Crazy Rich Asians’ re-orientalization of Asians reinforces Eurocentrism and the Western gaze. Feminist and Orientalist readings of this film ultimately divulge the ability of Asians in the West to subconsciously reproduce the same structures of power that they consciously intend to subvert in their attempts to create digestible media for the Western public.
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Crazy Rich Asians (2018), directed by Jon M. Chu, is a filmic adaptation of the romantic comedy novel by Kevin Kwan. The story follows a Chinese American protagonist, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), and her Chinese Singaporean boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding). They travel to Singapore, where Rachel discovers the Young family is “crazy rich” and is thrown into a world of glamor, extravagance, and money. The primary conflict of the film lies between Rachel and Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young, who views Rachel as an outsider for her status as an American and unfit as a partner for Nick because of it. The romantic comedy was more than financially successful with a gross of over $200 million worldwide to date.1
Even before the start of its official promotional campaign, Crazy Rich Asians was touted as being led by an all-Asian cast, something that had not been seen since The Joy Luck Club (1993). An open casting call for an “all Asian cast for an American Hollywood studio” was posted on YouTube in 2017 by Chu during which he called out Hollywood for its racist employment and casting practices. He stated that the movie would be a “huge step for representation, and a great opportunity to showcase all the most talented Asian actors out there.” It had labeled itself as part of an anti-whitewashing campaign and marked itself as a milestone for Asian representation prior to the film’s creation. Despite the intended progressivism of the movie, analyzing it through a feminist and Orientalist lens as a Hollywood production with implications of American dreaming may demonstrate the discrepancies between that intention and what the final product actually reveals.
A gendered version of American dreaming, neoliberal feminism merges feminist ideas of addressing female inequality with popular notions of American dreams that fail to contend with systemic obstacles.2 The most prominent women in Crazy Rich Asians are independent, successful, and “empowered,” most notably Rachel, Kerry, Eleanor, and Astrid. This neoliberal feminism can be understood through the recognition of gender inequality while disavowing its intersections with race, class, etc. These characters are assertive, determined, and carry an entrepreneurial spirit. Implications of money are often at the forefront of this feminism. In the very opening scene, Eleanor and her family (including Nick and Astrid, Nick’s cousin) arrive at a hotel in London, where they encounter racist hotel staff. In this sequence, the camera constantly switches back and forth between Eleanor’s and the manager’s perspectives during their conversation. Both parties are never shown on camera at the same time with the exception of one shot in which Eleanor’s back is toward the audience and the hotel manager is looking at her. This presentation of the Western gaze is significant to the remainder of the film, much of which suggests Western dominance and cultural hegemony through characters and their interactions with Western culture, despite the majority of it taking place outside of the West. Following the hotel manager’s rebuff and suggestion to “explore Chinatown,” Eleanor calls her husband to buy the hotel, a retributive privilege she accesses only because of her financial status. Her actions denote a woman who is not compliant and does not back down when challenged. The Young family’s acquisition of the hotel through Eleanor’s seemingly subversive act against a Western power, however, is only substantial because it is acknowledged by the Western gaze.
When she walks back into the hotel, she walks with a steady and confident stride, juxtaposed with the urgent and frustrated stomps of the manager. At the end of the scene, when the manager finds out the Young family now owns the hotel, Eleanor says to him condescendingly, “Do get a mop – the floor is wet.” The strong female figure emerges victorious and with her final say, she reinforces the manager’s role as a service worker and her own status as a financial elite. The illustrated feminism is then about exploiting gender equality for private and personal gains while reproducing class hierarchies. The capitalist narrative perpetuated here is that money can overcome even discrimination – a common notion regurgitated by the West through ideas like the model minority myth.
In the sequence in which Rachel is first introduced, she plays a card game against her teaching assistant. After the TA peeks at his cards and looks back up self-assuredly, she responds by calmly pushing all of her poker chips to the center of the table, at which point the audience can already presume she is going to win the game simply because of the certainty that has to accompany a move that risky. Rachel is distinguished from the start of the film as an intelligent, self-made woman with a prestigious occupation as an economics professor at New York University. Her mother, Kerry, although not physically depicted in a specific feminist scene, is still characterized as so by proxy through various conversations, as seen during Rachel’s first introduction with Eleanor where she proudly speaks of her mom. The embodiment of American dreaming along with Rachel, Kerry is a successful real estate agent who was initially a poor immigrant escaping from her abusive husband and earned her license while waiting tables in the US. Rachel and Kerry’s characters are utilized to sell the narrative of socioeconomic mobility in the US while implicitly overcoming superficial, mainstream ideas of gender inequality through their identities as independent women.
