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Let the Tanhua Bloom 曇花再現

When I moderated Kevin Kwan’s book talk for China Rich Girlfriend at a Hong Kong literary event in 2015, the Singaporean-American author was in the process of casting for the Hollywood adaptation of his first book.

Three years later, Crazy Rich Asians the movie—a cross between Cinderella, Pride and Prejudice and The Bachelor—is a runaway hit in North America. The romantic comedy topped the U.S. weekend box office in its opening week and proved to Hollywood studios that a film featuring an all-Asian cast can be just as bankable. 

It’s finally here

For Asian audiences everywhere, CRA is more than a feel-good summer blockbuster. It is the coming out party a long time coming. If the people we see on the big screen look cool and sassy, we feel we all do. But god forbid if they come off as dorky or lame, we all do too.

It’s not just the moviegoers who get the jitters. The same is true for actors, directors, screenwriters, and novelists of Asian descent. Whether CRA is a hit or a flop may jumpstart or cut short the careers of many creative people in the U.S. and beyond. There is tremendous pressure on that once-in-a-generation breakout film to succeed and do all of us proud. 

So much is riding on a single film that many of us, especially those who have lived through the ethnic minority experience in the West, are walking into the cinema with sweaty palms and a hear-the-sound-of-your-own-voice cringe. The Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen calls this the “narrative scarcity”: the absence of characters who look like us is what makes CRA a make-or-break moment for an entire ethnic group.

It shouldn’t be this way, of course, but the under-representation of Asians in the American pop culture is an indisputable fact of life. Nowhere is this reality more biting than in Hollywood, where Asian lead roles are as rare as a tanhua (曇花) bloom—an important reference in CRA that also finds relevance in describing the lack of diversity in Tinseltown. 

And when the elusive flower of an Asian lead role does come along, the opportunity is often given to white actors. We don’t need to go as far back as Mickey Rooney’s abomination as a buck-toothed Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Recent examples include Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell and Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange

The notion that a non-white actor or actress cannot carry a movie is not unique to any one ethnic minority group (think: #OscarsSoWhite), but the crime of “Hollywood whitewashing” is more rampant and perpetuated with fewer qualms when it comes to Asian-Americans and perhaps Asians in general.

According to a University of Southern California study, only one in twenty speaking roles and less than 1% of lead roles go to Asians. The last time Hollywood put an all-Asian cast on the silver screen was Wayne Wong’s Joy Luck Club twenty-five years ago—unless you count Disney anime Mulan in 1998 or Wong’s less successful Snow Flower and the Secret Fan produced by a Chinese media company in 2011. 

The invisible minority

It was against that cultural backdrop that CRA hit cinemas earlier this month and reignited a longstanding debate over the bamboo ceiling in Hollywood. Social media has been abuzz with good wishes for the film and heartfelt commentaries on what it means to finally see Asian leads locked in arms on a movie poster. 

Like many others, I walked into the theatre with a bit of that we-all-succeed-and-fail-together apprehension, but there were excitement and pride above all. 

For one thing, I had read Kwan’s trilogy and was confident that the movie adaptation would be just as entertaining. It would join the ranks of Bridesmaids and the first Sex and the City in the pantheon of guilty pleasure rom-coms. Already, the film has been certified 93% fresh by Rotten Tomatoes. Even the normally high-brow New York Times proffered a positive review, praising its “allure of endless luxury and dynastic authority”.

For another thing, it made my heart pound to see Kwan’s name splatter across the big screen during the opening credits. To have a fellow Asian writer recognized in enormous 3D font type is as much a validation of our craft as it is evidence that another crack has been made at the bamboo ceiling in publishing and filmmaking. 

Throughout the 120-minute epic, two thoughts kept churning in my head. The first was that if director Jon M. Chu could make Singapore look this glamorous and exciting, then imagine what he and other Hollywood directors could do for Hong Kong. 

After all, there is no shortage of super-rich people in the Fragrant Harbor. The city has long given new meaning to the Japanese word “tycoon” with magnates like Robert Hotung and Li Ka-shing. More importantly, Hong Kong offers a menagerie of characters in all shapes and forms. With its Triad-run underworld, drama-filled politics and see-it-to-believe-it property market, there is virtually endless material for any movie genre from romance to action thrillers and horror—especially horror. 

