i. crazy privileged asians: a Chinese perspective

Written By: Margaret Rena Wang

 

By now you’ve probably heard these following sayings: 1) how could we have let a quarter of a century (literally a whole generation) go by without a production featuring a majority Asian cast (true to proper representation) on screen?

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[Anna May Wong, Lady from ChungKing, (1942)]
Or 2) How could we let Hollywood whitewash roles with yellow face such as: Micky Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Katherine Hepburn in Dragon Seed (1944), or ‘brown face’ with Peter Sellers in The Party (1986), Fischer Stevens in Short Circuit II (1988)?

Or how about 3) How can Asian roles be given away to white actors? 

re: how Anna May Wong could not be cast in The Good Earth (1931) due to The Hays Code censoring Hollywood for interracial marriage.  The role for the female lead was given to Luise Rainer, a German actress who later went on to win an Oscar for the part.

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[Lucy Liu in Kill Bill, (2003)]
Personally, the question I ask myself is: how often do I get reduced to stereotypes?

At work as a pharmacist just the other day, I was told: ‘Which Asian character was in Charlie’s Angels? Oh right! Hey Lucy Liu, I don’t want to mess with you if you like Kill Bill 2003!’

Then, there are my friends’ jokes on Mr. Miyagi lessons, Bruce Lee moves, and Jackie Chan jokes when they travel.

I can’t make any comparisons for which is worse because it would be like comparing rotten apples to molded oranges; being white-washed like Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in a Shell (2017), or stereotyped to Lane Kim in Gilmore Girls (2000-2007).

That is why when I saw Crazy Rich Asians (CRA) for the first time, it was a game changer.  I saw my own story being told and normalized without having to answer to how or why things happen in my life in certain manners.

Growing up in both Shanghai and the States, I always had to edit or omit telling my up-bringing to fit in.  My Third-Culture Kid (TCK) experience of being Asian and American for me was finally being played out.

I laughed and cried as I saw–for the first time–how other people who had stories and similar family experiences to mine had their stories presented on-screen. Because personally, after a while, it got extremely exhausting always having to explain who you are based on why you were brought up a certain way. At the same time, it was just freeing to be seen on the silver screen.

joyluckclub
[above: The Joy Luck Club (1993) – 
Lisa Lu (middle) 
now 92, 
below: in Crazy Rich Asians (2018) 
with actress Gemma Chan!]  

astrid

For the first time since I could remember, here was this positive, celebratory work of the East Asian-American narrative. Unlike other well-done cinematic pieces such as The Joy Luck Club (1993) –one that portrays the mammoth grief and the mourning loss and sacrifice of immigrant parents–CRA normalized the ups and downs in dealing with Asian family dynamics. 

As a Chinese-American, because of this film, I reclaimed my pride in a lot of the things I used to feel ashamed about and things I hid that I actually loved growing up

CRA normalized experiences like how traveling as an Asian person can be very nuanced, listening to Chinese music could be cool, and eating Asian comfort food at local food market was delicious.

food
Food Market | 📸 Warner Bros.
  1. Food

  • I went back to Shanghai every summer up until college and I loved my traditional Shanghainese breakfasts and snacks. However, coming back to middle and high school every year in a majority white upstate New York setting, I was often taunted for my Chinese lunch and food-shamed.
  • Even during post-pharmacy school, when I had non-Asian roommates who questioned me about my rice cooker in the kitchen, I would feel ashamed and tried not to cook as much rice.
  • Although I tried my hardest to embrace being proud as a minority and not care so much about not fitting in, I still felt resentful for always having to explain what I was eating.
    • Somehow as I processed my being conflicted, I eventually learned to have thicker skin and drew the line with myself to see it as a privilege that I understand the workings of Asian food.
    • These days, I still prefer Asian food over any other kind of cuisine going out. Now, when I travel I swear it’s like built in me to have a compass to find Chinese food in the most obscure corners of the world.
    • So when the cameras rolled onto the local night market food scene in CRA normalizing eating Asian comfort food, in many ways, it felt almost as if I got to show the world what they were actually missing out on.

