Singaporediversity

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ shines no spotlight on Asia’s darker skins

A win for under-represented Asians in the US, the hit movie promotes no diversity at home: It focuses on Singapore’s most over-represented ethnicity

August 26, 2018 5:08 PM (UTC+8)
The other side of Singapore – Hindus celebrate the Thaipusam festival in the Little India district. The words to the national anthem are in Malay, but the majority of the population are ethnic Chinese. Photo:/Roslan Rahman

The movie’s been taking the film industry by storm since its release earlier this month – and for good reason. Crazy Rich Asians is being seen as the breakout vehicle for Asian-Americans – that primly successful but un-cool “model minority” that has been customarily under-represented in Hollywood.

The rom-com, based on the novel of the same name by Singaporean-born American Kevin Kwan, follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American, who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend Nicholas Young (Henry Golding) to attend his best friend’s wedding.

The film has branded itself as the first Hollywood film to cast Asians in every role since Joy Luck Club in 1993. It has achieved a rare triple whammy. It has been a resounding success at the box office, raking in US$34 million on its opening day. It has also enjoyed a towering profile in the media, social media and US talk shows.

And it has won a solid critical reception, with a 92% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. As such, it has become the trumpet song for Asian representation in Hollywood  – “a pipe dream come true,” “a historic moment for Asian Americans,” with Wu even gracing the cover of the August issue of TIME.

All this indicates a huge, untapped desire to experience Asian stories and characters in Hollywood. Hence, many Asian-Americans hope, this film is only the beginning.

“We can sugarcoat it all we want, but the moment you bring up an Asian-led movie, there’s one example to point to, and that’ll be us,” Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M Chu told the Hollywood Reporter. “To be on the biggest stage with the biggest stakes, that’s what we asked for.”

But while it may be a win for Asian-American media representation, it looks rather different in the context of Singapore – where the film is largely set.

A powerful majority

In the Southeast Asian island nation set between Malaysia and Indonesia, ethnic Chinese are the majority demographically, and – unlike in their surrounding states – the wielders of political power. In 2016, 76.1% of Singaporeans reported that they were of Chinese heritage.

Every prime minister has been ethnic Chinese, the first being the late Lee Kuan Yew from 1959 to 1990; the current prime minister, since 2005, is his son Lee Hsien Loong.

Singapore is already “crazy rich,” enjoying the fourth highest per capita GDP in the world. In a Forbes report, Singapore was called the “Asia Pacific center for private banking” with a slated 180,000 millionaires in 2018 – one in every 36 people in the population.

While the applause resounds loudly across the Pacific, a success for American racial and social politics does not necessarily translate to Southeast Asia.

Singaporean Chinese do not have the same need to be represented in Singapore that Asian Americans do in the United States. In the island-state, a movie about rich ethnic Chinese does not catapult a minority from the shadows to the spotlight, it grants people who are already at the top of the food chain even greater visibility.

Put another way: In the US, ethnic East Asians are an under-represented minority. In Singapore, they are far and away the most powerful majority.

Ethnic Chinese dominate mainstream media and pop culture in Singapore, playing all sorts of characters in TV shows, ranging from the down-and-out hawker seller, the loan shark, the business man, the restaurant owner – not only beautiful Asian-American people vying for love.

The 7pm and 9pm Mandarin serials on Channel 8 are always national sensations; the ethnic Chinese actors and actresses are household names.

The Singaporeans who need more media representation are overlooked in the film. Singapore is a multiracial country of Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians. Instead of recognizing this diversity, Singapore is portrayed as a metropolis for wealthy Chinese, with other races as a backdrop, serving the only “Asian” population that is recognizable in Hollywood.

No spotlight for dark skins

This is overlooked in US coverage. In The Washington Post Allyson Chiu reported that ”Asian men have long been perceived as less attractive and desirable compared to men of other races” and “the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ movie could help change stereotypes about Asian men.”

Perhaps – except that the male lead is half-Asian. Henry Golding, who plays Nick Young, is technically British-Malaysian. In Singapore, Golding would be regarded as not Chinese but “Eurasian,” the latter being one of the four main demographic groups.

So while America applauds this cast for being more Asian than anything Hollywood has seen in years, Singaporeans do not reach the same conclusions about the ethnicities represented.

Chiu goes on: “I developed an attachment to Rachel’s character long before I even knew there was going to be a movie. Not only is she a rare Asian American female protagonist, her character is complex. She’s multi-dimensional and embodies a host of relatable Chinese and American traits. She’s real, not some caricature, and in this film, she’s the star.”

This may be a reasonable Asian-American response. But the real Singapore – one Chiu may not have experienced or looked for – is fair-skinned and dark-skinned. It speaks English as well as Singlish – a Singaporean creole – Chinese, Hokkien, Malay and Tamil.

Train stations announce that the door is closing in multiple languages. Singaporeans do not all look like the typical light-skinned Asian American, raising questions as to whether this film should be the prime example of fair representation for Asian Americans.

Alfian Sa’at, one of Singapore’s most prolific authors, noted the same in a Facebook post. He shared a screenshot of the movie’s trailer, highlighting a scene where dark-skinned, ethnic South Asian guards stand on the sidelines and open doors, while the East Asian main cast takes the centre stage.

Sa’at even went so far as to write: “Crazy Rich EAST Asians and their brown backdrop people.”

An already biased narrative

Kwan, the author of the book, should be held to high standards – for he is no outsider. Though US-based now, he was Singapore-born and educated – albeit, he appears unable to return to Singapore, where he dodged mandatory national service – and described his novel as a “love letter to Singapore.”

If he truly wishes to engage with his home and home audience, he must represent Singapore in a more nuanced way, instead of capitalizing on the image of Singapore as seen by Westerners and international media as a wealthy technological metropolis.

If he did, he would have given Singaporeans more reason to celebrate his work and relate the faces they see on screen with the people they see on the streets. And it would be beautiful.

Singapore already suffers from a single story being told about it in Western media. While Crazy Rich Asians offers a great opportunity for Asian-American actors, writers and directors to grab the spotlight, this film is more powerful in the American rather than the Singaporean, context.

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