August 21, 2018 at 6:43 PM
The Hollywood premiere of the summer hit “Crazy Rich Asians” was filled with glitz and glamour — and one embarrassing mistake. The event backdrop, which was supposed to contain the logo for Singapore tourism, instead advertised something called “Sincapore.” For some Singaporeans, it was the manifestation of something they believed: that, for all the hype, “Crazy Rich Asians” was a poor representation of their country and culture.
This seems like an incongruous response to a film that has been heralded as a beacon of representation in Western media. But in Asia — and particularly in Singapore — the reaction to the film and its casting has been mixed. Even as they appreciate the majority-Asian cast, locals have questioned why Singapore’s ethnic minorities have been all but erased from the film.
This is no idle concern. Although more than three-quarters of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, the country also has sizable Malay, Indian and Eurasian populations. In the early days of the country’s independence from Malaysia, tensions between these ethnic groups culminated in violent race riots that left four people dead and dozens injured. Thanks to governmental policies — including instituting ethnic quotas in subsidized housing units and prioritizing multicultural education in schools — the country has come a long way since those dark days.
Still, Singaporeans from minority backgrounds face a range of implicit and explicit biases — from being served differently in stores and restaurants, to being held to unreasonable beauty standards, to even facing discrimination from landlords. As a Singaporean of Indian origin, I can attest to the fact that, for all the progress made, Singapore is by no means the post-racial society it is sometimes touted to be.
In this context, critics have reason to be concerned about minority erasure in pop culture — but they have chosen the wrong target for their ire.
What critics forget when they accuse “Crazy Rich Asians” of misrepresenting Asia is that, at its core, it is a romantic comedy about a Chinese-Singaporean family. Its entire premise centers on a specific segment of the country’s society — the insanely wealthy — that is disproportionately ethnic Chinese. While it would have been powerful for the film to include more about what race and privilege mean on the island, a rom-com is hardly the proper medium for these conversations. The film would have likely done these heavy topics a disservice, and that would have been a worse evil.
The criticism also overlooks the fact that “Crazy Rich Asians” is not a Singaporean production. If a film created by local screenwriters, directors and producers brushed over minority identities, the criticism would be understandable and urgent. But “Crazy Rich Asians” is a Hollywood studio film and ought to be judged by Hollywood standards. For the American film industry, there is no question that the movie is a massive step forward for Asian representation. It is rare to see an Asian character in a major Hollywood film that is not typecast or modeled along stereotypes.
“Crazy Rich Asians” has its share of stereotypes — two main characters who are Asian economics professors, a domineering mother who values tradition, and side characters who play on accents for comic relief — but it also has fully formed and relatable characters that go beyond cultural labels. This might not be all the representation Singaporeans want to see, but it is an ambitious and successful start.
And the film doesn’t just break free of character stereotypes: It also shows Singapore as more than the one-dimensional caricature it is often reduced to in the mainstream media. The country has become known for banning chewing gum and building a hotel with a boat-shaped pool on its roof, but it is much more than its strict rules and eye-catching architecture. “Crazy Rich Asians” hints at some of this complexity, showcasing a dynamic city with the wealth and glamour of London or Paris — and then juxtaposing this luxury with down-to-earth images of eating in roadside hawker centers. It is not a full picture of Singapore, but it might be enough to pave the way for a deeper dive into the country in the future.
Would I have preferred to see a more nuanced portrayal of my home on the silver screen? Or minority characters beyond the two Gorkha guards who drew laughs for a brief moment in the middle of the movie? Of course. But that doesn’t take away from its achievements: The first studio film with an all-Asian cast since the “Joy Luck Club” was released 25 years ago, “Crazy Rich Asians” reached No. 1 at the box office in its first weekend and earned the strongest results for a PG-13 romantic comedy in six years. It managed to change the conversation about Asian representation in the industry — and proved that it is possible to tell everyday stories with diverse (and international) casts. These accomplishments are worth celebrating even as we acknowledge what the film gets wrong.
When Singapore next becomes the backdrop for a major Hollywood production, I hope that it will be depicted with even more nuance and cultural understanding. But in the meantime, the best way to respond to “Crazy Rich Asians” is to suspend reality and enjoy the show.