One Way That Crazy Rich Asians Is a Step Backward

Despite its groundbreaking nature, the film also takes care to represent its characters according to white norms.

A dinner-table scene from 'Crazy Rich Asians'
Ken Jeong as Wye Mun, Constance Wu as Rachel, and Awkwafina as Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians (Sanja Bucko / Warner Bros.)

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic, The Great Gatsby, the transformation of the working-class Jimmy Gatz into the upper-crust socialite Jay Gatsby is made possible through the assimilating veneer of decadence. Behind his impeccably tailored suits and grandiose parties, Gatsby masks his ambiguous ethnic origins, playing the part of an old-money Anglo-American elite to ultimately tragic results.

Watching the gauche opulence on display in Crazy Rich Asians, it’s hard not to think of Fitzgerald’s musings on the perils of conspicuous consumption. The new film (adapted from the 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan) follows the Chinese American professor Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu) as she’s whisked away into the world of Singapore’s 1 percent to meet the family of her billionaire boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding). Replete with money shots of multimillion-dollar estates, super-yacht bachelor parties, and skyscraper-rooftop pools, the film flirts with messages about privilege, immigrant striving, and the disconnect between Asians and Asian Americans—before ultimately abandoning such ideas for a fairy-tale ending that cements the movie as a celebratory work of affluence-porn.

Just as Gatsby’s soirées marked his ascendance to the stage of Long Island’s upper class, the extravagance of Crazy Rich Asians reflects a self-conscious announcement of the Asian American arrival on the Hollywood stage. Heralded as the first major American studio film to feature a majority-Asian cast in a contemporary setting since The Joy Luck Club nearly 25 years ago, Crazy Rich Asians has been met with impossible expectations: If this film flops, audiences are told, who knows how long Asian Americans may have to wait for another shot at the spotlight.

That pressure may have lessened after high audience turnout and celebrity theater buyouts helped the movie successfully rake in $34 million in its first five days. And while the film’s defenders have admonished critics for expecting one work to fill the cultural void left by decades of Hollywood exclusion, it’s noteworthy that this is the sort of story that industry advocates and audiences have coalesced around—one that eases collective anxieties about Asian and Asian American difference by adopting the universal aesthetic of the ultra-rich.

Though it has been trumpeted as a landmark victory in the fight for Asian American visibility in Hollywood, Crazy Rich Asians enacts a remarkable disavowal of certain forms of Asian representation. In one notable scene, Goh Wye Mun (Ken Jeong) plays up an affected Chinese accent, repeating Rachel’s surname until it devolves into a parody of the “ching-chong” stereotypes of Hollywood’s past. Then, the payoff: “Just kidding,” Wye Mun says in an assuredly American accent: “I went to Cal State Fullerton.” The scene stands in for the prevailing spirit of the film: We’re not those kinds of Asians. Gone are the “Oriental” accents and broken English, replaced with the sophisticated air of Golding’s British tongue, Wye Mun’s familiar all-American vernacular, and Goh Peik Lin’s (Nora Lum a.k.a. Awkwafina) contrived “blaccent.”

Later in the same scene, Wye Mun scolds his young daughters to finish their chicken nuggets: “There’s a lot of children starving in America.” The barb—which turns a classic white American parent’s chiding on its head—drew raucous laughter from the mostly Asian audience at the screening I attended. But the punch line also rejects the “wrong” kind of Asians. Look, the joke seems to say, we’re not the third-world farmers or factory workers you might have imagined. We’re just as good as you. Or, more accurately: We’re better—and richer.

Despite the film’s all-Asian cast, and Kwan’s refusal to accept industry suggestions to cast Rachel as a white woman, Wye Mun’s jab suggests that white, Western expectations still cast a long shadow over the movie. Take the opening scene, whose drama hinges on Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) triumphantly distinguishing herself—in the eyes of a white hotel manager—from the kind of Chinese who might stay in London’s Chinatown. While viewers are compelled to cheer these moments as subversive, such scenes stage a certain kind of respectability politics for a presumed white audience (or, these moments assure Asian American viewers that they are, in fact, the “right” kind of Asians).

But it’s unfair to single out Crazy Rich Asians for its apparent concern with white standards of respectability. The arguable crowning of media representation as the defining Asian American issue points to some deep concerns about how we are perceived. While many speak of the legitimate importance of seeing people who look like themselves on-screen, the investment in mainstream depictions in particular—often to the marginalization of a thriving Asian American indie-film circuit—implies a preoccupation with not only (or even primarily) how Asian Americans see ourselves, but also how others see us.

Ronny Chieng as Eddie, Jimmy O. Yang as Bernard, Chris Pang as Colin, Remy Hii as Alistair, and Henry Golding as Nick in Crazy Rich Asians.(Warner Bros.)

