Crazy Rich Asians is a movie crazy rich in contextual fallacies

Written by Maisha Maryam


Seeing the trailer of Crazy Rich Asians, a movie directed by Jon Chu where the majority of the cast was Asian-American, something that had not happened since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, I felt a weird sense of pride.

I felt excited to finally see someone on the big screen that was like me.

Despite the predominantly East Asian populace in the trailer, I still felt pretty confident that I would be able to see a South Asian at least somewhere in the movie - it is not easy to see a South Asian be the main character, but any representation is good representation… right?

I was incredibly wrong. Not just about the ethnic diversity of the cast in the film, but about good representation as a whole.

Crazy Rich Asians’ lack of ethnic diversity boxed away other ethnicities from “Asians” as an umbrella term, but it also significantly misconstrued representation for those whose ethnicities did get represented.

Note that the movie has “Asians” in the title, yet the cast is made up of Singaporean Chinese. This is incredibly problematic because not only does it continue propagating the idea that Asians and Indians are two different groups of people, but these so-called “Indians” - South Asians, so to speak - are people who have also been misrepresented for the longest time, especially (but perhaps unexpectedly) in Singapore.

Although Singapore is home to three main ethnic groups, namely the Chinese, Indian and Malay groups, that are legally recognised; and has come a long way in terms of racial acceptance, there is evidence of racial privilege. For example, according to the InterNations, an expat community site providing information for over 400 cities in the world, television screens on public transportation typically broadcast in Mandarin or English; and women in beauty pageants often need to have a Chinese heritage to have any chance of progressing to the end.

Indians and Malays in Singapore have been forgotten and still are forgotten - this movie did them injustice.

Here, in Asia, we all bond over the similarities we share. Strict parents, the Asian F (which is really only a B… bracing myself for impact once my mum has read this sentence) and curfews before sunset are some of the few things we have in common. Yet, we also celebrate our differences - our food, culture and language, amongst many other things. Amidst the different labels, the myriad of beautifully rich skin colours and the ranging levels of eyebrow sparseness, we are all still one people with fascinating heritage. South Asians are no less Asian.

Personally, as a Bangladeshi teenager growing up in the rapidly globalising city of Hong Kong, I sometimes feel the inability to connect to my peers, simply because of the cultural nuances that separate us. Having grown up with Bollywood movies due to the scarcity of Bangladeshi programmes and being known as the girl from “the other brown country”, I struggled to find a place for myself. Eventually, as I gave up watching Bollywood and resorted to Hollywood movies, I saw other brown people portrayed stereotypically. It didn’t help to empower me or other South Asians like me that thought they had some chance of breakthrough without being hindered by the color of our skin - it only empowered the narrative that other people thought brown people lived in.

Crazy Rich Asians was an opportunity to portray us as a valid part of the mainstream instead of boxing us and other subsets of Asians out. We’re tired of seeing some brown telemarketer that speaks with an accent on screen.

But more importantly, no matter how much they boast proper representation of the Singaporean-Chinese in the film, it is not ever going to be true.

Although there are classic stereotypes that people go back to, we often forget that there are other non-ethnic subsets of people; and you often have people belonging in overlapping subsets. You might be someone of a particular ethnicity of a particular gender, age, height, weight and eye colour and live in a particular area of town with a particular job. In this case, the Singaporean-Chinese are more than just the Singaporean-Chinese - there are mothers and fathers, doctors and lawyers, youngsters and old people… the list goes on. There are nuanced stereotypes of people under each subset, so the possibility of having a character that is independent of these stereotypes is near impossible - there is no way Hollywood can go without killing representation and profit with a single stone.

Ultimately, the stereotyping of these different South-east Asians playing their characters is something that forms the whole plot. You have the Asian mother fussing over the son’s girlfriend and contemplating whether she would be the perfect wife. You have relatives being incredibly nosy and accusing the girlfriend of being a gold digger. You have these stock narratives to form a story appealing to an audience that is too lazy to try something new, while Hollywood continues giving them an excuse to be so.

At the end of the day, although you have an Asian-American cast, all of them are playing different stereotypical roles of different people that make up the Asian populace. These roles don’t represent who Asians really are, but rather are desirable images painted to appeal to the masses. It is a way for Hollywood to pander to the politically-correct audience without compromising all the money they could be earning.

It is pretty simple: racial representation is more than just having a cast that is made up of a group that is racially discriminated. There needs to be a consideration of the nuances involved - the baseline is if you’re going to create a movie that aims to represent a previously disenfranchised group, make sure it is a representation of them, not a representation of the ideas propagated, supported by and latched onto by the masses.