“But why would I see it just because its cast is all Chinese?
– Xia’an, one-star Douban Reviewer
Crazy Rich Asians depicts how Chinese American Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) meets the ultra-rich and elite Singaporean-Chinese family of her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding). Complete with delectable Asian food and elements of Chinese culture, the film begins as a family visit and wedding for Nick’s best friend. However, it spirals into a cultural clash between Chinese American Rachel and Nick’s Singaporean Chinese mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).
Media outlets, celebrities, and movie-watchers have praised the film as a big step for Asian Americans—and diversity, in general—in Hollywood. The film is the first Hollywood movie to feature a majority Asian and Asian American cast since The Joy Luck Club (1993), and before that, Flower Drum Song (1961). In Chinese diasporic communities outside the US, like Taiwan and Singapore, Crazy Rich Asians has been a box-office hit. By November 2018, the film grossed over $173 million, making it the highest grossing romantic comedy in over ten years, and the sixth best-performing romantic comedy ever. According to Rotten Tomatoes, critics and general audiences have liked the movie, giving it a 92% approval rating.
The film’s progress for Asian and Asian American media representation raises the question of why it took 26 years to get to this point after The Joy Luck Club. And why is a blockbuster film with a cast like this an accomplishment at all?
Last semester I took a class, “Asian American History, 1800 to the Present”, taught by Yale professor and Timothy Dwight Head of College Mary Lui. In class we learned that one of the many ways that Asians have experienced marginalization in America is in the performing arts. Even before the rise of Hollywood films, Asian Americans faced a history of caricaturization and discrimination. Racialized portrayals of Asians appeared in yellowface minstrelsy as early as the second half of the 1800s. This type of acting consisted of white actors wearing yellow makeup and dressing as if they were Chinese. In attempting to embody “Chineseness,” white minstrel actors acted as if they ate dogs and rats, spent their days in opium dens, had long queues (a long braid of hair worn at the back by subjects of the Qing Dynasty), and spoke in pidgin English.
The rise of Hollywood brought about Chinese characters that represented Yellow Peril, the threat they posed to Western civilization. The archetypal yellowface character was Fu Manchu, a combination of the evil scientist trope and the dangerous Oriental. Other films, such as The Cheat (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919), emphasized that the evil represented by Asian immigrants could not be remedied by social assimilation nor sympathetic and noble behavior. Asian men were drug addicts and rapists. Asian women were sexualized as oriental dancers and prostitutes.
These images—which eventually became associated with all Asians—spread nationally in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Americans took these portrayals to be real representations of Asian people—especially the Chinese. Even if Asians managed to land an acting part, these were the roles they played. For example, Anna May Wong, a Chinese American actress, only broke through as a celebrity after starring in the Thief of Baghdad (1924) as a Mongol slave girl, and Shanghai Express (1932) as a Chinese flapper. But more often, the best roles for Asians and Asian Americans were background roles around a yellowface white actor. At worst, they couldn’t play any characters at all, as white actors put on yellowface and took their place.
This problem of Asian American representation and caricaturization continues in Hollywood today as a phenomenon known as whitewashing. This is a practice of casting white actors in non-white character roles, and contemporary instances abound. In Aloha (2015) Emma Stone—an actress of Swedish, German, and Anglican ancestry—played a character of one quarter Chinese and one quarter Hawaiian descent. (Sandra Oh made this casting choice the butt of one of her jokes at the 2019 Golden Globes, saying Crazy Rich Asians was the first Asian American-led film since Aloha.) Scarlett Johansson played the lead role in Ghost in the Shell, a 2017 film based on an eponymous Japanese manga.
Therefore, Asian Americans landing roles as Asian characters is already rare enough when, according to a 2014 study by the University of Southern California, Asian characters composed a meager 5.3% of roles in 2014’s top 100 grossing films. This is the reason that Crazy Rich Asians’ majority Asian cast is such a radical move for diversity, the movie’s proponents argue. Gemma Chan, who plays Astrid, spoke to the New York Times for an article titled “What Being in ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Means to the Movie’s Stars.” Chan said being a part of Crazy Rich Asians, “Made me realize how often I’ve been the only person of color, and certainly the only Asian actor, on a film or TV set.”
