SINGAPORE: The highly anticipated movie Crazy Rich Asians opens on Wednesday (Aug 22).
From the moment trailers of the movie began circulating online several months ago, it became clear that there were high expectations of director Jon M Chu’s screen adaptation of Singapore-born author Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel about the lives of ultra-rich Chinese families in Singapore.
Many have lauded it for being the first major Hollywood studio movie in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast and believe it could herald a sea change in terms of how Hollywood deals with diversity.
However, many have also censured it for not being an accurate representation of Singapore society. In fact, there are fears it might even fuel more pernicious caricatures and stereotypes of what Singapore, Singaporeans and Asians are about.
In this respect, indeed Crazy Rich Asians could be more damaging than helpful.
However, let’s face it. The movie does not purport to be an accurate or holistic representation of Singapore society.
It is, pure and simple, a romantic comedy about Crazy Rich Asians and generally, comedic films play off caricatures.
Considering this, should we really have such high expectations and repeatedly condemn the movie for not meeting them?
Seeing caricatures and stereotypes of one’s society is naturally frustrating, and this wouldn’t be the first time that Singapore is misrepresented in the movies or on television.
We often rightfully worry about how the world will see us if these depictions are all they are exposed to.
But if we took a step back, we might see that the solutions to this are not completely out of reach.
WHY REPRESENTATION IS IMPORTANT
Popular culture and the arts can help us understand ourselves, our societies and facilitate such understanding for societies elsewhere.
Singaporean filmmaker Kelvin Tong, in a recent On the Record interview, discussed how seeing Singapore on film in Jack Neo’s Money No Enough several years ago moved him immensely.
Not only did I see Singapore on the big screen, I heard Singapore on the big screen. There’s a certain satisfaction to that.
Asian stories need to be told, but stopping at a single story could have injurious effects on not just others’ views of us, but our own views of the places and communities we live in.
While the onus is partly on individuals to seek out diverse stories for consumption, there is clearly a need to create these stories in the first place.
A SINGLE STORY CANNOT BE AN ANTIDOTE
Most movies aren’t fully representative of the societies they portray.
For instance, we don't expect a single Hollywood movie set in the US to represent every facet of American society.
What America has going for it is a variety and volume of work. Each work portrays a different facet of society. It is this variety, seen as a whole, that has the potential of reflecting a more authentic picture.
Instead of desiring any one story to be an antidote for Asian and Singaporean stereotypes, we need to think about how to encourage more Asian and Singaporean work that can collectively represent our societies more holistically on the local and global stage.
TELL AND RECOGNISE DIVERSE STORIES BY DIVERSE PEOPLE
It’s about who tells the stories, how they are told and also how often they are told.
Other artists I’ve spoken with recently in On the Record interviews have expressed as much.
Award-winning Singaporean filmmaker, K Rajagopal expressed his frustration at a dearth of stories about racial minority groups on the big screen and on stage.
“There were local plays with minority characters but I think they were caricatures. There was no identity, no proper representation. I’m Indian and I’m Singaporean but when I looked around, there was nothing about my community or where I came from, what I’m familiar with, the language, or the people.”
His solution was to create his own work. He was also quick to explain that he has no expectations of others to do so.
“If a Chinese writer feels that they want to write about their own experience and that does not include a non-Chinese person, you can’t force them to create work for the purpose of being inclusive. You have to stand up and create your own work.”
READ: On the Record: K Rajagopal, award-winning Singaporean filmmaker
TOWARDS A MORE COMPLETE NARRATIVE
Actor and filmmaker, Glen Goei who is also Co-Artistic Director of one of Singapore’s leading professional theatre companies, Wild Rice, echoed this sentiment during our interview.
He has had his own battles with international film agents who subscribe to Asian stereotypes. His movie, Blue Mansion was ignored by them simply because it featured Chinese Singaporeans speaking English.
“They are not used to Chinese people speaking English. It’s a stereotype which has been perpetuated over the years. They couldn’t imagine Singaporeans speaking good English.”
But instead of cowing to pressure, he went ahead and kept in English. For him, the film was a powerful representation of the world he grew up in.
“I wasn’t going to make the film in Mandarin because that’s not the world I grew up in. That’s not the world I live in.”
READ: Racism, ignorance and the cost of living: Glen Goei goes On the Record about what ails the arts in Singapore
This proves another point.
Singapore, like any other place in the world, is not a monolith.
Each of our experiences in this country is distinct.
Goei grew up in an English-speaking environment. You might have grown up in a largely Hokkien-speaking or Malay-speaking Singapore.
Goei’s Blue Mansion is simply representative of one facet of Singapore and he acknowledges it.
Let’s also acknowledge that a movie like Crazy Rich Asians is not and cannot be a definitive depiction of what and who we are.
We can censure such depictions, but criticism alone provides few solutions.
We must take it upon ourselves to tell more stories. To ensure that these stories are heard, we also have to believe enough in ourselves to create and support a variety of work that demands local and global attention to form a more complete narrative of who we are.
Bharati Jagdish is the host of Channel NewsAsia's On The Record, a weekly interview with thought leaders across Singapore, and The Pulse, Channel NewsAsia’s weekly podcast that discusses the hottest issues of the week.