What Does Seeing Asians As “Crazy Rich” Achieve?

Audiences love watching wealth porn, but are there other reasons we love rich minorities on screen?

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The film Crazy Rich Asians opens with an uncharacteristically bedraggled Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh), a wealthy Singaporean matriarch and the antagonist of the book trilogy, stumbling into a posh London hotel with her family in tow. They’re wet, and the kids are muddy. The Englishmen at the front desk politely tell her to beat it. This is where the tables turn: With one phone call, Eleanor uses her family’s money, and the connections that come along with it, to not only rectify her situation but embarrass the hotel’s white employees. It’s supposed to be a triumphant moment that upends the preconception of Chinese foreigners as poor and unworthy of five star service.
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Crazy Rich Asians isn’t being coy about what it’s selling. As its title clearly states, it combines over-the-top opulence with an under-examined subgroup (at least, by American standards). The racial element inherent to our fascination with this previously unimaginable kind of affluence is neatly summed up in the film’s opening scene. The money is not insignificant. (In the words of Awkwafina’s character: “These people aren’t just rich, they’re CRAZY RICH!”) These Asians charter private jets, they own islands, they invite members of the Thai royal family to their weddings, and they can drop $1.2 million on a pair of diamond earrings.
Audiences love watching “wealth porn.” It’s not only voyeuristic, but it also provides us with the much-relished opportunity to judge (and sometimes root for) the rich. Set in Singapore, the movie presents a spectacle of wealth that’s exotic for Western audiences, who may only be familiar with Asian stories portraying us as hardscrabble immigrants or heroes in sweeping historical dramas. The Asians in Kevin Kwan’s best-selling book are neither: They’re extremely wealthy in the 21st century.

Rachel and Nick in fact epitomize two entirely different worlds: One we know, and one we can only fantasize about in a foreign land.

At one point, Rachel (Constance Wu) jokingly describes her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) as the “Prince William of Asia.” She uses a figure of the British monarchy, a literal figurehead of Western hegemony, to qualify this supposedly unique brand of Asian wealth. The subtext here is that money is an equalising force that trumps even race: By showing Asian characters who are as rich as (or even richer than) the film’s white characters, the film believes it somehow serves as an antidote to the racist portrayals of Asians in American pop culture. Perhaps this helps to explain the misguided comparisons to Black Panther when the trailer for Crazy Rich Asians initially dropped: Both movies feature wealthy (albeit mythical wealth, in the first instance) people of colour who lived and operated in secret. The world has no idea how rich Wakandans and Singaporeans are, until they’re presented as objects of power and fascination.
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Here are the words onscreen that kick things off in Crazy Rich Asians: “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.” The epigraph, attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, implies a hidden or untapped power. The setup is that Nick has kept his family’s fortune a secret from his American girlfriend, and so the journey involves encountering Asia’s 1% through the eyes of Rachel, who comes from working-class, immigrant roots. So regardless of their shared ethnic background, Rachel and Nick in fact epitomise two entirely different worlds: One we know, and one we can only fantasise about in a foreign land.
Crazy Rich Asians is a marriage plot wrapped in cultural infighting among different types of Chinese descendants — in this case, between first-generation Chinese Americans and third- and fourth-generation Chinese Singaporeans. Even within the microcosm of Singapore, there’s a clear division between new and old money that’s depicted in the film. The house where Rachel’s college friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) lives with her upper-middle-class parents is unmistakably garish and gaudy — Trump-inspired, her mother cheerfully explains. Even more obnoxious is the bachelor party in a converted container ship that Nick attends thrown by Bernard Tai (Jimmy O. Yang), the son of a corrupt billionaire. The Youngs are tasteful — they live in an elegant colonial-style mansion with Art Deco accents and host parties with Western-style jazz bands.
On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see the Chinese diaspora portrayed as something other than a monolith. But as if to overcompensate for the stereotypical images of Chinese immigrants — either as dirty, poor, huddled masses or hard-working, middle-class, model minorities — Crazy Rich Asians seemingly yearns for this new label to become a desirable and transcendent alternative. What’s missing is exactly how these rich Asians came to be. This information matters because generational wealth is often the result of an unequal society: Who is allowed to own land and property determines the power dynamics. Who gets to be in this new narrative of Asians, and who’s still being ignored?
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Peik Lin gives Rachel a rough rundown of how the early Youngs migrated in the 19th century from China to what she describes was just “jungle” at the time. Her glib summary ignores whatever indigenous inhabitants may have existed there beforehand. For the most part, Crazy Rich Asians overlooks Singapore’s Malay and Indian populations, as well as a sizeable segment of its labor force — foreign domestic workers, employed in one out of every three households, a majority of whom are from the Philippines and Indonesia. (Golding is half-English, half-Malaysian, and supporting actor Nico Santos is Filipino-American, but both are cast as Chinese Singaporean.) The servants of the Young estate appear primarily as faceless figures and disembodied hands seen preparing food in the kitchen. (Rich People Problems, the third instalment in Kwan’s trilogy, highlights a few individuals who have spent a lifetime in service to Nick’s grandmother, but it does so without interrogating the ethics surrounding their employment.)
To be fair, a romantic comedy — which is what Crazy Rich Asians is — may not be the most suitable vehicle to unpack Singapore’s complicated colonial past and how it continues to impact its society today. But a sense of history is precisely what Rachel does find enviable about Nick’s upbringing. The discovery of the Young’s wealth is central to the story: They embody a family that hasn’t been decimated by poverty or war. Rachel laments that, having been raised by a single mom in America, she didn’t grow up surrounded by a big, extended family like he did. Here, the word “family” easily stands in for “money.” And yet the film ultimately decides to neglect the economic advantages and political circumstances that allowed the Youngs to make such ridiculous amounts of money while keeping their legacy intact, and in doing so, misses the mark on what exactly this wealth and power is supposed to get you beyond nice things.
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Kwan’s story in no way imagines how Asia’s hidden wealth can or should benefit the rest of the diaspora, aside from putting it on display in a blockbuster movie.