Finally, in the last scene between Astrid and her husband, Michael, Astrid gains the confidence to stand up to and walk away from Michael, a “commoner” she always felt she had to hide her wealth from so he would not feel bad about himself. Throughout the film, he is showcased as having the upper hand in their relationship. The most notable example takes place when he turns the tables on Astrid after she confronts him about having an affair. He guilt-trips her through self-deprecation, claiming nothing he does matters, “including having an affair.” Consequently, when Astrid and Michael face each other in their final scene together, her feminist portrayal appears through a reversal of their usual power dynamic. She walks into their apartment where she finds him packing and tells him to stay since he bought the apartment. He asks her where she is going to go, to which she responds superciliously by saying, “I have 14 apartment buildings that I own so probably one of those.” In a later clip of the same sequence, Astrid stares at herself in the mirror. From the top of the mirror, she obtains a box with the pair of $1.2 million Burmese pearl drop earrings featured in Astrid’s introduction scene. After putting them on, she walks away with a newfound sense of self-possession. Keeping constant the association of feminism with financial success, Astrid’s feminist “liberation” comes from finally being able to freely show off her material wealth without her husband’s insecurity chaining her down.
The depiction of Chinese people in Hollywood cinema, regardless of yellowface, whitewashing, or casting ethnic-Chinese actors, has always existed against a backdrop of unstable US-China relations both domestically and internationally. Whether that is the exotic prostitute in The World of Suzie Wong (1960) or Yellow Peril allusions in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the romanticization and paranoia of the West’s unfamiliarity with the East have been prevalent aspects in cinema featuring Chinese characters for decades. This portrayal is a crucial element of Orientalist discourse, which refers to the presentation of the East from a Western gaze – the Orient in contrast to the Occident.3
Crazy Rich Asians arguably propagates this same discourse in a reconfigured manner. While outwardly decentering the Western narrative through an all-Asian cast, the film appears to cater to primarily a Western audience. The characters are constantly placed in dialogue with Western culture. In the first scene with Astrid and Michael, Astrid is seen reading Le Petit Prince to her son in French. Both she and Nick received a Western education at Oxford University and thus are situated in the closest proximity to Western culture relative to their family. It is, then, no coincidence that they adopt the roles of Rachel’s allies and, subsequently, the “likable” characters of the film. Eddie Cheng, on discovering he and his family will end up on the cover of Hong Kong Vogue, the inferior counterpart to American Vogue, becomes upset with his wife, exclaiming, “Your dress is a disaster. If you wore the Bottega gown like I told you to, we’d be in the American Vogue!”
Another, more overt and satirical instance of this dialogue takes place when Rachel first arrives at the Goh mansion to meet up with her college roommate, Peik Lin. After Rachel compliments her on the extravagance of their home, Peik Lin’s mother, Neena Goh, runs out chasing after her dogs Astor, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller, all named after significant, wealthy Western figures. Shortly after, the camera follows Neena back into the house where the ostentatious embellishments of its interior are displayed. She proudly exclaims, “We were inspired by the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles” to which Peik Lin comedically adds under her breath to Rachel, “And Donald Trump’s bathroom.” Regardless of this scene’s ironic undertones, it similarly functions to portray Western cultural hegemony and the East’s inability, no matter how much they criticize Western values, to dissociate from that culture. These intimations of Western cultural superiority lay the groundwork for the greater conflict in the film between American and Chinese values and the ultimate victory of American ideals.
The film presents American/Western and Chinese/Eastern values through a reductive binary. This conflict reaches its climax toward the end of the movie in Rachel and Eleanor’s mahjong game. In mahjong, there are four seats – each named after a compass direction. During their game, Rachel, who represents America, is symbolically seated in the West position while Eleanor, representing China, is seated in the East and is also the player who deals. As they converse, Rachel confronts Eleanor, asking her why she did not like her from the first time they met. Eleanor answers, “You’re foreign – American. And all Americans think about is their own happiness.” In this very watered-down statement of American individualism, the audience is inclined to perceive Eleanor’s misunderstanding and oversimplification of American values.
As the game progresses, Rachel draws an eight of bamboo – one of the most significant tiles. While she stares at the tile, knowing it is also the one Eleanor needs to win, she discloses that Nick proposed to her and is willing to walk away from his family. Seeing Eleanor’s expression of discomfort, Rachel reassures her that she rejected the proposal. In response, Eleanor says, “Only a fool folds a winning hand.” Rachel elaborates that Eleanor created a lose-lose situation, so she made the decision for Nick by turning him down. At this point in the game, Rachel discards the eight of bamboo tile – folding her winning hand. Once Eleanor reveals her winning set of tiles, Rachel declares, “When he [Nick] marries another lucky girl who is enough for you . . . it was because of me. A poor, raised-by-a-single-mother, low-class, immigrant. Nobody.” She then reveals her own tiles and the double meaning behind her sacrifice, signifying that Eleanor was only able to win the game (and Nick) because of Rachel.
