Kevin Kwan’s novel, on which the blockbuster film is based, must have posed something of a representational challenge for the film’s director, Jon M. Chu. The story follows an Asian-American economics professor Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu from the television sitcom Fresh Off the Boat) who falls in love with Nick Young (played by the biracial Henry Golding), heir to an aristocratic Singaporean family of unimaginable wealth. Portraying Nick’s insular family risks restaging several stereotypes about Asians, especially the Chinese — that they’re the nouveau riche of the contemporary world; that they are secretive, materialistic, decadent; that they are technologically savvy but regressive in their customs; that Asian economic supremacy in the 20th and 21st centuries breeds affective excess and irrational tribalism — but Crazy Rich Asians puts all this apprehension about Asian power, not in the mouth of the white man, but in the voice of the Asian/Asian American. In the novel, it is Rachel the American-born Chinese (A.B.C.) who names “these crazy rich Asians!” The film softens the indictment by turning the phrase into a throw-away line of self-deprecation in the mouth of Rachel’s faithful college friend from Singapore Goh Peik Lin (played rather charmingly by the irrepressible American rapper Awkwafina).
Is this the price one pays for graduating from F.O.B. to A.B.C., from TV to the big screen: the Asian American now gets to be the voice of anti-Asian allergy? In this, I am reminded of Black Panther, which, for all its purported celebration of black beauty and sovereignty, was deeply uneasy about the threat of black power, represented by black American masculinity in the form of a character not so subtly named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). The glaring danger that he represents was articulated, and then extinguished, by not the white man but the black African king, the “Black Panther” (Chadwick Boseman) no less. In the twisted lineages of American racial trauma, we get to witness inter-racial angst, displaced onto an intra-racial family drama.
This kind of ghosting is not new. The last time we saw a big Hollywood production about the spectacular peculiarities of the Chinese that featured an all-Asian (if not all Chinese) cast was more than half a century ago, and there we saw the same ventriloquy. In 1961, with the United States on the cusp of immigration reform and demographic changes after decades of draconian anti-Asian immigration prohibition, Universal Pictures produced Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song for the mainstream American audience. For the first time, the wide screen filled with Asian-looking bodies. Although Flower Drum Song ostensibly rejoices in the new Asian-American citizen, the plot pitches its good girl — a F.O.B. and a self-proclaimed “wet back” named Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) — against the bad girl, an A.B.C. named Linda Low who was glamorous, mercenary, shallow, and unwholesomely Westernized (dare we say a prefigure of the “crazy rich Asian”?). There the Asian-American woman was made to embody the interracial threat to Chinese purity. That bad girl was played by none other than Nancy Kwan to whom, by the way, author Kevin Kwan is related. Pedigree indeed.
If Flower Drum Song the movie was deeply disturbed by the phantasmatic threat of what lies outside of the United States — and especially the Chinese infiltrating our border in the 1960s — then Crazy Rich Asians expands that concern globally: this is not just about Asian Americans negotiating a history of American discrimination; this is Asians navigating global anti-Asian sentiments in the 21st century. The novel and its film adaptation both open with an unforgettable scene of racial comeuppance. A Chinese-Singaporean family is turned out of an exclusive European hotel (Paris in the novel and London in the movie) on a raining night despite having reservations. The hotel manager could not see letting in such clientele. The mother, Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh), leaves the hotel to make a phone call, and the next thing you know, the family returns to announce that they have bought the hotel. In the novel, the mother promptly fires the snooty manager; in the movie, she calmly asks the manager to clean up the mud that the children have trekked in. This tale of retaliation against white racism is best enjoyed by those who have looked similar rejection in the face.
Yet the scene in the movie feels qualitatively different from the scene in the novel. In the latter, it is difficult to fully relish this little payback scenario without also being deeply aware of the depth of the anti-Asian sentiment that fuels it. The scene in the movie, however, allows for a more enjoyable delight. This may be partially because I was sitting in a preview in Hamilton, New Jersey, among more Asian-looking faces in the audience than I have ever seen before in an American theater. It may also have to do with the possibility that director Jon M. Chu seems to have more affection for his characters than the author. Michelle Yeoh lends gravitas and emotional nuance to her Eleanor Sung-Young, turning what could have easily been an iteration of the Dragon Lady into a more complex portrait of a woman bound by traditions and safeguarding a legacy that she has had to fight to own herself. Chu and the scriptwriters (Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim) make Eleanor less cold, more human, by way of making her more maternal than her novelistic twin. In fact, the movie plot changes Eleanor’s character altogether in the end to allow the viewers to see a mother who is finally more concerned about her son’s happiness than his inheritance. This is not the case in the novel.
Kwan’s original novel is more frenetic, even in its humor. That the characters and the plot continually fret about who has a mere 1.5 billion versus hundreds of billion in assets, or the telltale difference between wearing Alexander Wang versus Alexander McQueen, signals a longing that can only be described as a desire for armor. Under all its cheeky extravagances and self-satisfaction, the novel is deeply anxious: about money (there can never be enough), about class (often a cover for racial difference), about taste (what if you can take the Asian out of Asia but you cannot take the Asia out of the Asian?), and about how Asians are seen by the world and by each other in the 21st century.