So even though Rachel supposedly represents the moral centre of the story, and Nick’s family an antagonising force that threatens to drive them apart, the film can’t help but celebrate material wealth. Gatsby-worthy fêtes nudge the plot along, with every party functioning as validation of the hosts’ worthiness in the face of immense wealth. Fine jewellery acts as symbols of approval or liberation. Designer fashion, too, possesses transformative power. At Nick’s friend’s budget-busting wedding, Rachel shows up after a defiant makeover wearing a borrowed Marchesa gown in order to prove that she’s just as capable of fitting in with the upper-crust crowd as anyone there. For Rachel, it’s less about rejecting Nick’s family’s way of life than finding a winning strategy against Eleanor. The anticipated happy ending and reconciliation between Nick and Rachel insinuate that, regardless of socioeconomic inequity, the couple’s love and shared cultural interests (often expressed through the enjoyment of food) are enough to unite their disparate worlds.
On the surface, Chu succeeds in transposing light-skinned Asian faces onto the conventions of a romantic comedy. The result is immensely watchable and entertaining. But unlike Black Panther, which creatively mined the superhero genre to offer broader commentary about the African diaspora, Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t really have anything substantive to say about Chinese people and their relationship to each other, let alone Asians in real life.
Certainly, Chinese people can be obsessed with status (a thing that is hardly unique to the Chinese culture), and perhaps that aspirational mindset reinforces the worshipping of being “crazy rich.” But while Wakanda ultimately decides to share its sought-after technology in order to empower less fortunate communities, Kwan’s story in no way imagines how Asia’s hidden wealth can or should benefit the rest of the diaspora, aside from putting it on display in a blockbuster movie. Might we dream bigger than that, especially if Asian Americans or the Asian diaspora is supposed to come together to cheer this moment? By not decisively critiquing the meaning or purpose behind having all this money, the film fails to fully realise its own premise about what happens once the sleeping giant has awakened.
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