Crazy Rich Asians also serves as progress for Asian American media representation for the roles that the Asian actors play. In the movie’s opening scene, the Young family uses its own connections and wealth to buy the Calthorpe Hotel after the receptionist initially rejects them and tells them to try finding hotels in Chinatown. Wu plays an economics professor at New York University. Chan plays a successful benefactress. These roles contrast with those to which Asians, or even white actors playing Asian characters, were confined to in early Hollywood.
However, responses from mainland viewers haven’t been so warm. Before Crazy Rich Asians was released in China on November 30, Chinese web netizens had already thoroughly discussed the movie in the recesses of the Internet. By that time, posts containing a hashtag of the movie (＃摘金奇缘, or gold-digging unexpected romance as translated by Pleco, a popular translation app) had been viewed over 8 million times on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent. In August, a reviewer under the alias “Durian Cake Brother” compared the film to General Tso’s Chicken: unauthentic. Durian Cake Brother lamented that the movie was only nominally about Asians. Crazy Rich Asians, the user said, merely caters to American audiences by reflecting the “American spirit.” He also acknowledges people as rich as Nick Young live in Singapore, but the movie does not represent all Singaporean Chinese, much less all Singaporeans. Rather, it reflects how Americans misunderstand people in Asia.
Durian Cake Brother is not alone. On Douban, China’s IMDB, the film enjoys a meager 6.2/10. Though the revenue statistics are uncertain, negative reviews and comments on Douban and Weibo are crystal clear. Some Chinese netizens commented on how the film reflected Asian American culture more accurately than that of traditional China. Others attacked it for a lack of originality. For instance, another Douban reviewer named Xia’an hadn’t even watch the movie at the time of writing her review but saw material about it on WeChat. In her one-star critique, she claims the movie was just a “rags-to-riches Cinderella story.” She asserts that the movie aims to “flaunt wealth” and “worship money.” This aligns with the viewpoint of Philip J. Cunningham, who wrote a scathing review for the film in China Daily, the Chinese state-run, English-language newspaper. He commented that Crazy Rich Asians fails to display real “Chineseness.” Instead, it just takes advantage of Singapore’s travel destinations as exotic and adds Oriental touches to a white American film. The movie, Cunningham writes, is produced with such glamor and excess that it is more reverential—rather than critical—of Asia’s high society.
This discrepancy between Chinese and American audiences poses a challenge for Hollywood producers, as Chinese audiences are becoming a greater source of revenue. In the first four months of 2018, the Chinese film market overtook North America’s for the first time, according to a report from the South China Morning Post. Charles Rivkin, the chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, noted that China is “building about 25 [movie theater] screens a day,” while the American and Canadian movie markets are reaching record lows. Because of potential profits, as well as competition to be one of the 34 imported films a year, Hollywood producers have more incentive than ever to appeal to Chinese audiences and officials.
However, though the movie includes actors of Chinese descent, a Chinese soundtrack, and scenes in which the characters make dumplings, the producers were unsure whether the film would even premiere on the mainland. China limits the number of imported films to 34 each year. In its article “‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Has Soared, but It May Not Fly in China,” the New York Times quoted Stanley Rosen, a professor in Chinese culture and society at the University of Southern California. Rosen stated that only foreign films either obsequious to China or make China look good are imported. Instead, Crazy Rich Asians’ depictions of exorbitant spending and wealth inequality contradict Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption measures and push for stricter government control and the socialist values reminiscent of the Mao era.
Entrance into mainland theaters isn’t enough to become a hit. The film was eventually released in China on November 30, 2018, where it earned a mere $1.2 million and reached the eighth spot in the Chinese box office. Chinese and American—even Chinese American—audiences have different tastes that producers must reconcile. In the past, movie-watchers in mainland China have scorned Hollywood films for trying too hard to pander to them and their perceived tastes. This includes trying too hard to include elements of Chinese culture irrelevant to the movie as a whole, or filling insignificant roles with Chinese actors just for the sake of having Chinese people on screen. Crazy Rich Asians’ breakthrough for diversity in Hollywood might not have been so significant in the mainland, where many of the movies already feature Chinese actors. For instance, Douban reviewer Xia’an also questioned whether a cast of Chinese-diasporic actors has any intrinsic value.