This dream of an Asian subject so impenetrably protected by wealth, so inculcated in faultless taste and beauty, so globally at ease, and so properly educated that he or she can go anywhere and not suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous racist discrimination accrues its most intense gratification under the assumption of universal anti-Asian racism. The movie offsets this bleak note by giving its (Asian/Asian-American) viewers the satisfactions of what Rey Chow calls “the ethnic detail”: conversational bits of Hokkienese, Cantonese, and Singlish; delectable shots of familiar street foods; lingering echoes of a pop song in Mandarin. There is a profound pleasure in all this recognition (even self-misrecognition is recognition) for an audience who rarely gets to see this much “Asianness” in the mainstream media. Let me remind us that in 2018 we witnessed the first play by an Asian-American woman playwright on Broadway, and it is called Straight White Men. And although Young Jean Lee’s brilliantly constructed play makes it acutely clear that we cannot think of that category without all that it excludes, the irony of this fact tells us much about the still dearth of opportunities for Asian-American writers, performers, and story lines.
But Crazy Rich Asian’s foundational compulsion to parse pedigrees (old versus new money, breeding versus tutelage, taste versus exhibition) also carries a particular racial cast from which it is difficult to escape. If the displays of internationalism and cosmopolitanism in both novel and film turn out to mean the mastery of Euro-American culture and style, it is because all the “real Asians” (that is, Asians outside of the United States) that we see in this film are postcolonial subjects. Amid the fascination with and prurience into this rarified class of “Singaporean royalty,” little is said about the colonial history that conditioned modern Singapore, even though residues of that legacy abound in the backdrop: in the Black and White Houses that now mark prestige for some very special Singaporeans, in the tony British accents sported by this parade of beautiful people, in the invisible money trail itself. The myth reiterated by the film about the “pure Chinese” who migrated to Singapore and singlehandedly transformed a jungle into a modern city, elides the fact that Singapore became an international center of trade and finance through the complicated collaboration of its upper class with the British, including profits from opium trade (between 1825 and 1910, opium constituted 30 to 50 percent of Singapore’s total revenue) and then later rubber plantations. The roots of old Singaporean wealth are thus deeply entwined with the colonial power that both used and looked down on them, what Homi Bhabha calls the ambivalence of colonial mimicry.
Since Kwan’s enormously popular novel first came out in 2013, two sequels have sprung out, not to mention a slew of novels by other authors jumping on the bandwagon of Singaporean rich and famous exposé. Many critics have noted, some with alarm and some with satisfaction, on what looks like an Asian-American author’s willingness to trade on Asian stereotypes. In 2017, The New York Times ran a review of Kwan’s sequel Rich People Problems with the title: “Satires of the Ultrarich, From One of Their Own.” If the object of a stereotype acts out the stereotype, is it internalized self-hatred or is it subversive satire?
We have been asking this unproductive question about racial stereotypes almost ever since the concept first entered public discourse — unproductive because the question enacts a false choice: either self-misrecognition (i.e., finding oneself through exoticization) or the recognition of one’s degraded state. To see the perpetuation of this either-or proposition, we only have to remember that perceptions of the Asian, especially the Chinese, in the United States has always bounced between the antinomies of idealization and denigration, two seemingly opposite poles that are in fact expressions of the same symptom. Celestial Being, Yellow Peril, Yellow Horde, Model Minority: the genealogy of the reception of Asians and people of Asian descent in the Euro-American imagination has always lubricated one or another. The other-worldliness of the Celestial Being enables that easy shift into the alien yellow horde; the praise of the Model Minority ensures compliance, erases inequalities (making invisible the fact that Asian Americans have replaced African Americans as the racial group with the highest income disparity in the country today), and isolates them from other racial minorities. The category of the “Crazy Rich Asian” (from now on C.R.A.) is an extension of the Model Minority without even the cover of a damning praise.
This vast history complicates Chu’s effort to make his film the new representational force of yellow voice on the world cinematic stage. The cast and crew are quick to point out to the press that that they left out some of the novel’s more disquieting assertions, such as, for example, the novel’s queasy confession that Asian men are not erotically desirable, even among Asians. Casting the handsome Henry Golding in the film as romantic lead is obviously meant to dispel that idea. But given that beauty has always been the defense of the fetishist and the fetishized alike, the fact that some members of the Asian-American community may be delighted or just plain relieved to see a pageant of extraordinarily good-looking Asian men on screen only serves to underscore the worry being erased.
Let me be clear: Chu’s film is not more enjoyable than the novel because it is more politically correct; it is appealing because it offers, however provisionally, an occasion for Asian unity, an “imagined community.” It also gives us at least some complex characters, characters with foibles and strengths, callousness and generosity, envy and desire. Social psychologist Susan Fiske has pointed out that society’s cultural stereotypes and prejudice depend on relationships of power and interdependence. Her extensive research data show that the American public consistently sees Asians as highly successful and intelligent but equally highly “cold,” that is, unlikable. This finding would not surprise many; yet few ask: why are “success” and “likability” the two vectors for assessing the perceptions of a whole racial category, itself reinforced rather than questioned?
From Flower Drum Song to Crazy Rich Asians: We remain in danger of what Toni Morrison calls “adjustment without improvement” in the American racial optic. Have we not yet learned that replacing a bad stereotype with a good one (while, yes, better than nothing) does very little to address the underlying logic of racism? Why do we ask so little of social transformation? If “Black is Beautiful” is an affirmation that speaks a world of hurt, then the path from F.O.B. to C.R.A. enacts the enduring melancholic euphoria of being Asian and Asian-hyphenated in the so-called new Asian Century.
Anne Anlin Cheng is professor of English and director of American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief and Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface.