BY CHRISTINE XIAO ’21
“Crazy Rich Asians” has been making waves in Hollywood thanks to its historically significant all-Asian cast and its strong box-office performance, but perhaps the most important result of this film has been its impact on the Asian-American community.
In 1993, Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club,” which depicts the experiences of Chinese mothers and their American daughters, opened as the first Hollywood movie to feature an all-Asian cast. This level of representation has not been repeated in a major motion picture in 25 years. Instead of falling prey to the typical stereotypes of the Asian-American experience, “The Joy Luck Club” sought to connect multiple generations within the community. While there has been an increase in Asian-American representation in film in the past quarter of a century, including shows like “Master of None” and “Fresh off the Boat,” “Crazy Rich Asians” is the first film to follow in its footsteps in terms of national visibility.
Melody Yin ’20, a Chinese-American student, never quite felt included in popular media. “I rarely see myself represented in Hollywood movies,” she said. “Growing up, I don’t think I had one particular person or character to relate to.”
Over the decades, Asian-Americans have consistently faced many barriers in Hollywood, which prevented them from being cast as lead roles, including discrimination and lack of roles in mainstream media. For example, famous actress Chloe Wang, who changed her last name to Bennet, found that anglicizing her name opened more casting opportunities in Hollywood to her.
Entertainment industries often rely on stereotypical portrayals of Asian-Americans as nerdy and socially awkward, masters of martial arts or helicopter parents. However, unlike many movies that fall into such stereotypical traps, “Crazy Rich Asians” develops more nuanced characters: traditional Chinese mothers who always put family first, an independent Asian-American girlfriend who believes in freedom and true love and a strong woman who finally realizes she doesn’t have to lower herself to satisfy her husband. The movie portrays the tensions between traditional Chinese families with more Western values. In comparison to “Doctor Strange,” in which a white woman, Tilda Swinton, plays The Ancient One (a character drawn as an Asian man in the original comics), “Crazy Rich Asians” mindfully avoided whitewashing critical Chinese characters. In fact, Hollywood intended to whitewash “Crazy Rich Asians,” but Kevin Kwan, the author of the book the movie was based on, resisted. “They missed the point completely,” Kwan told Entertainment Weekly.
When Asian-Americans are included in Hollywood, there are rarely distinctions drawn between different nationalities and the differing experiences of Asians and Asian-Americans. Constance Wu, the star of “Crazy Rich Asians,” has seen her fellow artists of varied nationalities pigeonholed under the umbrella of “Asian” without regard to nationality. “Obviously, Korean is different than Chinese, which is different from Vietnamese culture,” Wu told TIME, “But the way the [American] culture has treated us is a point that we can probably find some common ground on.”
The relationship between the Asian- American character, Rachel Chu, and her fiancé Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young, represents the differences between Asians raised in an American culture and those with no hyphenated experience. American children born with Asian faces can question their identities and struggle to belong to one group or another as they grow up. As Rachel prepares to travel to Singapore with Nick, her mother warns her that his family may not accept her because even though she looks Chinese and speaks Mandarin, inside she is American. Throughout much of the movie her mother’s warning plays out, with Eleanor Young looking for any misstep from Rachel and questioning her ability to truly integrate into the structure of a traditional Chinese family. Yin faced similar issues during her semester abroad in China, which she described as “living in the hyphen.” “Despite growing up with immigrant parents you feel [like] you’re American on [the] inside,” she said.“But then people don’t perceive you to be that way.”
In the 25 years since the debut of “The Joy Luck Club,” the film became well-known for its groundbreaking significance, but also for the sharp criticisms it received from its own community, including exclusively depicting Asian men as irresponsible. In many ways the only source of Asian-American representation in Hollywood, it has been overburdened with too many eyes looking to see themselves inside of it. “Crazy Rich Asians” has begun to see similar criticism. “[This movie] is only one story and it definitely cannot represent everyone,” responded Wu. “However, if we do one and we do it really well, they will make more.”