But a deeper reason behind the film’s poor reception in China may be that Crazy Rich Asians pointed to Chinese societal issues that Asian Americans might be less sensitive to: the lives of China’s detested fuerdai. Fuerdai (富二代）means “rich second generation”, and refers to the children of the millionaires and billionaires that rode the wave of China’s rapid economic development since 1978. In China fuerdai is used as a derogatory term, as many people disapprove of how fuerdai seemingly take their wealth for granted.
The formation of an ultra-rich, second generation of Chinese kids that has incited an entire country’s scorn is a product of China’s history. After Deng Xiaoping initiated China’s Open Door Policy in 1978, China’s economy developed at an unprecedented speed. China’s economy and society became much more capitalist and less about unified socialist glory. This set China on the path to become the second largest economy, but also created immense income and wealth inequality. The business developers that succeeded throughout China’s economic progress at the end of the twentieth century now have children of their own. This generation faces the question of how to spend its time and endless coffers of money. Nonprofits like the Relay China Elite Association even teach fuerdai how to carry on their family businesses so that the fuerdai gain a sense of purpose and don’t waste their days away. However, fuerdai and their antics have come to represent China’s recent history of economic inequality and corruption. Criticism directed at fuerdai explodes online, where the whole country is connected by various social media sites like WeChat and Weibo.
In September 2015, Bloomberg Businessweek published a feature on the scandals caused by the second-generation rich, titled “Children of the Yuan Percent: Everyone Hates China’s Rich Kids.” Fuerdai have set fire to piles of 100 yuan ($16) bills, posted pictures of them online next to their Lamborghinis, and crashed their Ferraris on the street. The son of Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man at the time, caused a national outrage after posting a picture of his dog wearing two gold Apple Watches. Many Chinese view these materialistic and decadent millennials as a national embarrassment. Businessweek quoted China’s United Work Front Department, saying “They [fuerdai] know only how to show off their wealth but don’t know how to create wealth.” This generation even forms the basis of the rich Asian international college student trope, as some of them attend American or Australian universities and become the subject of university memes.
Though Douban reviews do not explicitly connect fuerdai with the characters in Crazy Rich Asians, the language used to criticize both is the same. The comparison is not unfounded. Characters reminiscent of fuerdai, as well as elements of their flashy lifestyle, abound in Crazy Rich Asians. The Youngs have luxurious bachelor and bachelorette parties. They live in mansions grander than those in Greenwich, CT and Newport, RI. They ride sports cars through the highways of Singapore, car hoods down and all. One Douban reviewer claimed that the nerdy stereotype of an Asian doing math was a better image than what Crazy Rich Asians displayed.
But unlike Chinese audiences, Americans do not quite have a fuerdai equivalent. People mock Kim Kardashian for having a lavish wedding only to divorce Kris Humphries after 72 days—or for almost anything the family does on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. But the American public does not go as far as to say they’re a national disgrace and a product of the country’s uneven economic development. And unlike in China, the United States government does not scorn nor keep close watch on the Kardashians or similar celebrities. However, Businessweek noted that the Chinese government itself views fuerdai as a national concern. Xi Jinping called on fuerdai to “think about the source of their wealth and how to behave after becoming affluent.” Though the Communist Party’s anti-corruption campaign has decreased excessive displays of wealth, fuerdai still strike a negative chord amongst the Chinese people.
However, regardless of Chinese inequality, the question of whether Hollywood producers can reconcile both Chinese and American tastes still stands. How can American producers predict success if a movie that incited pride amongst the Asian diaspora flopped in the mainland because of a supposed lack of authenticity? Does the Chinese market have space for Hollywood movies if American films with all Asian and Asian-American casts can’t even succeed? According to the New York Times’ article “‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Has Soared, But It May Not Fly in China,” filmmakers should not lose hope. In Crazy Rich Asians, both Chinese and Chinese diasporic audiences enjoyed certain cross-cultural elements. VAVA, a Chinese rapper, reached new levels of exposure and popularity after her song “我的新衣” (“My New Swag”) was included in the movie’s soundtrack. She is one of the many Chinese hip-hop artists who are becoming popular inside and outside of the mainland. But, will the inclusion of similar pop culture elements be enough to please both audiences in the future? Only until more Hollywood movies manage to enter China’s film market will we find out.
Nathan Chang can be contacted at email@example.com.