About the author of Crazy Rich Asians
Kevin Kwan is a Singaporean-born author whose roots run deep into the upper echelons of Singaporean society. Having descended from one of the founding directors of OCBC Bank, he is likely to be well acquainted with the ‘Crazy Rich’. After dabbling around New York as a creative and even establishing his own creative studio specialising in high profile visual projects for the likes of The New York Times and the Museum of Modern Art, Kwan now writes books for a living.
When I first laid eyes on its obnoxious pink covers (cover) circa 2014, Crazy Rich Asians struck me as a book detailing the rise of the nouveau riche in China, for its flamboyant colours and huge ‘Rich Asians’ title seemed to lead to no other conclusion. Little did I know this very book would be the catharsis for my inner Chinese New Year aunty, feeding my repressed desires to kay poh whilst daydreaming about the lives of those who live on the ‘East Egg’ of our sunny island (a reference to The Great Gatsby, describing people born into inherited wealth).
The film’s production and eventual release have become a momentous episode in the ongoing battle for Asian representation in Hollywood, being the first film to feature an all Asian cast in almost twenty-five years since the Joy Luck Club. More importantly for us Singaporeans, I believe that Crazy Rich Asians is of great significance to our relatively unknown sunny island due to its blockbuster potential. However, like most good things that happen to Singapore (such as the Trump-Kim Summit which we spent approximately 20 million dollars on), it is a double-edged sword. Unsurprisingly, many Singaporeans complained in ad nauseam that the film was an ill representation of the hoi polloi of Singapore on ‘everything’ from racial representation to wealth. I for one think that this was unnecessary furore, for Kevin Kwan had caveated this in the first two words of its title – ‘Crazy Rich’. Before I ramble on any further, let’s take a look at the film.
On the plot and its execution
The film begins in faithful correspondence with the book, opening with the Calthorpe Hotel scene from the prologue which immediately thrusts us into the world of the crazy rich and, in the process, teaches us that Eleanor Young is not a woman to be trifled with (as with every other Singaporean mum). John M. Chu’s general faithfulness to the plot was heartwarming to see and commendable, given that Crazy Rich Asians is quite the behemoth of a book, with a huge ensemble of characters and an even greater number of scenes documenting all of their lives and interactions with one another. For an approximately one hundred and twenty minute movie, Mr. Chu was able to distill the most salient events of the book detailing the vicissitudes of Rachel Chu’s ‘meet the parent (singular because Nicholas’ father was unfortunately only mentioned in the film) session’ in Singapore, whilst still managing to pepper it with wildly entertaining moments of kay poh-ness, gossip and obnoxious comparing (such as Eleanor Young’s bible study scene).
However, anyone who’s read the book might notice the glaring lack of screen time devoted to the Astrid Leong and Michael Teo saga. Apart from a couple of heartbreaking (and painful to watch) scenes depicting an accelerated meltdown of their marriage, not enough had gone into explaining the background and dynamics of their relationship and it’s subsequent breakdown. This was such a waste as the Astrid and Michael romance was in many ways a distorted mirror of what Nicholas and Rachel might become, and it captured the deep-seated discrimination of the lesser-off low-born by the rich and cultured. This underdevelopment may bite the series in the back if there were to be a sequel based off of China Rich Girlfriend, where the Astrid and Michael relationship shifts to the foreground of this soap opera.
A highlight of the film had to be its working language. Nothing says Singapore more than our lingua franca, Singlish. Understandably, Crazy Rich Asians is no local production and as a Hollywood product with its sights set on the global market, our vernacular had to be trimmed pretty significantly lest it confuse the larger international audience. However, Singlish did leave its mark in the film, and it was a pretty glaring one at that. People who have watched the film would probably remember the rambunctious Bernard Tai, well portrayed by the Cantonese-American comedian Jimmy O. Yang, unabashedly screaming the words ‘Ku Ku Jiao!’. For those unfamiliar with Singlish, I would imagine confusion and bewilderment at this scene, but for the rest of us, it would probably be a mix of surprise and laughter at the unexpected appearance of such a crude phrase.
