Actor Constance Wu as Rachel Chu – Warner Brothers photo
I recently watched “Crazy Rich Asians” for the second time on an airplane headed for – where else? – Singapore. Watching a film on a small screen is different from seeing it in a theater because your nose is in it.
Once again I was impressed at how American the Chinese-American Rachel was made to appear in contrast to her Chinese-Singaporean detractors. She is disarmingly casual while, with few exceptions, the Singaporeans are stiffly formal, and she is charmingly self-deprecating while they raise self-importance to skyscraping heights.
Early on, Rachel attempts to establish her Chinese chops by saying, “I’m so Chinese, I’m an econ professor and I’m lactose intolerant.” Economics is an acceptable professional pursuit in the financial capital of Southeast Asia but Rachel is a professor of game theory, which to Singaporeans seems a trivial pursuit.
Twenty minutes into the film, Rachel’s boyfriend Nicholas Young discusses his relationship with Rachel for the first time, face-to-face with his imperious mother. Singapore’s most eligible bachelor proffers his New York girlfriend’s suitability by noting how auspicious it is “that the first girl I bring home is a Chinese professor.” His mother, the fearsome matriarch Eleanor Young, quickly corrects him: “A Chinese American professor.”
In a face-to-face with Rachel, Eleanor pointedly tells her that following a personal passion is O.K. for Americans but Singaporeans put age-old family obligations above personal pleasure.
Eleanor again derides the frivolity of the American soul during the mahjong smackdown (where Rachel’s knowledge of game theory ultimately trumps Eleanor’s traditional Chinese mahjong strategy). Intent on busting up the relationship, Eleanor plays her anti-Rachel hand bluntly, telling her: “There is a Hokkien phrase kaki lang. It means: our own kind of people, and you’re not our own kind.’” Elaborating, Eleanor says: “You’re a foreigner – American – and all Americans think about is their own happiness.”
Plucky Rachel challenges her adversary: “Don’t you want Nick to be happy?” Happiness, Eleanor retorts, is an illusion. Her family’s enormous wealth “did not just happen,” she says. “We understand how to build things that last.”
Many Singaporeans did not like CRA. While the film portrayed the litterless, chewing-gum-less city-state as a gleaming super-modern, super-green metropolis in breathtaking Hawaii Five-O-style videography, it did nothing to show the multicultural aspects of the Lion City. The only non-Chinese who stand out in the two-hour film are the Sikh guards who confront the car bringing Rachel to the Youngs’ eye-popping mansion (shot on location in Malaysia).
However, other Singaporeans got a chuckle out of the cinematic skewering of traditional upper-crust Chinese families. My Singaporean friend who was raised in a traditional Chinese family said she knew old-fashioned families like those surrounding the Youngs. In fact, her own mother demanded that she and all her siblings contribute 50-percent of their salary to the family. She confessed that, one year, when her employer gave her a huge end-of-the-year bonus, she failed to declare the full amount for tithing by her Mum.
Not all Chinese Singaporeans are as tightly bound by tradition as Eleanor Young.