Crazy Rich Asians – on an airplane

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.


Crazy Rich Asians – (book and film)

Crazy Rich Asians (novel) by Kevin Kwan, 2013 

Crazy Rich Asians (film) directed by Jon M. Chu, SK Global, 2018

I was no stranger to Singapore’s perks and quirks when I first heard of Kevin Kwan’s hilarious novel. I learned about the book from a friend who like me, had lived in Singapore in the 1980s and returned decades later to gawk at the Disneyesque additions to the island city-state.

In Singapore, I worked with 40 Singaporean journalists in a no-frills newsroom that resembled a factory floor. My coworkers were earnest, down-to-earth intellectuals, who slaved away at their desks while dreaming about getting away from Singapore on holiday. We had a couple of crazies in the newsroom but I doubt that any of my coworkers were crazy rich.

Author Kevin Kwan is an American citizen as well as a Singaporean. His engineer father relocated the family to Houston when he was a boy. Singapore apparently wants him back to serve the compulsory military service stint he has not served. Facing possible legal jeopardy, Kwan did not attend the Singapore premiere of the film.

Kwan’s first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, gives outsiders an amusingly encyclopedic insider’s look at the Republic of Singapore, a buckled-down single-party state smaller than New York City. While spinning a soap-opera love story, Kwan’s spot-on narrative tackles such topics as the richness of Singaporean cuisine, the challenge of adhering to ancient Chinese tradition in the 21st Century, and the fine art of cursing in surreptitiously spoken Chinese dialects.

At two hours’ running time, the movie can’t touch the book’s ability to serve up delicious detail about food and foibles, families and friendships.

CRA is primarily about Singaporeans, Americans are conspicuous by comparison. The movie’s rom-com plot hinges on whether a quintessentially American girl will be accepted by her Chinese Singaporean boyfriend’s ultra-rich social circle. Unlike Chinese Singaporeans, whose worldview is Confucian and class-conscious, the Chinese American interloper and potential wife (Oh my God!) embodies the openness and disdain for class distinction that most of the world admires in Americans.

Rachel Chu is no Ugly American.  I believe the author and the film’s director made a conscious effort to show Rachel as a natural beauty, confident and capable in her own skin. Early on, she is dining in a cafe with her Singaporean boyfriend Nicholas Young in New York City. The two are casual, carefree and spontaneous. With eyes only for each other, the cool couple is unaware that gossip-hungry Singaporeans have spotted them in a cafe and outed them in social media posts. When Rachel agrees to join Nick at a wedding in Singapore, she has no idea that her boyfriend’s uppity family has been tipped off about their relationship, and no idea that they’re so unlike Nick. They’re frighteningly stiff, extremely formal and tightly culture-bound.

Inside the palatial villas of the Young Family, Rachel is a Cinderella surrounded by ugly stepsisters – her boyfriend’s cousins and friends -who are not ugly but outwardly gorgeous. A wag at a posh party observes that Rachel is the odd-woman out in that she hasn’t had plastic surgery. Among wealthy Asians, eye jobs and boob jobs are as common as BMWs and Benzes. In one scene at a bachelorette party on a private resort island, Rachel reveals how un-Singaporean she is when she’s reluctant to join the rich but opportunistic women invited by their host to scoop up designer clothes and accessories for free!

Commenting on NPR, the Malaysian Chinese author Tash Aw put it this way: “Rachel’s squeaky-clean naivete is a clever foil to the intricate workings of the high-glamour Asian set around her. Chinese on the outside but all-American on the inside, she allows us to see the myriad nuances of intra-Asian culture that the novel goes to great lengths to show.”

Rachel is an economics professor at NYU. By Singaporean standards, Economics is a perfectly respectable field of academia, except that trickster Kwan has made Rachel a teacher of Game Theory. Being a Professor of Game Theory strikes conservative Chinese as an inconsequential and very American calling. I checked the NYU Course Catalogue to see if there is such a course. Sure enough, Economics 309 Game Theory and Strategy is “an applied overview of game theoretical concepts that emphasizes their use in real-world situations.” Though Rachel is mocked for being an expert at Game Theory it pays off in one of the film’s most dramatic scenes when Rachel is pitted against Nick’s mother, the imperious Eleanor Young, in a culturally loaded game of mahjong. Played to perfection by Michelle Yeoh, a former Miss Malaysia and a Bond Girl, Eleanor is obsessed by ancestral lineage. She is not alone. Alll the snoops in her social circle want to know if Rachel is a scion of the Taiwanese Chus, the Malaysian Chus, or some other fabulously financially successful Chus. Eleanor  is so desperate to learn the Chinese pedigree of her potential daughter-in-law, she hires a detective to trace Rachel’s Chinese roots.

Rachel is a luscious slice of apple pie as played by Constance Tianming Wu, an American comedic actress of Chinese descent who appeared in the ABC-TV series “Fresh Off The Boat.” Born in Richmond, Va., raised in the Bay Area and educated at Stanford, Wu is as American as chop suey and fortune cookies.

Rachel’s mother, the hard-working, self-made real estate saleswoman Kerry Chu, is played by Tan Kheng Hua, a Singapore-born actress who earned her American chops as a student at the University of Indiana. And while a Chinese Singaporean plays Rachel’s Chinese American mother, a Korean American plays her Singaporean best friend who has returned home to resume her crazy rich life. Singapore’s wackiest returnee from America is brought to life by Queens-born comedian and rapper Nora Lum (a.k.a Awkwafina), who was last seen in “Ocean’s 8.”

When the ancestry-obsessed Youngs learn the unhappy truth about Rachel’s lineage, a happy ending seems unlikely. Then again, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a romantic comedy about two kids who are crazy about each other, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer.

Both the writer and the film’s director are Singaporeans who choose to live in the United States for reasons that may be obvious to Singaporeans.

In case you’ve been living on a planet where there are no crazy rich Asians, be advised that there is now a Crazy Rich Asians trilogy.