My second thought was more personal. For the first time ever, I saw Asian men being portrayed in Hollywood (if they are portrayed at all) not as some goofy, tongue-tied and one-dimensional extras—often added to the script as an afterthought for cheap comic relief. Instead, people who look like me in CRA were charismatic, vocal and nuanced. 

More critically, the movie has allowed Asian men to reclaim their sexuality. Male characters like the wealthy scion Nick Young and his male posse were sexy and not afraid to flaunt it. Even the gratuitous shower scene—normally reserved for the female lead—went to Singapore actor Pierre Png, who played a self-starting but flawed married man. 

That is a far cry from the long line of emasculated Asian males in Hollywood. In the 2000 action flick Romeo Must Die, Jet Li and Aaliyah were presumably in love but Li never even got to first base. For the first six seasons of the popular sitcom Big Bang Theory, the Asian male character Rajesh Koothrappali suffered from an anxiety disorder that rendered him mute in the presence of the opposite sex. 

And so when I saw the likes of Henry Golding, Chris Pang and Remy Hii being celebrated as objects of desire, the sense of affirmation and redemption nearly moved me to tears. The “hell yes!” moment reminded me of the way some women cried during the famous no-man’s land set piece in Wonder Woman and why black moviegoers cheered when the high-tech utopia Wakanda first came into sight in Black Panther

Yellow fever in Hollywood

One would think that CRA, a movie set in Singapore, would be universally and unreservedly embraced by the country. Surprisingly, some of the film’s biggest critics are Singaporeans who decry the conspicuous absence of Malays and Indians who make up a quarter of the population, and take issues with the story’s sole focus on filthy rich Chinese families and their petty first world problems. 

Those criticisms are not without merit. After all, this is the first time in recent memory that Singapore is introduced to the global audience and figures so prominently in the American consciousness. Like it or not, CRA has inadvertently become a cultural ambassador of sorts and taken on the burden of presenting the country in all its multiracial glory. Disappointingly, the only non-Chinese characters were a pair of menacing, voiceless, bayonet-carrying Sikh Indian security guards. 

That said, audiences should perhaps take CRA for what it is—a piece of escapist entertainment centered around obscenely wealthy Asian people. Neither the movie nor the novel on which it is based holds itself out as an accurate reflection of pan-Singapore or pan-Asia. In fact, it does the exact opposite: to zoom in on a very narrow facet of Singapore society and turn a non-representative sample into caricatures—and hence the tongue-in-cheek title: Crazy Rich Asians

A single movie cannot be all things to all people. Just as Singaporeans may feel betrayed by the lack of minority representation in the film, some Asian-Americans will no doubt pick a bone with the stereotypical portrayal of the second generation immigrant in the female protagonist Rachel Chu. And certainly not all well-to-do Hong Kong businessmen are as obnoxious and over-the-top as the Eddie Cheng character. But CRA is not an examination of the Asian-American life or a treatise on the Hong Kong business elite, and it is certainly not a documentary on Singapore’s national identity. To be any of those things is to write a different novel or make a different film. 

But because the opportunities for Asians to tell their stories are so few and far between in Hollywood, the lucky ones that do get picked up by studios and make it to the big screen must not only be commercially successful—a mediocre movie about Asians will be career-ending and genre-killing—but it must also bear the heavy, if not altogether impossible, burden of pleasing all constituents and subgroups in a complex, diverse demographic. 

To put it another way, the pressure for CRA to be pitch perfect on every note wouldn’t be quite so intense if we hadn’t waited a quarter century for that proverbial tanhua to bloom. And that’s precisely the peril of a narrative scarcity posited by Nguyen. 

Thankfully, CRA has delivered. Since its release earlier this month, the film has grossed US$60 million, more than double its production cost. A sequel based on Kwan’s China Rich Girlfriend is reportedly in the works and there is now Oscar buzz for Michelle Yeoh’s portrayal of Eleanor Young, a Lady Catherine-like matriarch. Whatever your opinion, there is no denying that the movie has already done an enormous service to Asians and Asian-Americans by opening doors and shattering a few stereotypes. 
This article was published in Hong Kong Free Press under the title “Representation in Crazy Rich Asians: It may not be perfect… but it’s an awesome start”.

As published in Hong Kong Free Press

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