Why “Crazy Rich Asians” Matters

by Hannah Hong Frelot

In college, one notable racial memory took place while watching Knocked Up with two white friends at their house. As the movie played I grew increasingly uncomfortable. While my white friends laughed at the harsh, strange portrayal of an East Asian doctor by Ken Jeong, I squirmed. By laughing at him, they were laughing at me.

Miley Cyrus and a group of white people mock Asians while sitting with an Asian man.

Miley Cyrus and a group of white people mock Asians while sitting with an Asian man.

Asians and people of color growing up in the US sometimes think, or wish, they were white. As a little Taiwanese-American girl growing up in the beachy forest of whiteness that is Normandy Park, I received a “Kira” (Asian Barbie) doll as a gift. I wanted nothing to do with her. Why do you think that is, that little kids of color want to be white? Context, context, context. I disavowed my Asianness because I had no reference point for my existence and the goodness of my identity. With a few exceptions, all my surroundings and media featured the white people as the best-looking, most desirable, and most worthy.

This image reflects my early childhood experiences and the experience of most Asian Americans I know. Thanks to Andy Le for finding this wonderful image.

This image reflects my early childhood experiences and the experience of most Asian Americans I know. Thanks to Andy Le for finding this wonderful image.

So, along comes a new film set in Asian-America that we have yet to see: Crazy Rich Asians. Hot on the heels of culturally-specific and three-dimensional representations in animation such as Moana and Coco, Crazy Rich Asians proves that Hollywood is listening to Asian-American resistance to racist whitewashing such as the “Ghost in the Shell” controversy, where a white woman was cast as the main character in a film adaptation of a Japanese anime.

The publishing world, beset with its racial diversity problem, has improved of late, and rather than being stuck with The Five Chinese Brothers, the kids’ book of my youth featuring smiling servile yellow queue-sporting ‘Chinamen,’ there are numerous authors such as my favorite Taiwanese-American author Grace Lin and others found here.

However, there are still very few fully fleshed-out Asian Pacific Islander American representations on well-known television and especially film. Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Rich Asians are but a drop in a (very white) bucket.

In discussing film representations, who’s behind the camera is often as important as who’s in front of it. The tokenism of any people of color in a white setting can be irksome and isolating. Another thing that excites me about Crazy Rich Asians film adaptation is that it features an Asian director (Jon M. Chu) and a plethora of Asian people in the rest of cast and crew.

I’m excited to support this film by seeing it in theaters and recommend that you do, too. US audiences vote with their dollar.

Speaking from personal experience, it is of utmost importance for children and young adults to see themselves represented. The more we support films featuring underrepresented communities such as API/Black/Indigenous/Middle Eastern/Mixed-Race*, the more we support these communities’ right to psychologically understand they exist, they matter, their stories matter. Storytelling, especially visual storytelling, is powerful.

If we want our kids to have empathy for other ethnic groups, they must be able to be curious about, to be in contact with the stories/food/culture of said ethnic groups. Parents can set a good example in this by consuming diverse media and culture themselves.

Being aware of groups outside our own as different but not better/worse than, is one way to achieve a modicum of psychic diversity in preparation for diversity in our everyday lives.

There is no perfect way to represent any people group. It is, as Ada Tseng writes, “[an] impossible task of having one story represent an entire community.” Because groups are made of individuals with their own intersections. And we have seen many times that if a Hollywood trope is successful, (South Asian clown guy who is the butt of jokes, East Asian hypersexualized female), it becomes a two-dimensional trope repeated in subsequent films with primarily white casts.

 Is “Crazy Rich Asians” going to be perfect? No. It’s a slice of life from the extremely broad, extremely heterogeneous swath of Asian Pacific Islander America. Hopefully the film will be successful enough to show Hollywood that America is ready to see us on the silver screen, highlighted in all different shades and types. The stories that we consume matters, they change us as people and as parents.

*Note that pale-skinned and/or historically wealthier communities such as East and South Asian-Americans have greater representation than darker-skinned and/or historically low-income communities--Filipino-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, and Pacific Islanders are the least represented ethnic groups with Pacific Islanders being almost invisible on TV.