Is it just me or is everyone talking about Crazy Rich Asians?
My social media feed is flooded with adulation for its crazy talented beautiful cast. And damn right it should.
Crazy Rich Asians is the first Hollywood studio-produced movie with an all-Asian cast in 25 years, nabbing the top spot at the box office two weekends in a row and raking in $34 million in its first 5 days. Not only did it exceed expectations and blow past its projected earnings (by more than double), it’s the top opening comedy of the year and the highest grossing romantic comedy debut since 2015.
I couldn’t be happier that the film is making history. It sends a strong message that having diverse and authentic stories PAYS. But what I really love about Crazy Rich Asians is the story it tells behind the veneer of glitz and glamour. Of course there’s a lot of the fun over-the-top banter that comes with rom-com territory. But the theme that is uniquely powerful for Asian Americans is the one that speaks to our experience of straddling two cultures, and it’s portrayed with stinging effect in the film.
Astrid is my favorite character. She’s stunning, smart, and elegant — someone I’d probably be envious of in real life — but her struggle is surprisingly relatable. Though she comes from a family of prestige and has her own set of impressive accomplishments, she takes a second seat to her husband and tries hard to not make him feel inadequate. In the process, though, she hides from her own light. You don’t have to study at Oxford or come from a privileged Asian family to relate to this fear of shining too bright. While Rachel, the film’s main character, also battles her own set of insecurities (especially after meeting Nick’s super rich family) her character comes with a bit more of an independent streak.
Witnessing these power dynamics flip and evolve between couples and generations is fascinating. I’m in awe of Astrid’s character because, unlike the matriarch Eleanor who is entrenched in Asian tradition or Rachel who espouses more American confidence, Astrid is somewhere in between, a character that grows and takes ownership of her power while straddling the demands of her Asian family. She’s also kind, one of the only women to befriend Rachel genuinely. Though she’s far from an underdog, I found myself rooting for her throughout the movie.
Crazy Rich Asians has all the stamps of approval: the backing of a major Hollywood studio (Warner Brothers), an attractive and talented cast, and a well-written contemporary narrative based on Asian and Asian American characters. So it’s not hard to throw support behind it. Supporting the movie is kind of like supporting your beautiful popular friend for Class Council president. Funny, mainstream, and totally palatable. What a nice (and somewhat foreign) feeling to walk out of the theaters and think, “Heck yeah! I’m proud to be Asian American”!”
And yet, there’s still a long way to go. On opening night, I was reminded of what a rare privilege this kind of representation means. My friend who is of Egyptian descent came to watch Crazy Rich Asians with me. She is a filmmaker and currently studying animation while writing her own screenplay on the side. Her dream is to create the first animation series featuring an Arab American family. She told me that there has never been an all Arab American cast film produced by a major Hollywood studio. I had no idea. And it goes to show that sometimes we can be stuck in our bubbles. So I hope that just as Crazy Rich Asians has shattered several myths about who we are across the colorful diaspora of Asia, it can also help pave the way for our brothers and sisters in other minority communities. Beyond box office numbers, success should be measured by the breadth of diversity, beyond our own, that we can help bring to the table.
“We know that the representation, or lack thereof, of not just Asians but also other minorities in the media and in popular culture directly affects how those minorities are treated in everyday life. And that’s why it means so much to me that this is a Hollywood studio making and promoting this film… and I hope it opens the doors for more diverse and inclusive storytelling across the board, not just for Asians.” — Gemma Chan
Apart from the success of Crazy Rich Asians, many of the actors themselves have rocked the boat in their own lives. Gemma Chan who plays Astrid (my now not-so-secret girl crush) studied law at Oxford and auditioned for drama school in secret. Her parents were skeptical. “My Dad said to me it doesn’t matter how good you are, how talented you are, but how many faces do you see on the screen that look like ours,” she said in the LA Times.
Other cast members navigated similarly zigzag paths. Kenneth Yang went to college as an economics major because it was the closest major that could please his Asian parents, to only then become a standup comedian after college. Ronny Chieng also studied law in Australia before entering the standup comedy circuit. And Ken Jeong who plays Awkwafina’s Singaporean dad started on the pre-med track when he was at Duke.
