As a native Singaporean Malay, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ did nothing for me (and that’s okay)

Photo by Sanja Bucko © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and SK Global Entertainment

[Spoilers ahead, obviously]

OPINION — If you came here looking for a review of Crazy Rich Asians, here it is: It’s a well-paced, visually stunning Hollywood rom-com that’s easy to enjoy, thanks to genuinely charming performances delivered by its cast, who happen to be of (east) Asian descent.

But if you’re entering theaters expecting the film to portray the lived-in experience of Singapore (its multi-cultural population, the scorching hot weather, the Singlish patois, etc), don’t. Crazy Rich Asians may be set here, but it depicts Singapore as accurately as Fargo — both the film and the TV series — portrays the North Dakotan city (unless, of course, it’s actually filled with very polite people committing violent crimes).

Where Crazy Rich Asians succeeds as a watershed moment for Asian-Americans in Hollywood, the same accomplishment in representation cannot be said for the actual Asians in Singapore, especially so for the substantial population of non-Chinese folks born and bred here. And strangely, after watching the film, I kinda get why director Jon M. Chu made certain decisions that ruled out a more nuanced portrayal of Singapore and Singaporeans.

As a whole, it’s hard to imagine the story is even relatable to most Chinese Singaporeans. Whose mother takes you out for holidays in London and buys out a hotel to spite a racist receptionist? Whose bachelor party involves a private It’s The Ship — think floating cruise ship EDM party — with rocket launchers? Whose wedding reception is a Great Gatsby soirée at Gardens By The Bay?

Even the closest grounded-to-reality moment (eating at a hawker center) isn’t relatable — what respectable local goes to Newton Food Centre to eat?

It’s a high-fantasy Hollywood film made for maximum appeal to East Asian-Americans — here’s a big-budget bonanza featuring a bumper crop of people who look like them in leading roles as three-dimensional characters. They haven’t had the opportunity to see themselves properly featured onscreen as much as we do, and the film is a service to them.

It’s not meant to be inclusive to everyday Singaporeans, because, honestly, we’re not the target audience.

So when I hear about Crazy Rich Asians being a deeply emotional experience for so many Asian-Americans when it did nothing for me (except being a decent time at the movies), I totally understand. But it was pleasantly surreal to see so many familiar local places being prominently used as establishing shots, especially during the scenes involving Bukit Pasoh Road, a stretch I walk down daily to and from the office.

That being said, I’m not letting Chu off the hook for some easily avoidable missteps that could have lessened the ongoing wave of criticism regarding what is or isn’t true Asian representation.

The Newton Food Centre scene

Perhaps we can close an eye to the usage of a goddamn tourist trap as a viable place to eat. It remains popular among the hordes of non-Singaporean hoi polloi, and to be fair, some of the IRL crazy rich locals who live nearby do patronize the stalls there. Major props should be given to the gorgeous local food porn shots that get significant screen time. But it also feels like a missed opportunity. This scene could have been used to showcase the array of cuisines from different cultures along with the various multi-racial hawkers prepping the food. Henry Golding’s character speaks a bit of Bahasa Melayu at one point to order satay, which is great, but pan the camera out a little to show the actual Malay hawker, why dontcha?

The othering

Yes, all your apprehension about representation is confirmed — out of the thousands of people visible on screen for the film’s two-hour duration, there are only a handful of brown folks like me who make appearances. No matter what your stance is, can we all admit that it’s ironic that a film ostensibly intended to boost Asian representation and diversity relegates the handful of individuals who aren’t East Asian to such token roles as security guards and valets?

There was one somewhat uncomfortable scene in which Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) get lost in the middle of nowhere in a supercar, only to get assisted by a pair of Sikh guards. It’s meant to play off as a comedic scene, with the two ladies being spooked by the darker-skinned, burly, bearded guards. All I can say is that not a lot of people in the cinema were giggling.

This evening I was invited to walk the red carpet for the homecoming premiere of Crazy Rich Asians. But from the minute I saw the trailers, even though I hugely supported the movie – I support any film which supports a minority race, especially Asians, especially in Hollywood – I couldn’t help but feel hugely uncomfortable as a #brown Asian. ✋🏽 Here was a film shot in my home country, without a single brown or minority Asian face represented, other than two Indian soldiers…. Yes, it was about a Chinese family, but that was NO excuse. Do we not have mixed racial friends here? Why was every party disturbingly absent of ANY other Asian race? ☝🏽☝🏾☝🏿 It would have been easy to keep quiet like many others, but what use is fear of protecting our careers if our careers amount to nothing which promotes real change? So I did what I thought I had to. I stood up tonight like a damn Trojan horse and spoke my mind. ✊🏽 Because Asians Come In ALL Colours. Because I am tired of justifying my “Asianness.” 🙅🏽‍♀️ Because brown Asians are Asians too. And because even though I’m sure they didn’t mean it, perhaps they didn’t even notice… this is no excuse. ✋🏽 We NEED to do better. We MUST do better. We are ALL Asians here, it’s time we acted like our racial harmony TV adverts instead of bowing down or playing up to Western ideas of Asian Stereotypes. Of course, I adore Henry, and Russel, and many of my friends in this film, but SOMEONE had to say something. Tonight I’m not afraid of the consequences of that person being me. Thank you. Sukki x x x #AsiansComeInAllColours ✊🏼✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿 #CrazyRichAsians #BeBrave #SaySomething

A post shared by Sukki ⭐️ (@sukkisingapora) on

While the film’s Chinese culture porn may be a refreshing change for audiences overseas, the over-the-top blasts of Chinese imagery drip a tad bit heavily here at home. Which makes sense, of course, since the story revolves around a Chinese family with old money. But what it does is make Singapore look like a place with only one dominant culture that can succeed. The reality is, we’ve got plenty of other ethnic communities that are proper crazy rich and they’re nowhere to be seen.

The city shots

At this point in time, isn’t everyone (Singaporean or not) tired of the usual establishing shots of local landmarks like the Merlion or the Marina Bay Sands? It all looks so carefully curated that it looks like the Singapore Tourism Board helped produce the movie.

Singlish

To be honest, the smattering of Singlish used here and there was not as big an issue as I thought it’d be, and it makes sense IRL too. Crazy rich families aren’t sending their children to local schools where they can pick up crazy average vernaculars. It makes sense for overseas audiences, too.

But, the movie could benefit from showing that the Singaporean characters are actually, you know, Singaporean. The worst offenders would be Ken Jeong and Awkwafina’s characters, who nobody would know are Singaporeans from the way they speak and act. A mix of American-accented lahs and lors would be fine, really. That’s why Jimmy O. Yang’s phenomenally douchey character kinda works as a Singaporean: the dude actually yelled out “kukuchiao,” the crude Singlish word for penis that young kids here use to insult each other.

It’s just too bad that the local thespians involved in the film got some pushback for trying to use a bit of Singlish, according to a Yahoo Singapore report.


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