In terms of diversity, Hollywood has made some progress in recent times, with films like “A Wrinkle in Time,” “Black Panther,” “Girl’s Trip” and “Ocean’s Eight” featuring more women and people of color in starring roles. “Black Panther” alone is evidence against the common claim that a more diverse movie cast generates less revenue on an international scale. These movies are amazing and a step in the right direction, but to me, it definitely hasn’t gone unnoticed that Asians and Asian Americans are still largely underrepresented. Which is why I was beyond excited when the trailer for “Crazy Rich Asians” was released a few weeks ago.
“Crazy Rich Asians” centers on Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American economics professor who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nick Young, for his best friend’s wedding. She meets Nick’s family and discovers that they are one of the wealthiest families in Asia, with Rachel labeling Nick as “the Prince William of Asia,” though Nick says he is “much more of a Harry.” The movie is based on Kevin Kwan’s novel of the same name and is directed by Jon M. Chu.
Taiwanese-American actress Constance Wu from “Fresh off the Boat” plays Rachel and British-Malaysian actor Henry Golding is Nick. Malaysian queen Michelle Yeoh, of “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” fame, portrays Nick’s overbearing mother. The cast also includes Gemma Chan, Ken Jeong, Awkwafina, Nico Santos, Ronny Chieng and Harry Shum Jr. These are the faces representing contemporary Asia. When the above actors appear in movies or on TV, they’re often one of few, if not the only, Asian character. Seeing all of them together onscreen will really be a historic moment.
It’s also historic because “Crazy Rich Asians” is the first Hollywood movie to feature an all-Asian cast since “The Joy Luck Club” twenty years ago.
When I was 15 years old, my parents told me it was finally time I watched “The Joy Luck Club,” another movie with an Asian director and based on a novel by an Asian author. The experience I had watching that film is unlike any other in my life. It was the first movie I saw that featured strong Asian American women in starring roles. Some of the scenes were reminiscent of my own life. The movie itself was groundbreaking as there were no predominantly Asian Hollywood movies prior to its release.
Hollywood’s track record with Asian Americans in film hasn’t been that great. In the past, when Asian actors have appeared on screen, they portray very stereotypical roles. They are the kung fu master, the nerdy sidekick and the butt of all jokes. Their roles are exoticized and they rarely ever get to play the hero. And, of course, there’s whitewashing. Remember Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”? In more recent years, there’s Emma Stone in “Aloha” and Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell,” among others. More and more people are starting to speak out on this issue. Hari Kondabolu’s documentary “The Problem with Apu” is one such example.
Directors often claim that there simply aren’t any good Asian actors available. “Ghost in the Shell” screenwriter Max Landis defended Johansson’s casting by stating, “There are no A-list female Asian celebrities right now on an international level.” Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin wrote in an email that he had trouble adapting Michael Lewis’s “Flash Boys,” which featured a Japanese protagonist, because “there aren’t any Asian movie stars.” To me, Hollywood is saying Asians aren’t as relatable. Our stories don’t sell, so they aren’t important.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is proof that you can make a movie with Asian actors that will appeal to international audiences. To the sentiment that Asians aren’t relatable, I’m going to steal something comedian Kumail Nanjiani said in a video shown at the Oscars about the importance of representation:
“Some of my favorite movies are by straight white dudes about straight white dudes. Now straight white dudes can watch movies starring me and you relate to that. It’s not that hard. I’ve done it my whole life.”
Nicole Wong is a fourth-year literary journalism and comparative literature major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.