When Crazy Rich Asians was released, there were endless op-eds, reviews, and Facebook posts celebrating the end to the white domination of Hollywood screen time. But the movie is ultimately racist.
The root of the problem lies with the complexities of representing race in a globalised film market. The film takes place in Singapore, whose racial climate has profound consequences for how the movie should be critiqued.
Singapore is a multi-racial country in South-East Asia; about 75% are Chinese, 15% are Malay, 8% are Indian, and 2% are Eurasian. Despite Singapore’s rich ethnic diversity, Chinese Singaporeans dominate the upper strata of education, political representation, economic wealth, and media representation. In contrast, Singaporean Malay communities are disproportionately represented in the country’s poorest. Safe to say that the ethnic Chinese in Singapore have a very different socio-political standing to the American-born Chinese audiences that Crazy Rich Asians was written for.
Crazy Rich Asians inaccurately shows Singapore’s population to be ethnically homogenous; most of the significant characters are Chinese even when one in four people in the country aren’t. When minorities do make an appearance, they are in unabashedly subservient roles. Such distortions in representation become highly disturbing considering Singapore’s long history of racial hierarchy.
In the 1960s, the Singaporean government implemented strict birth control programmes that targeted women from socio-economically poorer backgrounds to exercise contraception and abortion. Of course, this was impactful along racial lines – marginalised Malay and Indian Singaporeans were targeted much harder than the wealthy Chinese elite.
So the fact that Crazy Rich Asians could get representation so wrong speaks to how badly our society handles the issues of understanding racism. Discourses around racism have mainly revolved around white people as the central axis. They rarely examine how others, especially in a non-Western context, can create and participate in a racial hierarchy — even when they do not enjoy the universal status of power that Caucasians do.
Furthermore, other than the film’s uncritical depictions of wealth, the movie’s main plot revolves around rather orientalist ideas about Asians. The main conflict is between the lead heroine, Rachel, and her boyfriend’s mother. Simply put, she does not believe Rachel values family enough to sacrifice her own happiness and career due to her Westernised upbringing.
It’s a tiring stereotype that Asian people are fundamentally different from every else: that we care deeply about ‘honour,’ ‘family,’ and other outdated Confucianist principles more than any other person. This type of treatment parallels a lot of historical racism. During the height of Western colonialism, many were fixated on the idea of Asian mystique, and Asian people were boiled down to a few statements about filial piety, a certain respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. This type of exotic alienation is at the heart of Crazy Rich Asians, in which the outrageous classism of the film’s characters only adds to their strangeness.
Look, I appreciate that people really like this movie. It is a real step forward for people who have been made to feel humiliated and sub-normal their entire lives. But the movie is deeply troubling in ways that should not be ignored.