Like the wider fight for diverse representation, Crazy Rich Asians struggles with the conflicting pursuit of a universalism that “transcends race” and a specificity that reflects Asian and Asian American lived experiences. More often than not, it errs toward the former. While the film’s many Chinese-Singaporean cultural details are heartwarming and refreshing—wrapping dumplings at the family table, a climactic conversation over mahjong—at times they feel oddly tacked on, almost ornamental to an otherwise westernized story. In fact, the director Jon M. Chu has been forthright about his desire for the film to transpose Asian faces onto a quintessentially Hollywood—which is to say, white American—story. In an interview with IndieWire, Chu said he wanted the movie to convey “this idea that old, classic, Hollywood movies could have starred Asians with just as much style, just as much pizzazz.” It’s no surprise, then, that the film drips with an art-deco aesthetic, nodding to American cinema’s black-and-white days with one party scene—which rivals Gatsby’s finest—where women in flapper fashion swing and twirl to a Singaporean jazz band.

Chu’s approach implies a fungibility between white and Asian faces that attests to a broader consensus about how Asian Americans should be portrayed in mainstream pop culture. If the pernicious Hollywood trends of whitewashing and yellowface have positioned white actors as fit for Asian and Asian American roles, the dominant corrective has been to propose that Asian and Asian American actors are fit for roles traditionally played by white people. It’s a thesis that’s been visually achieved through the viral hashtags #StarringJohnCho and #StarringConstanceWu, in which the digital strategist William Yu and other Twitter users employed Photoshop (and later deepfake) to place the likenesses of Cho and Wu on the bodies of the stars of blockbusters like Captain America and Ghost in the Shell.

But what happens to culturally specific storytelling when representation means literally swapping Asian faces onto white bodies? Aneesh Chaganty, the co-writer and director of the upcoming film Searching (actually starring John Cho), recently echoed this ostensible goal of Asian American storytelling sans Asian American specificity: “For so long, identity has to be justified in a narrative. You always have to explain why, especially when you’re casting anybody who isn’t white in a movie. There has to be this element explaining what the Asian American hook is. In our movie, there’s no justifying it. We are trying to not make it an issue. That’s the victory to us.”

Chaganty’s critique of the way whiteness is so often conflated with objectivity in storytelling is admirable. But it runs the risk of expanding whiteness as the default by expecting Asian Americans and other people of color to abide by its cultural norms so as to not make race “an issue.” When confined to a politics of respectability, calls for diversity in the mainstream often end up not representing difference and complexity, but proving sameness. While the unfortunate Roseanne reboot drew criticisms for a joke in which Rosanne reduces the diversifying ABC lineup of Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat with a pithy summary, “They’re just like us. There, now you’re all caught up”—she has a point. The latter show has been excoriated by its own creator, Eddie Huang (who himself has faced criticisms for cultural appropriation and misogyny), who called the show “pasteurized network television with East Asian faces” that pacified potentially skeptical white viewers by saying “we’re all the same.”

Given the context, it’s ironic but not particularly surprising that Crazy Rich Asians at times embraces a message of white-Asian equivalence by distancing itself from the “wrong” kind of Asians. If the film puts Asian America in the spotlight, it does so for a very slim portion of that demographic. While the cast includes a mix of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean diaspora actors of various nationalities, besides Golding (who is of Iban descent) it effectively excludes South and Southeast Asians despite their deep presence in Singaporean society. Indeed, as many have pointed out, the only South Asians that viewers can glimpse are in the roles of servants and guards. The scene in which Rachel and Peik Lin drive up to the Youngs’ remote estate and are shocked by the sight of two turbaned, South Asian guards—armed with what appear to be bayonets, no less—seems a particularly apt metaphor for the brand of Asian American representation Crazy Rich Asians provides: one in which too many are left on the outside, looking in.

The film’s glamorization of Chinese-Singaporean wealth is particularly troubling given the country’s own racial inequalities, which the Singaporean writer and activist Sangeetha Thanapal describes as a system of “Chinese Privilege.” To the extent that the movie’s almost comically decadent style is an attempt to satirize these privileges, such efforts are undermined by its script. Explaining the Young family’s old-money origins, Peik Lin tells Rachel that when Nick’s ancestors settled in Singapore in the 1800s, the country was nothing but “jungle and pig farmers.” The line is played for laughs, but its colonial mentality betrays the film’s inability to imagine Asian and Asian American grandeur beyond simply swapping Chinese for whites at the top of the racial hierarchy.

Similarly, Awkwafina’s on-and-off “blaccent” as Peik Lin stands out in a film light on Asian accents, especially “Singlish” Singaporean ones. In a world of upper-crust East Asians, Lum’s approximation of the “sassy black friend” trope exploits blackness for cheap laughs—implicitly aligning Asians (or at least the crazy-rich ones) with white people. Indeed, in a political climate in which Asian Americans are often leveraged as a minority “wedge” on racial-justice issues, the film at times confirms rather than dislodges troubling conservative American aspirations toward a white-Asian alliance.

Like the Roaring Twenties of Jay Gatsby’s heyday, Crazy Rich Asians arrives in a moment of brewing fears among white Americans about a coming “majority-minority” country. It’s an identity crisis in which Asian Americans figure in a liminal position: both perpetual foreigners and “honorary whites.” If the pursuit of “all-American” Asian representation is seen as a necessary corrective to long-standing stereotypes of Asian foreignness, the respectability politics of Crazy Rich Asians are a reminder that it’s the latter trope that may end up inadvertently entrenched.