“I got Koreaned into being pre-med and I got Americaned into being an actor— Ken Jeong
It’s stories like these that my co-host Lucia and I seek to tell in our first season of Rock the Boat. The pursuit of one’s dreams requires huge leaps of faith; seeing these actors on the big screen is a reminder that their story is ours. That’s the privilege of representation. And that’s why we’re so excited to be part of this movement.
As director Jon Chu said, this isn’t just a movie or a moment; it’s a movement. In order to sustain it, we must have wave, after wave, after wave.
This post was originally published on Medium.
One of the beauties of the city is its sheer diversity. With more than 3 million foreign-born residents and dozens of vibrant enclaves, New York City’s melting pot is golden lore.
But urban environments are inherently greater than the sum of their individually diverse elements. The advantage of the “melting pot”, arguably, comes less from the stew, and more from the cooks gathered round the brew.
The question then is, how do you rally the cooks? In a place like New York City where so many types of people and industries live, it should be easy to bump heads across-industry, ethnicity, and income, right? Mix and match, throw a dash of spice, and voila! Cross-pollination.
All possible, but easier said than done. In the span of a day, I could go from work in a government office, to lunch with a friend creating a fashion-tech startup, to a tour of Harlem Biospace (the city’s first affordable biotech incubator), to drinks with a rep at a wine distributor. Across ethnic lines, I have my pick of the pot: dining options in Chinatown, Harlem, Little Italy, or Williamsburg. And across income brackets, there’s no avoiding the homeless person asking for change on the subway.
I could do all of that, but I could also just as easily retreat into a bubble: spending all day at work, occasionally checking Twitter as my portal to the world (90% of tweets on my feed which come from NYT, FT, WSJ, BI [add other elitist news acronym]-reading journalists/techies like myself) and hanging out with my similarly educated, millennial friends after-hours. This happens about 4/5 of my working days.
I’m not saying one scenario is better or worse than the other, but I am saying that one allows for greater exchange of new possibilities. You be the judge of which.
It’s deceivingly easy to be siloed into little cubby holes. Even in a city that prides itself on diversity – by nature of our occupations, orientations, social statuses- it’s natural to find ourselves placed in certain environments, gravitated toward the same types of people, and engaged in conversations that fit neatly into what we already know. This is fine. There’s something to be said about consistency and comfort. But for those who have chosen a city life, ignoring the diversity around us is like having a bunch of fresh ingredients ready for a great meal, and never actually throwing them in the pot to cook. You’re better getting take-out and moving to the suburbs. A true urban environment is made for serendipitous interaction, fusion of opposites, and a little bit of discomfort. We must be intentional about seeking it.
I’ll end with a story that reveals how easy it is to fall victim to our own bubbles. During NYC’s September primary election, a well-known figure in the tech community, Reshma Saujani, ran for the office of Public Advocate. She had started an organization called Girls Who Code and was married to another well-known entrepreneur, Nihal Mehta. She had the backing of major figures including Jack Dorsey of Twitter, who threw a fundraiser for her. I even included her and her husband on a Business Insider list of 16 power couples. So of course, I thought an election win was a sure thing. Everyone on Twitter seemed to think so too.
Well? Apparently I trust Twitter too much. It turns out Reshma didn’t even crack 5% of the vote. Had I bothered to check the polls or venture beyond my Twittersphere/usual tech blogs, I would have seen that the winner, Letitia James, had been ahead in the polls for a while. Now that I work in government, I’m aware of how well-liked Letitia is among government and community circles, making it slightly embarrassing that I had no idea who she was 3 months ago. I also see how few people within government know Reshma, which is also a bit of a shame because her influence through Girls Who Code is significant. Either way, it shows that sometimes, beyond our better judgement, we’re stuck in our little bubbles.
I’m afraid that with the increased emergence of niche-based groups, the population is becoming further fragmented. We stick with what we know. Corporatis in cubed nation, free spirits in their coffee shops. What would our world look like if skills were vetted outside their typical context? Classrooms in restaurants. Bankers in public service. Could be a complete disaster (like the mishmash soup I once created with random leftovers), or a beautiful stew of possibility (when the recipe is meticulously designed to maximize skill sets and tastes.)
Today’s problems cannot be met by government, business, or civil society alone. Yet until we are willing to peek into other worlds, we’ll never know how to create the best mix. We’ll simply remain imagining, instead of living, the possibilities.