It is very rare to witness a movie delving deeper into serious issues than the book on which it is based. Jon M. Chu’s recent movie, Crazy Rich Asians, is one such case, and a bit of an unexpected one. The film is based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel by the same title. Kwan is a writer of Singaporean Chinese origin and his childhood in Asia’s only city-state partially influenced him to pen a novel set in the milieu of Singapore’s Chinese elite, the “crazy rich Asians.”
The story follows Rachel Chu, an American professor of Chinese descent, as she accompanies her boyfriend Nick on a trip to meet his Singaporean family. It is only during this journey that she finds out that Nick, so far seemingly a quintessential good boy from the neighborhood, is the heir to one of Singapore’s most affluent dynasties. The family fortune soon turns out to be an unfortunate twist in their love story, as it causes rifts between Rachel and Nick’s family. At the same time, the story lets us have a peek into the unreal world of Singapore’s Chinese elite.
Kevin Kwan’s novel grew into a trilogy, although so far only the first part has been converted to the silver screen (a sequel is reportedly on the cards). Both the book and the film let us ponder certain aspects of cultural norms and stereotypes, and most of the movie is very closely based on the printed original. Surprisingly, the film – while of course far from being a philosophical treatise – uses the story to explore cultural clashes a bit more than the book did.
Crazy Rich and Traditional Chinese
In the movie, the lives of rich Chinese Singaporeans are centered on values which give priority to the family’s collective interests and happiness over the individuals’ dreams and choices. This traditional mindset is shown in a bad light. After all it is hard to imagine any viewer cheerleading Eleanor (Nick’s mother, an icy, rigid matriarch who guards the family’s honor), instead of big-hearted, yet successful and self-made Rachel whose love and care for Nick cannot be doubted. Quite surprisingly, the two most important scenes that refer to the conflict of cultural values — the dumpling scene (in which Eleanor elaborates on Chinese family values) and the final clash over the game of mahjong between Eleanor and Rachel – do not appear in the book. These scenes add extra flavor to the movie and make it – at least in comparison to the book – both deeper and much more entertaining. One might even start wondering whether the silver screen Eleanor would be an equally important figure if her role had not been given to Michelle Yeoh, one of the most famous and most talented Asian actresses.
The movie also seems to explore the rules of interpersonal etiquette to a greater extent than the book. It increases the role of Ah Ma, Nick’s grandmother and the family’s most respected senior, who initially becomes fond of Rachel thanks to the shape of her nose, which apparently foretells luck and well-being. Moreover, the movie pays much more attention to traditional Chinese courtesy. For example, it is depicted by Peik Lin’s pretended “attempts” to decline an invitation to a party, until – finally – she is “allowed” by cultural rules to accept it. She gets out of her car quickly and grabs a cocktail dress she keeps for such occasions in the trunk.
What does appear in both the movie and the book (although it is explored and depicted in a different manner) is the issue of “losing face,” which means losing a good reputation, honor, or prestige. For example, Astrid, Nick’s cousin and one of family fortune’s heiresses, desperately tries not to let her husband (a poor, unsuccessful “commoner”) feel as if he lost face, and therefore she hides newly-bought luxurious items her husband cannot afford. One might obviously ask whether it was really necessary for her to buy earrings worth $1.2 million in the first place, but that is probably not the point.
Types of Stereotypes
While the Asians in the film – “crazy rich” Chinese-speaking elites based in metropoles, such as Singapore, Shanghai, Taipei, and Hong Kong – seem somehow mixed and indistinguishable in terms of nationality and cultural background, in the book the ladder of Nick family’s biases is clearly visible. Singaporean Chinese treat their Taiwanese counterparts with distrust and repeat stereotypes about them, but the Taiwanese are still regarded as better than mainland Chinese, who are considered the lowest type of Chinese. Singapore itself is also much less devoid of its diversity in the book, where, for instance, the Chinese Singaporeans liberally sprinkle their English with not only Hokkien but also Malay. Generally, however, the story is told from the perspective of the elite, not the common people, so the diversity is mainly the diversity of the resources the rich can afford: the jewelry, the furniture, the food.
