabric that hold a family and sometimes an empire together. Bring on the sequel and the “tsunami” Michelle Yeoh proposed in a NY Screen Times panel discussion where she explains if roles for Asians aren’t created then “We can’t work because of you”.  

 Yeoh is a Malaysian actress who has a net worth of $40 million and a lead role in the American TV series Star Trek. She also says she hopes “It doesn’t matter what race you are I hope that very soon we don’t see us as actors, or filmmakers, as colour, or whatever it is – but storytellers with stories that needs to be told in the right way and represent what we are and who we are”.

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Some criticism of the movie is that although it hosts an all-Asian cast and makes progress for Asian cinema, Alice Truong writes for Quartzy:  ‘It only depicts ethnic Chinese people, who make up a portion of the city-state’s population. The lack of South Asians or anyone with dark skin has the internet suggesting new names for the movie: Crazy Rich East Asians and Crazy Rich East Light-Skinned Asians.”

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Check out this NY Times Screen Times panel discussion below:

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