‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Subverts Racial Tropes for Generations to Come

'Crazy Rich Asians' Subverts Racial Tropes for Generations to Come

Valerie Wu, Managing Editor

There is no better time to be Asian American than now. Or at least, that’s what critics of the new release Crazy Rich Asians are saying. Summer’s most anticipated film is out, and groundbreaking for Asian American communities across the nation who have long wanted to see themselves reflected on the big screen.

Adapted off Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel of the same name, Crazy Rich Asians provides that representation and more. Following the struggles of Chinese American Rachel Chu (played by Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu) as she struggles to assimilate to her boyfriend’s family — one of the wealthiest in Singapore — and win their approval, Crazy Rich Asians is the first Hollywood film in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast in lead roles.

Directed by Chinese American filmmaker Jon M. Chu, the film redefines our racial expectations, seeking to invent a genre of distinctly Asian American visual storytelling.

Coming into the film, I hoped to see myself portrayed in a way that did justice to the multifacetedness of the Asian American experience. In my years growing up, I’d been taught by teachers and peers that Asian Americans were not creative, not energetic, and not vibrant.

Yes, I wanted to see the film because of the stunning cast. As an Asian American girl living in a climate where I felt stifled by racial expectations, I wanted to see people like me who had overcome that somehow by appearing in a Hollywood film, a pinnacle of American success.

But I also wanted to see what the film could represent for the generations of Asian Americans to come, who I hoped would be able to see films like this and realize that their voices were valid too. I wasn’t disappointed.

Crazy Rich Asians carries many of the subtle elements of tradition in ways that exemplify what we’ve grown accustomed to in mainstream culture (ex. the toxic masculinity of bachelor parties), but reinvents what it means to be “mainstream” all the same. This includes the translation of popular English songs into Mandarin Chinese, but also how the film is portrayed from an outsider’s perspective into Asian society.

This is especially significant given that for so long, Asians have been the outsiders themselves. And though it is easy to talk about Asian American representation in terms of what we see on screen, the real merit lies in Crazy Rich Asians’ authenticity.

There are no martial arts, no “nerdy Asian” caricatures. Rather, there are night markets and the language we use to address elders (is it “Auntie” or “Mrs. Young?”), bringing leftover food in Tupperware containers and the contemporary thrill of red envelopes.

Everything in Crazy Rich Asians is so new to an American audience, but so familiar to an Asian American one. I was struck by how the film managed to stray away from tropes of jade dragons and oxtail soup to illuminate the concept of an ethnic community, both onscreen and off.

Yet what really resonated with me wasn’t the novelty of the film, but the real, authentic depiction of what it means to live as a hyphenated identity in America. Throughout the film, we begin to understand how it feels to not really belong in either America or Asia, the different definitions of “success” in class inequality and most of all, the ties between the family we’re related to by blood, and the family we create for ourselves.

Instead of perpetuating exotic stigmas of Asian culture and heritage, Crazy Rich Asians subverts tropes that have long characterized a Western understanding of the term “Asian American.” In the film, the act of folding dumplings becomes less of a stereotypical “day in the life,” but an event charged with symbolic meaning.

Like its theme song “Yellow” (after the hit song by Coldplay), what the film does is reclaim what it means to be “yellow” in the context of society. Watching Crazy Rich Asians as a Chinese American meant that I could watch a mahjong showdown instead of yet another game of poker. It meant that yellowness was taking ownership of the dominant narrative, shedding off terms like “quiet” and “voiceless” to carve out its own identity.

In fact, the only math-related aspect is Rachel Chu’s job as an economics professor at NYU, and even that serves to illustrate the film’s insight into game theory. In this sense, math becomes a metaphor for emotion: a quality that has often been overlooked in the Asian caricature of identity.

No, Crazy Rich Asians will most likely not win an Oscar for Best Picture; the plot is nothing new. But the real prize is the film’s universality and specificity. Crazy Rich Asians appeals to a wide range of audiences while still catering to the audience that matters most: the one it features.

There will still be difficulties ahead for the show’s all-Asian cast — what the next role will be, what the next film will be, what stories still need to be told. Although there is still a ways to go regarding the film’s exclusion of South and Southeast Asians, the fact is that not all representation issues can be solved with a single film, as Chu states. Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t claim to address all these issues, but for now, it takes a step in the right direction.