Op-Ed : I’ve seen « Crazy Rich Asians » and I wonder if it will change the way people see me
Amy Hong is a Vietnamese-American residing in Paris. She is a consultant working on migration policy and human rights.
For the past three weeks, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ has been dominating the US box office, becoming a real social phenomenom. Amy Hong has seen it and shares her thoughts with Clique.
Crazy Rich Asians official trailer. The movie will be released in October in France.
I went to see Crazy Rich Asians on the night it came out. The film, based on the best-selling novel by Singaporean-American author Kevin Kwan, is a two-hour container of unabashed, escapist entertainment that easily enmeshes us in its uncomplicated plot: Boy falls for girl. Boy comes from an obscenely rich family and hides this from girl. Boy brings girl home, and his mother, a stern matriarch, threatens their relationship. But in the end, love triumphs…
Needless to say, what makes Crazy Rich Asians noteworthy is not its predictable plot line marked by well-worn romantic comedy tropes. Rather, the film stands apart because it is the first major Hollywood production in 25 years to feature a majority Asian cast.
What is more, the film’s characters, far from rehashing well-known Asian stereotypes, are atypical in today’s cinematic landscape for their relative complexity and multi-dimensionality. Hailed as a cultural watershed, Time magazine has declared that « Crazy Rich Asians is going to change Hollywood.«
The Time magazine cover featuring Crazy Rich Asians’ Constance Wu.
I do not know if Crazy Rich Asians is going to change Hollywood. I do wonder, though, whether the film is going to change the way I am seen in France.
A Vietnamese-American native of California, I have spent almost a decade in Western Europe. Time and again, I have seen how differently white Americans and Americans of color are perceived abroad. When white Americans are said they are American, they are not pushed to specify their origins further. If anything, I have seen European friends mock certain white Americans who still claim their European heritage. For these friends, Americans who identify as German-American — without speaking a word of German or knowing anything about German culture — borders on the absurd. These white Americans are « just American. »
And yet, when Americans of color, particularly non-black Americans of color, claim they are just American, they are susceptible to reactions of bewilderment or even ridicule. Last year, a Chinese-American acquaintance recounted the story of being in France with a group of white Americans and being the only one who was asked about her “origines. »
“As if white people didn’t have ‘origins!’ » she mocked.
To me, her experience is all too familiar. After six years in Paris, what continues to fascinate me is when French people raise their eyebrows or gaze at me with a tinge of suspicion when I tell them I am American, born and raised in Northern California.
Some, unsatisfied with this information, insist on knowing from where I came before California (that is, before I was born).
Crazy Rich Asians timely and necessarily erodes the notion that white Americans are “regular” Americans, while Americans of color need to be qualified. Apart from being inherently racist, this idea – which is deeply embedded in our collective consciousness – disguises a number of perverse realities. We often forget, for example, that the United States’ majority white population can in part be traced to the country’s deliberate efforts, past and present, to keep its population and citizenry white through racist immigration and citizenship policies. Prior to 1952, these same policies could have legally barred my parents from becoming naturalized precisely because they were Asian.
Chinese and Japanese women waiting within an enclosure to be processed at the Angel Island Reception Center during the 1920’s. (AP/Wide World Photos)
The synonymousness of “white” and “American” also obscures the fact that demographically, the United States is rapidly moving away from whiteness. Consider this: babies of color now outnumber non-Hispanic white babies in the United States, and non-Latino whites (now about 62% of the U.S. population) are projected to be a minority as early as 2044. And yet, despite this, the American film industry is still overwhelmingly dominated by white directors, white producers, white screenwriters, white actors and hence white-centered stories.
What this means is that the stories of people of color in the United States – let us be clear, the stories of the non-white population that will represent the majority of Americans within 30 years – have long been considered unworthy of any meaningful representation in American cinema. This asymmetry has profoundly shaped – in the United States, France and elsewhere – the widespread image of those who do, and do not, count as « real » Americans.
Furthermore, by systematically placing the same type of characters in the forefront and others in the background, American cinema has conditioned us, more than we can imagine, to believe that there are certain people whose perspectives, values, and stories of loving and suffering simply count more. The stories about this « elite, » representing but a fraction of all American stories, would have us believe that certain people, unlike those who find themselves in the background, are superior – a universal human reference with which we can all identify without exception.
I was recently reminded of this by Kelly Marie Tran’s piece in The New York Times about growing up in a world that taught « some people they were heroes, saviors, inheritors of the Manifest Destiny ideal, » while it taught Tran – the Star Wars actress who left Instagram after encountering a barrage of racist and sexist online harassment – that she only « existed only in the background of their stories, doing their nails, diagnosing their illnesses, supporting their love interests. »
« Becoming Rose » : a featurette about Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars VIII.
Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen diagnoses this same problem on screen as one of « narrative plentitude. » According to Nguyen, « narrative plenitude is what makes it possible for Hollywood to make so many Vietnam War movies » that take place in Vietnam, and yet in which Vietnamese characters « exist only to mutter, grunt, groan, curse and jabber incomprehensibly until they are rescued, raped or killed. »
All throughout my upbringing, this impoverished and undignified Asian representation in popular culture – not to mention in the history books and novels I read at school – hugely influenced my idea of who I was and was not.
It fashioned the invisible ceilings that hovered densely over my various dreams. In retrospect, where I saw myself either represented or erased provided a rough existential roadmap that demarcated those societal spaces suitable for me, as opposed to those where I might be begrudgingly accepted at best.
When, then, at the age of 10, the dream of becoming a movie actress suddenly seized me, I was struck with a deafening sense of despair. Like Tran – who now « want[s] to live in a world where children of color don’t spend their entire adolescence wishing to be white » – I already had, at that age, a clear idea of where I belonged. To me, what would surely sabotage my childhood artistic ambitions was not that I was embarrassingly bad at crying on cue – a skill to which I devoted many hours of practice in front of my parents’ full-length bedroom mirror – but that I was phenotypically excluded from the category of faces that dominated my television screen every evening. (This problem has not disappeared: Hollywood originally wanted to change the protagonist of Crazy Rich Asians, a New York-based professor of economics who was raised by a Chinese single mother, by making her white.)
Before starring in ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, Constance Wu was revealed through the ‘Fresh off the Boat’ series (2015), alongside Ian Chen, Forrest Wheeler, Hudson Yang and Randall Park.
As a 10-year-old girl, this « difference » was so unjust and heartbreakingly damning for my career aspirations that I would sometimes drift off into a fantasy world where I imagined the immutable to be rectifiable. On occasion, hiding my Asian eyes with sunglasses, and stroking my nose in a downwards motion – some had told me this exercise would give me a « whiter » nose – I would gaze at myself in the mirror and think, « Now am I pretty enough? ».
When watching Crazy Rich Asians, I thought of this little girl, who at 10 years old was already convinced that she was irreparably inadequate.
I thought of the « problem of representation, » which – as Crazy Rich Asians aptly demonstrates – does not require that the powerful charitably make space for the marginalized, but that the marginalized be able to tell and center themselves in their own stories.
I thought of the deep-seated shame that permeated my adolescence, the same one felt by Tran: shame of my Vietnamese immigrant family, of my parents and their strong accents, and of all the ways in which we were too « fobby. »
When watching Crazy Rich Asians, I was reminded that the rationale behind this shame – that we were lacking something fundamental to be deserving of a place in the broader American narrative – was a bitter lie.
We lacked nothing at all.
Crazy Rich Asians will be released in France in October 10th.
You can reach Amy Hong on Facebook.