Commentary: Not Singaporean enough? Are we expecting too much from Crazy Rich Asians?

Commentary: Not Singaporean enough? Are we expecting too much from Crazy Rich Asians?

The Crazy Rich Asians trailer has ignited heated debate about Singaporean representation in a Hollywood film. But where’s the love when it comes to homegrown films and TV shows, asks CNA Lifestyle’s May Seah.

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Rachel Chu (right, played by Constance Wu) is the American girl who travels to Singapore for the first time to meet her Singaporean boyfriend’s (played by Henry Golding) family. (Photo: Crazy Rich Asians)

The trailer for Crazy Rich Asians came out on Tuesday (April 24), and my reaction was: “Well, this is a win for the Singapore Tourism Board”.

The movie, distributed by Warner Bros Pictures and produced by the same production company as the Hunger Games movies, is based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Singapore-born, US-based Kevin Kwan.

The romantic comedy is about Rachel Chu (played by Fresh Off The Boat’s Constance Wu), an American girl who travels to Singapore for the first time to meet her Singaporean boyfriend’s (played by Henry Golding) family, and subsequently discovers that they are obscenely rich and bats**t crazy. Cue scenes of Marina Bay Sands, ridiculous opulence and Michelle Yeoh as a terrifying matriarch.

Other Singaporeans had reactions that were different from mine. Because the film is set in Singapore, and some of its scenes were filmed in Singapore, they were expecting a win for Singaporean representation.

As a result, many Twitter users were disappointed that it didn’t look like “an accurate representation of our country and culture”. Or that it “has nothing to do with Singapore … There’s SO much missing”.

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Crazy Rich Asians tweet screengrab

Others were disappointed that although the film, with its all-Asian cast, had been touted by Hollywood as a milestone achievement for representation, Singapore’s racial diversity was not accurately represented, with only Chinese people being featured.  

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They speak truth.

But in the first place, I’m not sure why I would expect a Hollywood rom-com to be able to represent Singapore, much less care about doing it faithfully.

Am I crazy and rich? (Answer: Bitter laugh.) It does not mean the movie is about me just because it is set in Singapore. The title itself already signals that this is not a film concerned with verisimilitude. It is an over-the-top freak show spectacle, as viewed by an outsider who is passing a value judgment.

Hollywood is making a film for Hollywood, not for Singapore. This includes an audience that still thinks Singapore is located in China.

That’s why they chose a story in which the protagonist and central character is an American girl seeing a new, exotic world through American eyes. That’s why her Singaporean friend, although Singlish-speaking in the book, is played by American rapper-comedian Awkwafina, who was born in Queens, New York. And why her father is played by America’s most famous Asian funnyman, Ken Jeong.

From Hollywood’s perspective, the movie’s quite a big deal. It’s the first major production that isn’t a period piece with an all-Asian cast in 25 years.

And in all fairness, its creators didn’t simply brush aside questions about representation. In a CNA Lifestyle interview last year, director Jon Chu admitted he grappled with these.

“Are we allowed to cast a half Chinese, half some other ethnicity person in a Chinese role? Are we allowed to cast a Korean as a Chinese person?” he said. “Because with other ethnicities, we have British people playing US soldiers or Spiderman which is an all-American thing…”

And, you know what, even though the movie is more concerned about being relatable to Westerners than to Asians, it’s still going to make a ton of money off Asians all over the world, who will watch a landmark Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast. Sorry if this makes you feel less than special, but the awful truth is even if the whole of Singapore refused to watch it, that would barely make a dent in the total box office revenue.

Needless to say, this film, and the hype about “representation” surrounding it, says much more about Hollywood than it does about Singapore.

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Singapore-made web series Perfect Girl. (Photo: BananaMana Films)

So, when I read the comments and tweets by people who had felt let down by the trailer, I was heartened by what these clearly indicated: That Singaporeans were mature and discerning enough to be hungry for stories about Singapore told by the people who know Singapore best: Singaporeans.

Er, but, hang on a minute. Don’t we have those? I mean, there are cop thrillers on Vasantham. There are heartland family dramas on Channel 8 and Suria. There are soap operas on Channel 5. Some wonderful films have been done by directors such as Royston Tan and K Rajagopal. There’s a Singapore-made web series, Perfect Girl, which was picked up by Netflix, Viki and Naver TVcast. And there are Singaporean actors who have given a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice.

Sure, not every show is worth spending your time on. Local productions don’t have even a fraction of Hollywood’s budgets. Our industry – along with our society – hasn’t had half the time to develop. And our pool of talent is infinitely smaller, thanks to our tiny population. We have a crazy long way to go.

But it comforts me to know that at least our audiences can appreciate how important it is to support local efforts so that we can one day have more and better stories that accurately represent Singapore. Right?

And then I read some of the comments from Facebook users about the Star Awards 2018, which was held just last weekend to acknowledge work done in local Mandarin television over the past year.

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Help me out here, guys. So, naturally, we don’t want stories that seem to be about us but aren’t really about us – we want stories that are properly us. At the same time, we go out of our way to say unsupportive things about films and TV shows that are made by us, for us, which have no chance of growing or developing without our support. I have to admit that I’m a little confused. What do we want, exactly?

Until someone ’splains it to me, there’s only one thing I know with any measure of certainty: The good folks at the tourism board have already hit their KPIs for the year to come. Because when it comes to marketing, things don’t have to be representative in order to sell.

Like how people think those are Golding’s crazy rich abs in the trailer when they might actually belong to his co-star Pierre Png.

Screen grab Henry Golding

Source: CNA/bk(mm)