THIS week’s column comes from the top of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino. Its author would not like his readers—not to mention TheNewsEditorial’s bosses—to think this his usual perch. It is true that the “Skypark”, a 340-metre-long curved platform set on three, 55-storey towers, is perhaps the most spectacular man-made vantage point in Asia. It is a bold monument to 21st-century Asian consumerism, all the more fitting for its tacky faux-Angkor columns and an infinity pool more crowded than a London lido in a heatwave.
It is also a fitting setting for the final, extravagant party scene—admittedly one of many—in “Crazy Rich Asians”, an American film taking the world’s cinemas by storm. The pool is given over to a troupe of synchronised nymphs. Fireworks race around the platform’s rim. The champagne flows. And the girl gets her crazy rich guy. A column about “Crazy Rich Asians” could hardly be written from the usual garret.
In this Cinderella comedy with a nod to Jane Austen, the central character, Rachel Chu, is a Chinese-American economics professor from a modest background. She falls for a super-handsome fellow academic in New York, Nick Young, without knowing that he is a Singaporean aristocrat, heir to its oldest and wealthiest ethnic-Chinese business dynasty. She understands this only when he invites her to the city-state for the wedding of his best friend. The film is about how she negotiates the pratfalls of trying to make a good impression on Nick’s family. Several of its members, including his mother and grandmother, do not take to her, either because they think she is a gold-digger or because Nick’s marrying for love would be disastrous for a dynasty built on business and careful alliances. Spoiler alert: it all ends well.
In its scenes and costumes, the film is lavish. It is wealth porn, celebrating the luxury-branded materialism of Asia’s super-rich even as it sends them up, often hilariously. It nails the interconnectedness of Asia’s billionaire families in clever and funny ways. A photograph of Rachel and Nick in a New York café spreads across East Asia within seconds in an amusing social-media storm. One member of the Young clan later tries to place Rachel. Is she one of Thailand’s peanut-packing Chus? Or the Taiwan-plastics Chus? (“Not exactly old money, but at least they are one of the most solid families in Taiwan.”)
It may resemble an extended episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”, but the film has been heralded as a milestone for Hollywood, for one striking reason. Not a single central or even auxiliary character is played by a white actor. On the few occasions when white people do feature, they flash across the screen as extras: as plane passengers or, on a giant container ship chartered for an over-the-top bachelor party, as bikini-clad beauty queens for hire.
Asian-Americans, including among the cast, hail this as a breakthrough moment in American cinema. Not since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993 have people of Asian descent telling a contemporary Asian story been given such commercial prominence. No white actor stars in this Asian-themed movie, as Matt Damon did in “The Great Wall”, a mega-film aimed at Chinese audiences. The cast are not fighting their way across the stage as martial-arts supremos, nor do they feature as exotic sex objects. In her role as Rachel, Constance Wu, an American, told the Guardian that she was proud to have helped “amplify the voices of people who don’t feel heard”.
Yet seen from the perspective of Singaporeans, the film looks rather different. Granted, with Singapore as a backdrop, you can hardly expect a revolutionary message. Wealth is closely held in Asia, contributing to extreme inequalities, but this is not the film to highlight them. Singapore’s role in the screenplay, as a playground for Asia’s Maserati-and-Chanel set, aligns closely with the country’s carefully honed tourist image. Never mind that in real life the revellers are often the offspring of ethnic-Chinese dynasties who have made their wealth in less stable parts of South-East Asia, where anti-Chinese resentment has on occasion boiled over into pogroms. This is a feel-good movie.
It is also, at its heart, a highly conservative one. If there is a moral, it is that you can’t live only in love. The power of family ties and networks, and what that means in terms of the moral and material legacy you leave your children, are an ancient Asian tale, which the film rehashes (Nick’s mother’s engagement ring plays a big part). Individualism is frowned upon.
The Straits Times, Singapore’s main paper, which never expresses a view without glancing first at nanny, has evinced enormous pride over “Crazy Rich Asians”. It has run a light-hearted quiz about how to tell “old” money from “new”. It has even, with a measure of relief, reported on the reaction of Singapore’s real rich and famous. One high-roller had been nervous that the film would be too negative towards them, but was pleasantly surprised. Another socialite complained that some of the scenes lacked the wow factor of the parties she was used to.
The other Asians
What the paper has failed to note, however, is how the film ignores all Asians other than the Chinese kind. One-quarter of Singapore’s population is not ethnic-Chinese, but of Malay or Indian descent. Yet when Malays feature, it is as valet-parking attendants. Indonesians are masseuses. As for the pair of Sikh guards at the Young family mansion, their buffoonish performance is as excruciating as Mickey Rooney’s as the Japanese photographer living above Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. Brown bodies, writes one anonymous film-goer, were disembodied “footnotes”: mere openers of doors or cleaners of homes. “Crazy Rich Asians” is not just “money porn”, she goes on, it is also, to many South-East Asians, “othering porn”. What passes as a victory in Hollywood can look like a glaring failure in Singapore.