Crazy Rich Asians was marketed as a win for diversity. It was a huge step forward for Asian representation on screen, as one of the most famous Asian American actors, Constance Wu, played the lead role. She plays Rachel Chu – a strong, independent Chinese American woman, who is an economics professor in New York. What could go wrong with the portrayal of women of colour with an all-rounded character like Rachel?
It’s not as simple as that. While non-white women rarely have lead roles in Hollywood films, and Crazy Rich Asians was an important milestone in that aspect, not all the women of colour were uplifted in the film. Rachel’s empowerment relied on her winning the struggle between her and her boyfriend’s Chinese Singaporean mother, Eleanor Young, played by Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh. Eleanor’s values were portrayed as ‘Asian values’; she believed in staying at home to build up her family, instead of pursuing her dream of becoming a lawyer. These ‘Asian values’ are demonised and portrayed as Rachel’s obstacle to happiness; she is told that she is too ‘American’ because she prioritizes a career that she is passionate about, and her boyfriend’s mother and grandmother are portrayed as backward Asian women for not letting him marry her. Asia-born women being inherently conservative, completely lacking any desire to step out of the domestic sphere and being overly strict with their children are all tired stereotypes that I honestly thought we were past.
It’s no coincidence that the Asian-born women who were portrayed in this way were the only main characters who had any sort of non-Western accent. Being set in Singapore, with the majority of its characters being Singaporean, I’d have expected the film to portray Singaporean accents more accurately. On that note, it grossly misrepresented Singapore in general, and it felt more like the West was using a country from the Global South as a backdrop without bothering to portray it correctly. There were no non-Chinese people portrayed, which further marginalised Singapore’s own minority races, and the only Singaporean minorities in the movie were made the butt of a racially insensitive joke.
However, the movie was still a milestone for East Asian American representation. Astrid Young, played by Gemma Chan, was a brilliantly fleshed out character, who had one of the most amazing lines in the movie when she dumped her ex-husband. “It’s not my job to make you a man. I can’t make you something you’re not.” Hopefully, Asian American women get more empowering lines and roles like this.