New representation or new misrepresentation? Critical reflection of Crazy Rich Asians

by Siqiao Xie and Wei Li

Asians are super rich these days.
Asians can dance beyond what Bollywood has shown us.
Asian can throw lavish parties and exhibit crazy behaviors.
Asian Americans now have a film version of American princess Meagan Markle, in Rachel, both raised by a hard-working single mom.

Where did you get these ideas from? The acclaimed and popular Hollywood movie “Crazy Rich Asians” that topped the box office over 3 weeks[i], a movie produced with Asian cast and crew, filmed mostly in Asia and saturated with Asian elements that stands out in the midst of the heating debates over race and ethnic identity, nabbing two nominations in the recent Golden Globe award.

Crazy Rich Asians was well received among American audiences, of which almost 40% were Asian according to Warner’s president of domestic distribution. It was excitedly celebrated by Asian Americans as “Black Panther” was to African Americans: rooted in Asian culture, a milestone that marked the breakthrough of Asian representation in mainstream American culture. It was also well-embraced among mainstream US media, as it “takes a satisfying step forward for screen representation”[ii], “providing power of diversity” “Transcends race and stereotypes”[iii], and resonates with the “#representatiomatters” sentiment from “folks who look more like Constance Wu than Scarlett Johansson”[iv].

Yet three months after its premiere in North America, when Crazy Rich Asians landed in China, its box office miracle was soon turned into a disaster, earning only slightly over 3 million US dollars in a month comparing to its spectacular 219 million box office record in North America. The pedestrian box office record and mediocre reputation (rate 6/10 on Douban, Chinese version of Rotten Tomatoe) of Crazy Rich Asians in China marked a vivid contrast against its triumph in North America. As a Chinese international student and a Chinese American professor who has lived her life in both China (1st half) and the US (2nd half), we are somewhat surprised by the one-sided positive reviews since the film was released. This is in particular in comparison to the critiques from all sides of Yale professor Amy Chua’s 2011 book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (Penguin). The book “was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures and a fleeting taste of glory. ”[v] Don’t we see ‘a bitter clash of cultures and a fleeting taste of glory’ in the movie as well?

Despite the movie’s triumph, we consider this breakthrough of Asian representation in Hollywood, as the “model minority” portrait of Asian Americans more than half century ago, comes with perilous stereotyping and misrepresentation of Asians and Asian Americans. While the movie celebrates Asian representation, the geographical representation was rather myopic: only Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei and Shanghai, three “Asian tigers”, plus the likely most internationalized city of China, became the whole landscape of Asia. Moreover, the latter three cities are only used as backdrop to depict Nick’s three cousins: a gangster-like film investor, a nerd and a ‘dragon lady’, all of which stereotypical Asians.111Party scene in the Crazy Rich Asians, Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Fleeting, fragmented and stereotyped “Asian” elements were thrown together, creating a further distorted imagination of Asian cultural landscape: calligraphy and porcelain casually placed in luxurious mansions representing elite Asian family regardless of modesty, pool-side parties with classical Shanghai Bund hit songs reviving the gilded Night-Shanghai in Southeastern Asia. Sikhist guards and Filipino maids were depicted as the “human backgrounds”; guys were presented as cheating, irresponsible macaronis; girls were portrayed as gold-digging, gossiping IG models with plastic surgery; elder ladies were pictured as either family-centered and manipulative conservatives or arrogant big-mouths. Without thorough logical concern, through casual “Asian” layouts, cuts and embellishments, a stereotyped Asian geography with co-existing modernity and conservatives was pictured.

The divergence between Asian Americans and Asians further manifested through storyline and signified perilous cultural-imperialist discourse over Asians. Through the depiction of Rachael’s discomfort and unfittedness in both the Gatsby-alike Asian modernity and the strict, conservative Asian family, a picture in which the Asian American protagonist doesn’t fit Asia and needs to return to the cosmopolitan New Yorker life was painted. The mere moment when Rachael revealed a slight wishful desire for the big harmonious Asian family during the dumpling-making scene, was quickly disrupted by depicting dumpling-making as a forced family tradition. The brief mentioning of Rachael’s hardworking immigrant single mother, too, was quickly turned into a Hollywood-style drama: a private investigation found her a cheater and has lied to Rachel for her entire life.