 

  1. Chinese Music

  • CRA also normalizes how listening to Chinese music can be cool and trendy. To this day, I would flip my car tracks or playlists to English if I had non-Chinese speaking friends in my car. This is partially my trying to respect them by playing music they could understand, but mostly really because of not wanting to be made fun of for my ‘Asianness’.
    200du
    The Makeover | 📸 Warner Bros.
    • I somehow felt more whole being able to understand the context of the songs that played in each scene in another heart language without having to hide it or feel like a foreigner listening to ‘outsider’ music.
      • (For those wanting to listen to more Chinese music, I am more than happy to share my Spotify playlists.)

 

  1. Asian–American | The Asian + The American

  • elaenoryoung
    The Face-Off | 📸 Warner Bros.

    Scenes like the mahjong play between Rachel and Eleanor standoff parallels to Rachel playing poker in class at the beginning.

  • The intricacies were not explained in the movie to purposely contextualize the nuanced differences and intentional comparison to how Rachel is both Asian and American.
    • This is particularly important when Eleanor remarks to Rachel throughout the movie with jabs like ‘You’re a foreigner, an American…’ and ‘Americans only care about their happiness and what their passionate about.’

    • rachelchu
      “You Will Never Be Enough” | 📸 Warner Bros.

      This distinguishing dialogue reflects the ‘perpetual foreigner’ feeling that American-Born Chinese (ABCs) may often feel when visiting extended relatives in their heritage country.

      • I’ve heard it so many times myself even from my own parents taunting me about how I am practically white adjacent, all the while valuing, caring, and respecting their Asian communal values more than my western individual happiness.
    • This feeling of trying to fit in or not belonging is also slightly shown in the undertones by Nick as well as reflected in his behaviors that Rachel calls him out on: having a bite (or two) out of Rachel’s coffee cake instead of buying his own, having a Jamba Juice rewards card, and sharing her Netflix account.
      • These all display his frugal downplay of his family’s money which comes from the East-Asian upbringing of being low-profile in outward appearance.

 

  1. Income Inequality

  • This also contrasts Rachel’s working class background of first-generation immigrant family versus East Asians of old money (those who have inherited family money).
    • Even though Asians currently have the highest income inequality gap, we are often still treated with the same prejudices despite monetary privilege.
    • Additionally, while money may indeed talk, and while Eleanor may have bought out the hotel in the opening scene, I could recount the countless times I’ve experienced those seething feelings of denied booking services myself.
      • When I was in London last summer, I had to change our housing three times bouncing all the way from Abbey Road to the South Bank encountering countless curt hotel receptions.

Having enumerated those four examples, here’s some thoughts on the title: Crazy Rich Asians, in itself mocks and satirically dispels stereotypes of the rich model minority stereotype, it also introduces these various scales on the spectrum in terms of what it is like ‘being Asian.’

A spectrum of feelings is presented in the name itself where many were deterred to give the movie a chance because of the title.

In trying to explain the context to my black co-workers in an attempt to have intersectional conversations, I felt myself a bit ashamed to even say the full title.

On the other hand, while I felt super represented with similar experiences to Rachel Chu, a first generation Chinese-American still navigating the turmoil of being both and neither enough at the same time, I recognize the level of privilege I hold and wield when I say I felt represented, or even when I complain about roles in Hollywood.

Because the highlight was focused on a Chinese-American narrative (which, granted, does overlap with other Asian-American experiences) the focus is still not all-encompassing to equal every Asian-American story out there.

In the end, there are two sides of the coin to CRA:

One–

It teeters on perpetuating class differences diverging with respectable politics which is a reflected reality in the Asian-American populations largest income inequality gap.

Two–

While the movie does well to rejoice and reclaim the old-school takes on Asian identities–being China communist, censored, and kung-fu fighting and a more expansive vocabulary to express new complexities in narratives and reputations of Asian cities–dispelling old stereotypes runs danger of running new caricatures no matter how positive or wealthy.

 

So now, the question is:

how can we continue to improve and progress in producing more holistic work that is accurate in representation?

 


More on Maggie Wang:

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Margaret (Maggie) Wang is currently based in DC as a pharmacist and floral events designer.  She is a traveling sentimentalist and passionate about- culture, diversity, fashion, art, and advocating the Asian American platform.  Follow her adventures on instagram @margaretrenawang and design work here- www.margaretrenawang.com

 

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