There’s a particular moment in Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians that has left me unsettled for the past few days.
It happens during a mahjong game between Rachel, the film’s American-born Chinese protagonist, and Eleanor Young, matriarch of one of Singapore’s wealthiest families. The two women are seated directly across from each other at a mahjong parlor, skillfully exchanging and discarding their playing tiles while embroiled in tense conversation. From an outsider’s perspective, this parlor may be just another backdrop and mahjong just another game of strategy, but this is a space where Rachel and Eleanor’s identities collide.
Enveloped by the sounds of players chattering in indistinct dialects and tiles shuffling across mahjong tables, we are introduced to a side of Singapore that we haven’t seen before. Delivering on its name, Crazy Rich Asians has spent the last two hours touring us through the lives of Singapore’s elites, from elegant old-money mansions to lavish bachelor parties thrown on colossal container ships. Far removed from these displays of grandeur, this mahjong parlor is crowded with patrons whose t-shirts and denim sorely clash with Eleanor’s designer suit. But beyond acting as a common ground between the rich and middle-class, the physical space of the parlor brings Rachel and Eleanor’s cultural conflict to full light. At the mahjong table, where positions are named for the four cardinal directions, Eleanor places herself as the East while Rachel sits as the West, in direct reference to their clashing backgrounds. As the scene later reveals, Rachel’s Asian-American upbringing has become a point of contention for Eleanor once she discovers that Nick––her son and heir to the Young family fortune––has asked for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Introduced as Nick’s “Chinese professor” girlfriend (though Eleanor corrects this to “Chinese American”) when he returns home to Singapore, Rachel is instantly deemed unfit to carry on the family’s business and its traditions. After a series of cultural missteps, such as Rachel recklessly hugging Eleanor the first time they meet and greeting her using the informal “Auntie Eleanor,” Eleanor has disqualified Rachel as a potential match for Nick for one simple reason: she’s a foreigner.
But during this particular scene, it’s revealed that Rachel has rejected Nick’s proposal and enabled him to marry a woman who holds Eleanor’s approval, that Rachel tells Eleanor she is now indebted to her: “a poor, raised-by-a-single-mother, low-class, immigrant nobody” and coolly walks out of the parlor. Despite being an empowering moment where Rachel takes ownership over her social standing, her statement decisively pins Eleanor’s disapproval onto the class-based aspects of her identity, which seemed to miss the point entirely. The plain truth of why Eleanor was so averse to Rachel marrying into her family wasn’t because of class status—it was because she was raised in America, and therefore deemed inauthentically Chinese.
This idea of the “inauthentic” Asian-American is an undercurrent that repeatedly weaves itself throughout the film. In preparation for her trip to Singapore, Rachel’s mother warns her about being rejected by Nick’s family, reasoning that while she might look Chinese and speak Chinese, her mind unmistakably isn’t. After Eleanor tells Rachel that she “will never be enough” for Nick, her Singapore-raised college roommate Peik Lin rationalizes this with the frank “banana” stereotype: that Rachel is yellow on the outside, but white on the inside. But after each of these comments, we never see Rachel acknowledge them as true, or at least reasoned––she simply brushes them off and moves onto her next course of action. It’s as though Rachel herself is unwilling to accept how the American aspects of her Asian-American identity might interfere with her ability to relate to Chinese people raised in China.
In the US, cultural assimilation is often presented as a one-directional process, where people of color chip away at parts of themselves until they fit into inoffensive, Westernized molds. But as Crazy Rich Asians shows us, this process doesn’t end once Asian-Americans return to Asia. It can also work in reverse, latent in family reunions filled with laughter at broken translations and relatives’ self-satisfaction at hearing a dialect mispronounced. While these moments don’t constitute all cross-cultural encounters, they can shape the Asian-American experience into one of constant criticism, where individuals are judged for how well one half of their identity can rectify the shortcomings of the other. Having spent her entire life in the US being told that she was too Asian to be American, it’s no wonder why Rachel refuses to believe that her American upbringing suddenly invalidates the legitimacy of her Chinese ancestry—and evidently, neither does the film.
Fulfilling the fairytale promises of its romantic-comedy genre, Crazy Rich Asians ends with a glimpse at Nick and Rachel’s engagement party after he successfully proposes a second time. Among the crowd of dancing bodies stands Eleanor, visibly uncomfortable yet unquestionably responsible for the couple’s reconciliation. When Nick proposes to Rachel in an earlier scene, he uses the family ring customarily worn by Eleanor, revealing that she has relented and allowed Rachel to enter the family. An American-born individual becoming the face of one of Singapore’s richest families is no doubt meant to be read as a victory for the wider Asian-American community––a validation of its struggles with exclusionary members of the Asian community and a testament to Asian-Americans’ cultural legitimacy. Nonetheless, as a viewer raised in southeast Asia, this resolution felt far more like an overwhelming loss for Chinese culture, mainly due to Chu’s reliance on stereotypes to propel Rachel’s battle against Eleanor.
Rather than opening up dialogues between members of the Asian diaspora and those who grew up in Asia, Crazy Rich Asians entrenches historic East-West dichotomies by reducing Chinese culture to an oppressive, intolerant system. As a friend of mine recently wrote, no more than a minute into meeting Rachel, Eleanor already dismisses her as a freewheeling American when she describes her career as “the pursuit of her passion.” After Rachel briefly meets other Singaporean socialites at a bachelorette resort party she’s been invited to, they leave a grotesque, gutted fish on her hotel room’s bedspread and write the words “Catch this, you gold-digging bitch” on her window, having assumed that she’s only dating Nick to access his wealth. These individuals, all raised under predominantly Chinese cultures, are shown to make split-second judgments over a person’s intentions and respectability––on the other hand, people like Rachel, raised in Western countries, don’t retaliate against this hostility. It’s members of the Chinese community who spent a significant portion of their lives away from their culture, such as Nick, who attended British boarding schools, and Peik Lin, who enrolled at an American university, that show far more compassion towards Rachel, equipped with the capacity to form both platonic and romantic connections with her. Chinese culture is portrayed as an exclusionary entity that actively seeks to drive out those who do not belong.
This polarized sentiment does exist in many Asian countries today––I know someone whose parents withdrew all contact from them after finding out that their girlfriend was Filipino (read: brown-skinned) and not Chinese––and Chu calling it to the public’s attention acknowledges generations who have struggled under similar experiences. But failing to show audiences versions of these values at anything less than their extremes comes dangerously close to throwing all Asian upbringings under this umbrella of toxicity while inadvertently championing Western values as superior. Furthermore, the reasons why this mentality persists today are never explained to us, and it’s precisely this refusal to recognize the underpinnings of Chinese culture that keep it trapped under an irrational, vilifying lens.
As the first Hollywood blockbuster film to feature a predominantly Asian cast since 1993––and with a sequel already ordered for production––we cannot discredit the fact that Crazy Rich Asians is paving the way for Chinese culture, and perhaps more broadly Asian cultures, to occupy a meaningful space within both critical and everyday discourse. While Chu’s film relies too heavily on flattened caricatures of Chinese mothers and simplistic portrayals of familial obligation to reconcile diasporic narratives with traditional Asian communities, it also creates platforms from which these gaps in our shared knowledge can be filled. Crazy Rich Asians has provided its audiences with an opportunity to share stories from Asia, America, and every other wellspring of Asian identity––now we need to seize it and speak.
AUDREY THERESE BUHAIN B'22 is looking for a mahjong partner.