By sarcastically referring to herself through Eleanor’s perspective, Rachel embraces her immigrant heritage – an act that derives its power from a perceived state of subordination that is now challenging a dominant power. The Chinese elites and their classist refusal to let a middle-class Chinese American “join” their family present a threat to American ideas of socioeconomic mobility. Rachel’s confirmation of her immigrant identity “consolidates the middle-class fantasy of individual achievement in the US” and “helps to circulate ideas about America to the satisfaction of US audiences.”4 In her travels to the East, the second-generation immigrant, with her deeply woven values of American identity, demonstrates a moral dominance over the Chinese elites. Through her act of sacrificial love, Rachel’s character puts American ideals in a positive light, essentially showcasing that, while individualistic, they are not inherently selfish like Eleanor mistakenly believed.
In Orientalist discourse, the West is developed, rational, and superior, whereas the East (or the Orient) is underdeveloped, deviant, and inferior.5 Rachel and Eleanor epitomize these respective tropes where Rachel is intelligent, calm, and does not chase after free clothes or engage in meaningless gossip and Eleanor is irrational, vindictive, and sacrifices her Oxford education for traditional family values. There is a distinct line drawn between “us” and “them.” Even beyond value disparities, the shallow and greedy characterizations of the ultra-rich Chinese people differentiate their amorality from Rachel’s moral virtuosity, which the targeted Western audience is meant to align with. A symptomatic interpretation of this alterity could reveal longstanding feelings of ambivalence from Asian Americans toward non-Western Asians. The perpetual foreigner stereotype from an extensive history of exclusion has created pressure for Asian Americans to prove their “American-ness” to white America, often translating to dissociation from non-US Asians.6 Historical legal cases have demonstrated empirical instances of Asian immigrants advocating their whiteness to argue for their naturalization.7 Portraying “Asian-ness” – or at least Western ideations of Asian-ness – would enforce the perpetual foreigner stereotype. These ambivalent feelings toward non-Western Asians, therefore, may be a manifestation of this compulsion to distance themselves (Asian Americans) from a foreign label and a subconscious attempt to acquire white affirmation.
The tendency to correlate an American identity, despite it not truly being definitive outside of indigenous people, with a detachment from an ethnic identity exhibits the centrality of whiteness to the American identity. Despite Rachel’s seeming embrace of her Chinese American identity through ironic statements like “I’m so Chinese, I’m an economics professor with lactose intolerance,” they derive from imposed American ethnic labels. Furthermore, her Chinese identity is almost erased in the film relative to the number of times her American identity is referenced. Rachel’s American nationality is mentioned by essentially every character – from Eleanor to Peik Lin to Kerry. In this way, her American-ness is the most central aspect of her character – if not a subliminal act to suggest her proximity to whiteness, then at least an effort to be palatable or accepted by a white audience. Her characterization could then be read as an extension of historical race relations in the US in which Asian Americans struggled (and still struggle) to gain approval by white America, which happens only when their identities can be weaponized to marginalize other ethnic and racial minorities. This idea of “honorary whiteness,” a term coined by Mia Tuan, is often articulated through concepts like the “model minority.”8
By engaging with a historically neglected group in Hollywood, the filmmakers achieved a remarkable turnout. Over 40 percent of the audience was Asian American – a considerable number in comparison to the percentage of Asians in the US.9 The film’s release came with much anxiety from Asian American audiences who felt the pressure of the box office numbers. The hashtag #GoldOpen went viral on social networks and over a hundred people bought out theaters to ensure the film’s successful release.10 Supporting Crazy Rich Asians and its screening in theaters became synonymous with supporting the Asian American community, who were responsible for making sure the film was commercially successful if they wanted to continue seeing their own representation in Hollywood, something white productions have never been subjected to. The implication here is that the Asian representation in Crazy Rich Asians is significant because of its role in Hollywood specifically. Despite the already existing Asian representation outside of Hollywood, their presence and contributions to the film industry are not considered important.