When it comes to stereotypes, the book is slightly more balanced than the movie: Everyone has his own biases there. In the film, Rachel is given a higher moral ground. She is the essential good character: intelligent, beautiful, nearly always nice to others, and the only hero who does not follow stereotypes. In the book, however, Rachel’s mother, a continental Chinese by origin, considers Singaporean Chinese as the stiffest, while Rachel not only avoids dating Asians but uses the term “chuppie.”
Rachel’s initial approach to Asians may be considered hypocrisy but it is the mental world of the “crazy rich Asians” that is presented as much more out-of-this-world. The elites live in a bubble world of private jets and palatial mansions. One of the characters reminds another that not every person in Asia is wealthy. The members of this class are never shown talking about subjects such as, say, poverty in India, minorities in Myanmar, or the environment in Malaysia. What they do know – and are supposed to know – is what shops in Paris and restaurants in Hong Kong are the best and most chic. At the same time they skim off the cream of Asia, purchasing Burmese jewelry, Malay furniture, or Makassar pearls. In many ways, they remind us of the Western elite: eager to possess Oriental, “exotic” luxuries, but not really to understand other Asian nations.
The East-West Game of Mahjong
The most important difference between the book and the movie is that only the latter raises the issue of a clash between the East and the West, or, rather, between their stereotypical images. As we can see in the film, Eleanor’s and Rachel’s verbal duel looks like a clash between what is imagined to be traditional, conservative (and less attractive in most cases) on one side, and what is modern and liberating (though egoistic and destructive, in Eleanor’s view) on the other. Contrary to typical Hollywood depictions, the West is not dominant – it is Asia that seems glamorous, fascinating, and crazy rich.
What is probably most interesting and original in this East-West encounter is that Crazy Rich Asians is in no way a sentimental story of Rachel’s longing for her “true” culture and people. On the contrary – she considers New York City her home, does not regret that she had not been raised in China, and does not despair that she did not know how to make dumplings. Instead of “return to your roots” and “remember who you are!” moralizing we are told that one is free to feel like a banana (“yellow outside, white inside”) and to follow his or her own set of values.
Finally, the movie in a way prepares us mentally for what we have been facing for years: The strengthening of the East against the West, though in this case it is not about the rise of China, but of the international Chinese elite. Both in the movie and the book, Peik Lin’s father tells his kids to eat up, as, he claims, there are children starving in America. The novel, moreover, quotes one character who describes the United States as financially broke. We are also reminded that there are more millionaires in Asia than in Europe. When Rachel arrives at the Singapore airport, she claims that in comparison to it JFK in New York looks like Mogadishu.
The opening scene of both the movie and the book shows how back in 1986 the manager of an exclusive, old and traditional British hotel refuses to admit a Chinese family. The film allows us to think that they indeed had a room booked and yet the manager did not want to accept them because they were Chinese; the book leaves no doubts about it. It is also clearly shown as a thing of the past, where the West was still resisting the onslaught of a non-Western elite. Moreover, one Chinese character in the book, Felicity, claims that it was a stray incident and that usually she was not treated that way in London. Astrid, however, talks about Asians being allowed to buy only one item at Louis Vuitton in Paris. Thus, there are biases but also powers of attraction on both sides. The Western elite has contempt for the Chinese elite, but needs its money. The Chinese elite has equal contempt for its Western counterparts, but keeps parroting their style.
To be sure, both the book and the movie do not aspire to be essays on culture. The novel shows various stereotypes but does not seem to be aimed at dispelling them. The movie shows conflicting values – or rather their common perceptions. It does not try to reflect on whether these values are really so strong and universal, and if they steer the life of individuals as often and as much as it is imagined. What the film does, however, is remind us that the Eastern elite is here to stay, and the West should finally come to terms with this fact.
When it comes to style, though, the millionaires of the East still want to be like their Western counterparts, not the other way round. The Chinese super rich may no longer be treated with such contempt in top-end European or American hotels but at the same time the Western elite seems little interested in learning to play mahjong or making dumplings the Chinese way. Let us see if the sequel will try to address such issues more than the first movie.
Antonina Luszczykiewicz is a Ph.D. student in the field of Cultural Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.