At the typical Hollywood ending, when the two protagonists thrown a poolside engagement party, completing the last stage of their Asian carnival, the conservative mother nodded with confirmative smile towards the couple, recognizing the choices made by them. The center value of the movie thus took its shape: individual over family value, freedom of choice over cultural heritage, American over everything. Asian Americans could never move to Asia; on the contrary, by diverging from Asians lifestyle and value, Asian Americans could really assimilate into American identity recognition and group politics.

It is probably not surprising that mainstream film critics love this movie for its entertaining and exotic contents and the new (and perceivably) positive image of Asia and Asians. It is the first all Asian cast movie in 25 years targeting new Asians (the largest and fastest growing immigrant group in the past decade) and Asian Americans (largely well-educated and financially successful) with disposable income for movie industry. We are puzzled, however, by lack of critics among Asian Americans. The movie clearly extends the ‘model minority’ image of hard-working Asian Americans and immigrants who ‘made it’ in the US and the super-rich Asians from an awaken Asia who can ‘take jobs away from Americans’. Do these seemingly positive stereotypes make Asians/Asian Americans complacent with a superrich image to forget in- and cross-group diversity? Or further diverge across racial or class lines in facing college entrance, workplace glass ceiling, and everyday life in a divided America? Therefore, we are compelled to remind the readers of the histories and geographies of both Asians and Asian Americans, hope to convey this alternative response to the Crazy Rich Asians: we are Asians, just not the Asians in the movie. So do overwhelming majority of Asians and Asian Americans.


Box Office Mojo. “Crazy Rich Asians (2018).” Box Office Mojo. https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=main&id=crazyrichasians.htm.
ii Rotten Tomatoes. “Crazy Rich Asians.”  (2018) – Rotten Tomatoes. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/crazy_rich_asians/
iii Barnes, Brooks. 2018. “’Crazy Rich Asians’ Tops Box Office, Proving Power of Diversity (Again).” The New York Times. The New York Times. August 19, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/19/movies/crazy-rich-asians-box-office-no-1.html.
Chow, Andrew R. “‘This Story Transcends Race’: Kevin Kwan on the Appeal of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’.” The New York Times. August 19, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/19/movies/kevin-kwan-crazy-rich-asians.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article®ion=Footer.
iv Mendelson, Scott. 2018. “Box Office: Why ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Was Summer’s Least Surprising Blockbuster.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine. September 13, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2018/09/13/why-crazy-rich-asians-was-the-summers-least-surprising-sleeper-hit/#3010ab0372f0.
v Book blurb

 

Sijiao Xie is a Ph.D. student in geography at School of Geographic Science and Urban Planning, Arizona State University. He received his B.A degree in geography from the University of Washington, Seattle, and his M.Sc. in Urbanisation and Development from London School of Economics and Political Science. His main research interests are immigration, transnationalism, highly-skilled migration, Asian studies and urban China.

Wei Li received her geography B.S. and M.S. degrees in Beijing, China; and her Ph.D. in geography at the University of Southern California. She is a Professor at the Asian Pacific American Studies / School of Social Transformation, and School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning in the Arizona State University, USA. Her foci of research are immigration and integration, and transnational connections, focusing on the Pacific Rim. She is the author or [co-]editor of six scholarly books, two journal theme issues, and has 138 other academic publications. She was Vice Chair (2004-2010) and the Chair (2010-2012) of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Race and Ethnic Advisory Committees (REAC) on the Asian Population; is a member of the International Steering Committee for the International Metropolis Project since 2008; and the North American Director for the International Society of Studying Chinese Overseas (2010-2019).