Crazy Rich Asians the movie also salvaged itself a little on the Singlish front by casting true blue Singaporean ‘aunties’ such as Koh Chieng Mun (Aunty Neena, Goh Peik Lin’s Mother) as well as Singapore thespians Janice Koh (Felicity Young), Amy Cheng (Jacqueline Ling) and Selena Tan (Alix Young), who lend greatly to the Singaporean-ness of dialogues in various scenes.
On divergences and sequels
Just like how Eddie Cheng, Michael Teo and various crazy rich Chinese men could not stay faithful to their wives, neither could this Hollywood film to its book. The most critical divergence of the plot involves the elegant Astrid Leong and the insecure Michael Teo. The film coverage of their story was rather cursory, with things ending simply as Astrid walks out the door. However, in print, this mess plays out rather differently. Instead of throwing in the towel, in the book Astrid is more inquisitive and tenacious. She chooses to investigate the affair and subsequently tracks down Michael’s apparent mistress in Hong Kong with the help of her old flame, Charlie Wu, only to find out that it was all a hoax as in order to get Astrid to divorce Michael and unshackle him from being the Leong’s tech support. A substantial amount of the book was actually devoted to this investigation and brought to light Astrid’s and Charlie’s past whilst laying the groundwork for its redevelopment (in subsequent books). The film was a little disappointing in this regard and as a fan of the book this left me with more to be desired. One can only hope that this comes into some focus in China Rich Girlfriend, without (fingers crossed) further compromise.
On the soundtrack
Let’s be honest here – when I first caught wind of John M. Chu’s plan to include Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ in the movie’s soundtrack, I was excited, especially after Chu’s genuine and heartfelt letter to the band became public. However, when I first heard the track in isolation, and as hauntingly beautiful a rendition as it was by the talented Katherine Ho, I was left rather confounded. My initial reaction post song was why? What was the purpose of a Mandarin cover? Was it to further ‘yellow-wash’ (for lack of a better term) this Hollywood product as a means of making a statement?
For the uninformed, Katherine Ho is a 19 year old pre-med student from the University of Southern California who, until her recording of ‘Yellow’ for Crazy Rich Asians, was relatively unknown. For Katherine, John M. Chu and many of Crazy Rich Asians cast, Katherine’s Mandarin cover possesses profound meaning. To Chu and perhaps many Asian Americans alike, who have faced discrimination for the colour of their skin, the song ‘Yellow’ was a form of solace and gave beauty to the colour yellow. Katherine’s ‘Yellow’ is not only an ode to Chu, it is a vehicle of expression for Asian Americans who represent an amalgamation of East and West, a mixture of cultures and identities.
The film’s soundtrack is wonderfully eclectic, combining a selection of vintage Chinese pop songs by Grace Cheng and Sally Yeh with melodic ballads such as Kina Grannis’ cover of an Elvis classic ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’. The result of which is that John M. Chu and Music Supervisor Gabe Hilfe have created a body of work that is capable of turning it up when there’s a crazy rich party going on and slowing it down to create moments of serenity for some heartwarming romance.
Wrapping things up
The film was all in all a humorous, fun and dramatic one that gave the audience a peek into the ostentatiousness of the ‘top one percent’, and while some may question the veracity of its portrayal of Singaporean people and culture, none can question its significance. The commercial success of Crazy Rich Asians should certainly warrant a sequel, but the attention it’s garnered and traction it’s gained in Western cinema might have just flung the doors wide open for Asian storytelling to finally have its place in popular media (Hollywood).
So, if you’re looking for a light-hearted rom-com to giggle at and feel like partaking in every Singaporean aunties’ pastime of kay poh-ing, Crazy Rich Asians will not disappoint. However, if you’re looking to witness the epitome of Singaporean male acting talent on the big screen, you might want to give this a miss, for Pierre Png’s ‘accented England’ is quite painful to listen to.
About the author
Christopher is a Year 1 FASS student currently double majoring in economics with business analytics. When not procrastinating or ruminating about his poor life decisions, he can be found at the gym attempting to make up for his insecurities. He is deeply interested in behavioural sciences and policy design and aspires to avoid making bad decisions someday.
Header image by Emma McIntyre (Getty)
Featured image by the Center for Asian American Media, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.