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June 5, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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Like A Banana: Peeling Back the Meaning of Crazy Rich Asians

The trailer for Crazy Rich Asians dropped a few weeks ago, claiming a star-studded cast, including Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat), Harry Shum Jnr (Glee; Shadowhunters), and Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8). But more importantly, it’s a 100% Asian cast – the first of its kind in Hollywood in over 20 years. Maybe my standards are impossibly low, and I’m just really fucking starved for Asian representation, but seeing that sentence in the headlines of mainstream media outlets felt like an orgasm to me.
But then I think about Scarlett Johansson taking the role of a Japanese girl in Ghost in the Shell, or Matt Damon as the main protagonist of The Great Wall. And the live action remake of Mulan currently in the works, that looks like it’s butchering the original movie. Yeah. Maybe my low standards aren’t totally unjustifiable.
With a whole bunch of recent movies that claim representation and diversity (Love, Simon; Black Panther; Coco; Wonder Woman) doing well, Crazy Rich Asians certainly seems like it’s setting itself up to be another box office sellout. It’s even got an Asian director: Jon M. Chu, who directed Now You See Me 2. It’s checking all the diversity boxes, the trailer is selling it as funny and heartwarming, and the actors are talented in their own right.
Here’s the plot, based off Kevin Kwan’s book of the same name: Asian-American boy takes his Asian-American girlfriend to meet his family in Singapore. Girl discovers she’s dating the son of a billionaire. Cue culture clash, catty cousins and siblings, a disapproving mother in law, and slapstick humour that arises when a person from the middle class doesn’t know how to act in the world of the top 0.001%.
I was excited when I watched the trailer. I knew a lot of my Asian friends were too. But there’s a problem.
In the movie trailer, “Asian” seems to mean only some kinds of Asian. Every main character is light skinned. As the title suggests, the main characters are at least middle class, and most are far richer than that. The movie reeks of the Western view that Asia only consists of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean entrepreneurs and businessmen.
The movie is set in Singapore, a country that prides itself on its diversity (ethnic Chinese makes up 74% of the population, Malays 15%, and Indians 7.4%).

Alfian Sa’at, a Singaporean playwright and poet, noted that there are extremely few brown people in the trailer – the two that we can see are shown as opening car door for light skinned Asians. He calls them “brown backdrop people”, and asks: “Does a win for representation mean replacing white people with white people wannabes—the nouveau white?” It reminds us that the nuances of race and culture are far subtler than one might expect. That East Asians love to claim discrimination and racism towards them – which are often completely true and valid claims – but also often ignore the privilege their fair skin affords them in comparison to South East Asians or West Asians. Crazy Rich Asians can claim to be a win for Asian representation, but it sure does reinforce the presence of colourism in the Asia.
Of course, Kevin Kwan should be able to write what he likes. If he wants to write about the richest of the rich in Singapore, then props to him. Similarly, Jon M. Chu and the creative producers behind the movie should be able to make what kind of movie they like. A continent as massive as Asia – with a population of over 4.4 billion people – cannot be represented in one movie, nor should it be expected to. And the movie and book aren’t all without their good parts either. The trailer sets up for critical discussions of Asian diaspora, and the navigation of family and duty. Such themes will ring true for many foreign-born Asians. At one point, Awkwafina’s character says, “You’re a banana, yellow on the outside, white on the inside”, which will certainly draw laughs from an Asian audience – if self-deprecatingly.
The problem comes in toting Crazy Rich Asians around as the pinnacle of representation, when it is in fact a one-sided story – most Asians will struggle to identify with the sort of extravagant money shown in the movie, and many will be disappointed at the Western portrayal of Asia. At best, Chu’s all-Asian boast is nothing more than a perpetuation of the existing Chinese dominance of Asian representation in mainstream media and pop culture.
Will I still go see the movie? Probably. Like I said, I’m starved for representation. But then again, I’m a middle class first-generation Chinese New Zealander. This movie was aimed towards my demographic.
Perhaps a better question is will all Asians come out feeling satisfied? Probably not.

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