Crazy Rich Asians and an American in Singapore

The late summer surprise hit of the year appears to be Crazy Rich Asians, a romantic-comedy-drama that has raked in more than $160 million at the box office in less than a month. The filmmakers and cast hope Crazy Rich Asians‘ story of an American in Singapore will challenge modern-day stereotypes of Asia and Asians in general. In some important ways, the movie succeeds, but not necessarily through the devices the producers (or director) may have intended.

Like many romantic-comedies, the core of the story is a “fish out of water” tale. In this case, a New York City-raised first generation Chinese American woman, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, Fresh off the Boat TV series), falls in love with a Singapore-born Chinese man educated in England—Nick Young played by Malaysian actor Henry Golding. Rachel is an economist at New York University—the youngest person to receive an faculty appointment, her boyfriend harps at one point—where she teaches game theory and behavioral economics. (Yes, that’s right, someone on the screenwriting team paid attention in college.) Raised by a single Chinese immigrant mother in the City, Rachel’s exposure to her ethnic heritage (and life beyond New York) is limited. In fact, her working knowledge of Asian American culture appears practically non-existent as the story starts out with one important exception: she speaks fluent Mandarin.

Nick’s professional work is ambiguous and a bit mysterious to Rachel even though the couple has been dating seriously for over a year. While Nick is financially secure, he lives in a downscale apartment and plays basketball at an inner-city YMCA. Nick, for his part, downplays his family background, and tacitly hides the fact he is the scion of one of Singapore’s wealthiest and most landed families.

When he is invited to be in a wealthy cousin’s wedding party, Nick asks Rachel to join him to meet his family in Singapore. Rachel agrees, completely unaware of Nick or his family’s social and economic status. In fact, audiences are led to believe Rachel has grown up culturally insulated, never having traveled outside of the U.S. (and presumably New York City).

This part of Rachel’s backstory will likely ring hollow for many audiences. After all, Rachel is clearly a Chinese American and Ph.D. economist. While doctoral programs are notoriously insulated, she was likely trained in a liberal arts undergraduate curriculum covering a lot of interdisciplinary territory. College would have broadened her world view, and, as a Millennial, her Internet search skills would be practically innate. Nevertheless, well-worn conventions are a staple of romantic comedies. Worse leaps over plot holes have been asked of viewers in popular movies, and Crazy Rich Asians does not pretend to be a serious, high-brow film.

Fortunately, the movie’s plot and story improves dramatically once Nick and Rachel land in Singapore. The sparks begin to fly as Rachel goes through various stages of bewilderment, wonder, betrayal, and anger as she is at first awed by Singapore’s wealth and modernity then forced to cope with the elitist attitudes of Nick’s family. She struggles to navigate friend and foe, and begins to grapple with her own heritage. All these experiences are so far removed from her cloistered professional life she quickly finds herself overwhelmed. In a subtle bit of screenwriting brilliance, Rachel’s training as a behavioral economist rooted in game theory becomes the pivot point for her personal salvation.

Crazy Rich Asians is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the movie’s all Asian cast. Directed by veteran filmmaker Jon M. Chu (the Step Up films, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Now You See Me 2), the movie features a variety of well established and up and coming Asian actors, including accomplished action-star Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tomorrow Never Dies) as Nick’s mother Eleanor Sung-Young, Lisa Lu as Nick’s grandmother and the Young Family matriarch, hip hop artist Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) as Rachel’s former college roommate Goh Peik Lin, Gemma Chan (Doctor WhoSecret Diary of a Call GirlJack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) as Nick’s cousin Astrid Leong-Teo, and comic Ken Jeong as Peik Lin’s father. The movie is also visually engaging with excellent production values and great scenes of Singapore and rural parts of Malaysia.

The movie’s conscious incorporation of a rich mix of Asian actors draws on a wide range of Western and Asian influences, reflecting the cultural complexity of wealthy and cosmopolitan cities such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Mandarin is also common in the movie (with English subtitles) at key plot points to demonstrate Rachel’s attempt to bond with Nick’s family while emphasizing how distant she is culturally from the power elite of modern Asia. She is an American in Singapore, and her Chinese heritage provides little benefit. The result is a provocative medley of personal experiences and backgrounds that explodes preconceptions of a singular group identity. Each family and individual on the screen has their own viewpoint, identity, ambition, and struggle.

In this way, Crazy Rich Asians achieves one of the primary goals of Kevin Kwan’s novel of the same title—to explode myths about Asians and modern Asian culture. Whether the creative choices made by the director and producers were intentionally made to achieve this goal is unclear. The screenplay relies on a full menu of secular storytelling tropes. The movie’s story structure and plot are remarkably conventional, including the fish out of water allegory. Most of the characters are caricatures, albeit entertaining ones, rather than layered personalities. They include the overbearing matriarch/patriarch, crazy cousins, insensitive and myopic aunts and uncles, and creepy best-friend’s sibling.

Yet, at the same time, the casting of a wide range of Asian actors with an eye toward the aesthetic of keeping their diverse backgrounds implicit, rather than explicit, provides a provocative freshness in the story that testifies to the real-world rise of Asia as a dominant, global player. On the whole, the movie is well acted, and the twists in relationships keeps the action moving forward.

Asia now has more billionaires than any other continent. Hong Kong, a city the size of Houston, has more billionaires than the United Kingdom, South Korea, Japan, Brazil, or Canada.
Asia’s economic rise comes with the traditional tensions and cultural conflicts that accompany the growth of any society: rich versus poor, powerful versus powerless, old money versus new, autonomous choice versus communitarian constraint. Crazy Rich Asians provides a welcome vehicle for exploring these tensions at an inflection point in world economic history and geopolitics.

While Crazy Rich Asians is unlikely to break into anyone’s best picture list for 2018, the movie is entertaining, fits squarely in its genre of romantic comedy, and offers a welcome new take on how these themes play out in a contemporary world setting. Crazy Rich Asians is earning its box office through solid acting, a solid (if unimaginative) screenplay, first rate cinematography in Singapore and other Asian locals, and an overdue recognition of the complex economic and cultural dynamic playing out in a world reshaped by the Pacific Rim.

Note: Sam Staley has traveled to Asia frequently, beginning with consulting work on property development in Hong Kong in the early 1990s and continuing through the 2010s while working for Reason Foundation as its Robert W. Galvin Fellow and manager of its China Mobility Project from 2005 to 2011.


Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
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