By Kevin Goh
Jon Chu’s rendition of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians reached cinemas in August 2018 and enjoyed plenty of positive reception, particularly for its inclusiveness in featuring an all-Asian cast. As a Singaporean, it was comforting to also see Singapore portrayed on the silver screen. Beneath the romantic overtones that made this film the romantic comedy it is, however, are questions of culture and identity drawn along East-West lines. Plenty of elements intentionally woven into the film converge to create a striking juxtaposition of Eastern and Western cultures, and a delineation between what’s good and what’s not for the Crazy Rich Asian.
The movie’s plot revolves around the tension between American-born-and-bred Rachel Chu’s individuality and Eleanor Young’s traditional commitment to notions of identity, inheritance, ancestry, family, and other Confucian values. Sure, the Youngs are “crazy rich,” but it is of course of no coincidence that the wealth they possess predominantly comes from real estate and has been cultivated and passed on from generation to generation. In particular, the Youngs deem themselves “sociologically distinct” from families such as the Taiwanese, which were identified in the film to have profited from “very new money” —as opposed to the Young fortune. True to tradition, Eleanor also believes strongly in the woman’s role in the household—giving up on a Cambridge education for life in the family. Throughout the film, there are further references to notions of inheritance, gender roles, and inherited gender roles. We find that while Eleanor disapproves of Rachel, Eleanor herself is disapproved of by her mother-in-law. Amanda Ling, the lawyer whom Rachel meets at Araminta’s bachelorette party, speaks unabashedly about the role of “good old-fashioned nepotism” in landing her a cushy job as a lawyer.
Where are the outliers in this elusive circle of wealth? You find them in none other than the Goh family, particularly Rachel’s ex-roommate Goh Peik Lin, and Oliver T’sien, who identified himself as “one of the poorer Asians” (although she is by no means poor). These characters are portrayed by juxtaposition as unapologetic oddballs (quite possibly an allegory to the stifling nature of the inner circle), and the Goh residence is clearly, entirely free from the common Peranakan influence prevalent in the rest of the movie. And so, the movie’s leading characters find themselves in an ancient empire that sticks to traditional values and allows no deviation from the (Asian) norm.
Entering the fray is hopeful Rachel Chu, who by design turns out to be a professor in game theory—one of the frontiers of the relatively new field of behavioral economics. Consider, first, that traditional economic theory disapproves of landed and inherited wealth as economically unproductive and likely an inequitable distribution of resources. Then, consider also that Rachel’s advocacy of microloans for their role in uplifting women and giving them greater economic autonomy—though the scene where she speaks to Princess Intan was brief and seemingly insignificant—and the stage is set for a stark clash in values regarding justified wealth, individualism, and gender roles.
How did this competition in values pan out? Despite the occasional play on other Asian nationalities (e.g. identifying the Beijing Billionaires and the Taiwanese Tycoons), the central identity for most characters in the film lay in their Asian heritage. In comparison, it was the American nationality that was explicitly and frequently provoked, and disparagingly: “do you know how many children are starving in America”; “she’s Asian-American“; “is that an American accent I hear?.” Along with this, the main purpose of setting the film in Singapore (besides staying true to the novel) was really to facilitate a twist on typical Western-Eastern comparisons, since Singapore is an exemplar of Asian economic success.
Thus, in a kind of reverse racism, the white man/woman is treated as sociologically inferior in this isolated Asian elite bubble—so isolated, in fact, that while racism usually plays purely on appearances (e.g. the color of one’s skin), there is great resistance to Rachel’s attempted entry despite their visual similarities; she is a “banana,” yellow on the outside but white on the inside, and therefore cannot be admitted. This tension comes to a climax in one of the final mahjong scenes where Rachel identified herself at the end as an “immigrant,” even though the Young family technically are immigrants too; suggesting a qualitative difference in immigrants based on their countries of origin.
Less explicit but (and perhaps as a result, as is often the case in film) more striking are the numerous modes of imagery and symbolism, not just the dialogue, that point towards the response of the Asian elite to Western ideas and institutions. It is arguably intentional that at her introduction, Eleanor Young is found (half-heartedly) reading the Bible in a cell group. This group of rich housewives later self-identifies as Methodists, which originated as a working-class movement from the Church of England and Anglicans (a working class that these ladies certainly had no part of). Had the movie chosen to portray a more traditional and representative picture of Asians, they would perhaps have chosen to feature Eleanor at a Buddhist temple. Given the historical significance of Methodism to the working class, this introduction of Eleanor, and the later comment on spending $20 million for weddings as a measure of “Methodist frugality,” hints at an underlying dissonance between their fundamentally (though artistically exaggerated) Asian characters and Western ideas. It was previously mentioned that the only residence in the movie free of Peranakan influence is the outlying Goh residence, which used as inspiration for its interior design Trump’s restroom (could it get any more capitalist than this?), but consider also that when Colin marries Araminta the church is usurped by a Peranakan atmosphere. In this we might therefore see a tug-of-war between Western and Eastern ideals, though predominantly the former are getting crowded out by the latter.
Ultimately, Crazy Rich Asians offered a critical examination of Western and Eastern values by means of romantic comedy. Much of this might have been obscured by symbolism and brief lines of dialogue. However, perhaps this comparison bore itself out clearly, maybe the most clearly, in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes. Near the end, when Eleanor and Rachel play an intrinsically Asian game of mahjong, and the film never makes the effort to explain the rules of the game. Notably, this scene was never in the book – one of the rare occasions where Director Chu opted not just to take out elements from the book, but add to it. In catering to an Asian audience that would not need the game explained, the movie might have generated a response in the audience that mirrors what it attempts to do on-screen for its characters: a prioritization of East over West.