Jeffery C. J. Chen is a PhD student in history at Stanford University. He completed his first graduate degree, an MSt in British and European History, at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the commercial networks bridging Qing China and 18th-century Europe.
To judge by recent media coverage of the new film Crazy Rich Asians, a new frontier has opened for Asian representation on screen. Finally, a film with an all-Asian ensemble extending from the screen to the director’s chair. But Crazy Rich Asians is nothing new. Put simply, Crazy Rich Asians is not a film made by Asians for Asians; it is a film made for eyes that have adjusted to the Western gaze. Far from being revolutionary in its depiction of Asian characters, the film draws on long-established Oriental tropes familiar and palatable to the Western consumer.
Before the imperialist scramble of the 19th century, the East was a blank part of the map onto which the West could paint all sorts of fantastical imagery. The Asia of Marco Polo, Peter Mundy and Voltaire was a place of “antiquity, largeness, richness, and plentifulness.” European writers were little concerned with realistic accounts when there was such a market for Oriental fantasies, and when the “East” served so effectively as a rhetorical mirror for self-critique.
All these stereotypes are present in Crazy Rich Asians. Rachel Chu, the Asian-American stand-in for the audience, plays the part of the intrepid traveller, a Marco Polo for our time. Take this passage from Kevin Kwan’s book, which could be lifted – if not for the stultifying prose – from Polo himself: “Rachel couldn’t believe her eyes. It was as if they had stumbled onto a secret cloister deep within a Moorish palace. Elaborately carved columns lined the arcades around the perimeter, and a lotus blossom sculpted out of rose quartz protruded from a stone wall, spouting a stream of water.” The film based on the book fares no better, with its wide-angled look at Oriental splendour.
The title, Crazy Rich Asians, groups disparate racial-cultural-linguistic people together under the broad umbrella of “Asian.” As a geographic label, “Asian” encompasses half the world’s population and a quarter of its land mass. As a cultural label, it is useless. That is not to say that Mr. Kwan ignores the differences between East Asian countries. In fact, the most disturbing part of the series is Mr. Kwan’s snobbish elevation of so-called “old-money” Asians from the former British colonies of Singapore and Hong Kong, in contrast to the brash, newly minted money of the mainland Chinese. Mr. Kwan’s protagonists, the Young family, are beautiful, pedigreed and elegantly mannered, characteristics the author troublingly ascribes to their English upbringing. The Youngs’ status is tied to their perfect command of English, to their residences (the black-and-white houses of colonial administrators) and to their facility with European customs and designers. Here is a sample exchange from the book: “'You’ll have to forgive me, my Mandarin is really quite rusty,' Great-Aunt Rosemary added in a Vanessa Redgrave English.” The link drawn here, between cultivation and European manners, is well in line with the old rhetoric of empire.
I know, of course, that Crazy Rich Asians is not a serious work. It is a satire and should be treated as such. That does not change, however, the underlying goal of the book, which is to present the rarefied world of the “Asian elite” in a way Western audiences can easily understand. Mr. Kwan himself acknowledges that the literary models for his book series are wholly English, though Crazy Rich Asians is a poor echo of Edith Wharton, Anthony Trollope, Evelyn Waugh and the other great satirists of money.
If we were to trace the narrative arc of “Asian” representations in, say, English writing, we would see that depictions of the East have undergone several phases, a phenomenon some scholars have called the “pendulum effect.” General attitudes toward the East have veered from the positive, as was the case before the 18th century, to the negative, such as during the 19th century, when colonial zeal was at its peak, and during the 20th century, when “Red China” was denounced as part of the Cold War.
Crazy Rich Asians shows us that the pendulum has swung again, back to a period when Europeans used “Asia” as an imagined mirror to reflect on their own relative weakness. Today, with China and other rising Asian economies never far from the news, the West again faces an existential crisis. The popularity of Crazy Rich Asians is a response to this.
Representation itself is not enough. What matters is the substance of the representation. It is a pity that this film, which so valiantly employs diverse Asian talent, still does not allow “Asians” to truly act and speak for themselves.