In an interview, Chu stated he wanted Crazy Rich Asians to communicate that “old, classic, Hollywood movies could have starred Asians with just as much style, just as much pizzazz.” His desire for the film was to showcase an Asian cast playing a white Hollywood story, which could be attested to through its art-deco aesthetic and seemingly ornamental Chinese cultural scenes. This equation of Asian and white, not necessarily in terms of blurring their racial lines but elevating Asians to the same level as white people, is seen implicitly throughout the film, one of which takes place at the Gohs’ palatial mansion. When Rachel is eating with the Goh family, the father, Wye Mun, castigates two of his daughters for not wanting to finish their chicken nuggets. He says, “There’s a lot of children starving in America” – a harmless passing joke that subverts the classic line by white American parents: “There’s a lot of children starving in [insert country in the Global South].” A closer read between the lines of this joke conveys commentary that seems to say, “We’re not the third-world farmers or factory workers you might have imagined. We’re just as good as you.”11
Moreover, the movie’s strong promotional messages about challenging the racist exclusion of Asians from Hollywood could easily have presented broader messages about the Asian American experience in the US. However, ironically, neither the poster nor the movie mentions anything about Asian American grievances. The film utilizes Rachel to exemplify the model minority from a humble background who has achieved socioeconomic success in the US, but it ignores the potential to use her character to express other realities of the Asian American experience. In this borderline fantastical film, the audience lives vicariously through Rachel as she explores a new world of Chinese elitism. With its all-Asian cast – an anomaly in Hollywood – the film tries to avoid being contentious. The only instance of Western racism mentioned is when Eleanor is told in the opening scene in the hotel to “explore Chinatown.” It reduces the racism faced by Asians to one overtly racist incident while overlooking other potential issues faced by the Asian community in Western settings. This cinematic tool is not new to minority-led movies in Hollywood. In films like Raisin in the Sun (1961), the racism experienced by the black characters is condensed into one conspicuous racist occurrence to create an overarching theme of universal humanism that is relatable to all and controversial to none.12
While Crazy Rich Asians has been a pivotal part of Hollywood in terms of Asian representation, it is also a product of American dreaming and its long history with Hollywood. It thus must also be analyzed through a sociopolitical critique as a culturally hegemonic Hollywood production. Its pervasive neoliberalism shows superficial depictions of feminism and class while dismissing deeper implications of gender and socioeconomic inequality. The re-orientalization of Asians reinforces Eurocentrism and the Western gaze. Feminist and Orientalist readings of this film ultimately divulge the ability of Asians in the West to subconsciously reproduce the same structures of power that they consciously intend to subvert in their attempts to create digestible media for the Western public.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the film.
- Alex Abad-Santos, “Crazy Rich Asians Dared to Make Asian Lives Aspirational. Its Success Could Change Hollywood,” Vox (December 21, 2018). [↩]
- Sara Goodkind, “‘You Can Be Anything You Want, but You Have to Believe It’: Commercialized Feminism in Gender‐Specific Programs for Girls,” Journal of Women in Culture and Society (Chicago Journals), accessed December 7, 2021, https://www-journals-uchicago-edu.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/doi/10.1086/591086 [↩]
- Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Pantheon Books, 1978). [↩]
- Jing Yang and Jin Zhang, “The Cultural Politics of East-West Encounter in Crazy Rich Asians,” Continuum 35, no. 4 (July 2021): pp. 600-613, https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2021.1933386 [↩]
- Said, Orientalism. [↩]
- Vinay Harpalani, “Racial Stereotypes, Respectability Politics, and Running for President: Examining Andrew Yang’s and Barack Obama’s Presidential Bids,” UNM Digital Repository, June 14, 2020, https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/law_facultyscholarship/797/ [↩]
- Kim, Suzanne A. “Yellow Skin, White Masks: Asian American Impersonations of Whiteness and the Feminist Critique of Liberal Equality.” Asian American Law Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, Jan. 2001, pp. 89–109, https://doi.org/https://doi.
- Mia Tuan, Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites? The Asian Ethnic Experience Today (Rutgers University Press, 1999). [↩]
- Yikun Zhao, “Crazy Rich Asians: When Representation Becomes Controversial,” Markets, Globalization & Development Review, (2019), https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/mgdr/vol4/ iss3/3 [↩]
- Lisa Respers France, “‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Supporters Start a #GoldOpen Movement to Pack Theaters,” CNN (Cable News Network, August 6, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/06/entertainment/crazy-rich-asians-movement/index.html [↩]
- Mark Tseng-Putterman, “One Way That ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Is a Step Backward,” The Atlantic (Atlantic Media Company, August 23, 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/08/asian-americas-great-gatsby-moment/568213/) [↩]
- Lisbeth Lipari, “‘Fearful of the Written Word’: White Fear, Black Writing, and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun Screenplay,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 90, no. 1 (August 6, 2004): pp. 81-102, https://doi.org/10.1080/0033563042000206790. [↩]