[OPINION] Time for crazy rich change

Curtis S Chin
[OPINION] Time for crazy rich change
Musing on a blockbuster film amid greater China-Philippine engagement

Whether of Hong Kong Chinese, Mainland Chinese or Chinese-Americans, not to mention the “Chinoys” of the Philippines, the stereotypes of the ethnic Chinese abound on film and in real life. Can a blockbuster movie help change that? That’s a question worth pondering as the US film Crazy Rich Asians is poised to open in Mainland China this November 30 and amid the rising visibility of China in the Philippines.

For those who managed to escape the marketing and media frenzy around the film, a brief summary of the movie’s plot: Crazy Rich Asians tells the story of native New Yorker and economics professor Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu) as she accompanies her boyfriend Nick Young (played by Malaysian actor Henry Golding), to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. Little does Rachel know at the film’s start what drama lies ahead as only later does she learn that Nick is scion of one of Singapore’s wealthiest families and also one of its most sought-after bachelors.

As Nick’s mom Eleanor Young (played by Michelle Yeoh) will make pointedly clear at one point in the film, Rachel is not Chinese, but Chinese-American – and one who may well embody all that Young’s less-than-positive stereotype of a Chinese-American daughter of immigrants comprises.

It is a tale of the one percent of the one percent.  

The film famously also featured a short but pivotal role by Kris Aquino as a Malay princess, and brought me a mini-bit of social media fame when the Filipina star gave me a shout-out on Instagram.

From heartfelt social media posts by Asian-American celebrities including model Chrissy Teigen and everyday people to widely-watched appearances on mainstream news and entertainment programs by the film’s cast, director, and author, the movie has in many ways already contributed to the broadening of the representation of Asians and Asian-Americans in US films. That should also be to the ultimate benefit of the many Filipino-Americans in the television and film industry.

News reports have covered the subsequent go-aheads of a range of film and television projects involving Asian-American writers, directors, and actors.

New stereotypes?

Yet, in parts of Asia including Singapore where I am now based with an economic think tank after having served in the Philippines as the US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, some of the reactions to the film have had an added, sometimes critical dimension. Some critics have called out the lack of economic and ethnic diversity of the Singaporeans portrayed on screen.  

Are old stereotypes, some wonder, being replaced by new ones? 

What is the change, they ask, that many are heralding in a film set primarily in Singapore and that focuses solely on the richest of the rich among that nation’s ethnic Chinese? Will stereotypes – positive and negative – of people of Chinese heritage there and elsewhere, including in the Philippines, be reinforced?

For me, an Asian- and Chinese-American, that discussion should be welcomed as part of a drive for change but should not distract from the film. Crazy Rich Asians is a movie that matters. The film remains an important step forward – and a welcome change – and one that Kevin Kwan, author of the book “Crazy Rich Asians,” on which the film is based, and I addressed on stage at a “Mic’d Up” session at the annual Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles earlier this year. 

The theme and the tweets of our talk was a world in transition – including, as Kwan’s book and the then-yet-to-be-released film adaptation make clear, the rise of wealth in Asia, and the rising visibility of Asians and now, Asian-Americans, and Chinese and Chinese-Americans.

That same changing world is very visible in Manila and also across the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, with the rising visibility of Mainland Chinese tourists, state-owned enterprises, and businesses.

The potential for more Chinese investors and investment in the Philippines was clearly on the agenda at the recent state visit by China’s President Xi Jinping and meetings with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

A cover story for Time magazine in Asia this year featuring Chinese-American actress Constance Wu has proclaimed, “Crazy Rich Asians Is Going to Change Hollywood. It’s About Time.” And if the expectation that things are a changing was not clear enough in that headline, the article’s subheading declared, “The much-anticipated movie signals a major step forward for representation – and for the industry.”

Diversity of everyday Asians

Time will tell if that and other predictions of the film’s impact prove true.

After all, some 25 years have passed since the last major Hollywood production to generate a similar buzz and hopes for change. That was The Joy Luck Club, brought to screen by Hong Kong-born American film director Wayne Wang in 1993 and based on author Amy Tan’s best-selling novel of 4 Chinese-American women and their mothers, born in feudal China.  

Still, perhaps nothing makes Hollywood, and the blue-chip businesses and storied institutions of America, stand up and take notice like dollar signs, and lots of them. The Warner Brothers-distributed film directed by Jon M. Chu topped weekend box offices in the United States, and has already sold more than $235 million in tickets worldwide.

Certainly left out of the book and the film adaptation – which does the novel great justice – even amid the wealth of personalities that populate the world of the “crazy rich” is the diversity of everyday Asians, whether Asian-Americans or from this region.  

The movement toward greater representation though is much more than a single film, whether in the United States or the Philippines. It must also involve engagement and interaction, and move beyond token diversity to full inclusion. That’s no simple task.

But as you ponder that and what we as individuals might do, go ahead, sit back, and enjoy the crazy rich show, again. – Rappler.com

Curtis S. Chin served as the US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, becoming only the fourth US ambassador of Chinese heritage. He now serves as managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.

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