On the importance of representation in stories about humans.
Warning: I cried while writing this. Oh, and spoilers ahead.
In a little town in Eastern Netherlands, I sat in a cinema next to my cousin on a particularly stuffy afternoon. The country’s hottest heat wave yet was coming to its end but I felt as though I had just began living. I don’t believe I’m being dramatic. As a person who lives and breathes pop culture and mainstream media, Crazy Rich Asians meant a lot to me. Reading the book a few months before the film’s release was enough to get me giggling on my parents’ couch. As an Indonesian who grew up visiting Malay family friends in Singapore, went to a Chinese-oriented school throughout junior and half of senior high, and has a family who now lives in Hong Kong, I understood the book. I felt like the book understood me. The large family feuds, the secret societies of rich and beautiful people, the unbelievable food.
Needless to say, I was bouncing in my seat with an excited grin, waiting impatiently for the opening credits to end so I could finally sink my teeth in what was going to be the film I’d been waiting for my whole life. I have a lot of things to say about beautiful directing, characters, and representation. Unfortunately, in this day and age, no one truly has the energy to read through all of my thoughts. So, I shall share my favourite parts from the film that touched me the most in the hopes that it will show how Crazy Rich Asians is more than just a film about Asians.
Towards the beginning of the film, Rachel’s mother says to her in Mandarin that although Rachel looks Chinese, in her head and in her heart, she is American. It made me sink in my chair as I recall the countless talks my parents have given me about being a fourth culture kid—about taking the best parts of the cultures I come from and amalgamate them to create the best version of myself. I was never just Indonesian nor Dutch nor American. I am all of it and yet none of it at all. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear (much to Eleanor’s dismay) that Rachel is neither American nor Chinese. She’s simply Rachel. Her passions and ambitions are what define her, not the blend of cultures that raised her to be the ‘ABC’ (American Born Chinese) she is. Furthermore, Eleanor blatantly tells Rachel that she will never be enough for her son. I felt it. When you’re multiracial, you never feel like you’re enough. When I was with my family, I was too Westernized. When I’m with my European classmates, I feel too Indonesian or American. It’s a constant battle of feeling like you’re jumping from one identity to the next. Yet, Rachel never lets Eleanor’s comment gets to her. She doesn’t question her race or the way her mother raised her as an Immigrant in the US. Rachel unapologetically calls herself both, without worrying whether she’s enough of each side. Her identity is unfaltering and she is self-assured. Had I an exemplary character such as Rachel to look up to whilst growing up, the inner strUggle would have been much easier for me.
The next thing that tUgged at my multiracial heart strings was Araminta’s appearance at the airport. When I was younger, I used to envy those who looked more Eurocentric than me, which, naturally, considering the beauty standards in society (Western or not). I remember looking at the girls who wore leggings and sweatpants and Ugg boots and tank tops with their blonde messy buns. Indonesia was always too hot for sweatpants and Ugg boots (they were all I wanted when I visited Australia at the age of thirteen). My parents were always too Indonesian for me to be able to just wear a tank top in public. My hair is too thick to be piled on the top of my head without causing headaches in the long term. It was clear that even if I did conform to the way they dressed, I would never see myself as I saw the white girls who swarmed the airport. Because no matter how much I tried, the clothes and the hairstyles were meant for them. Made by them, modelled by them, and worn by them. Seeing Araminta, who has the same Eurasian wide nose, tan skin, and jet black hair as I do—wearing glasses at that, made my heart swell. It was such a small scene and barely dwelled on in the film, but I didn’t just see a pyjama-clad Araminta greeting Nick and Rachel with her balloons on that screen. For the first time, I saw myself on a silver screen.
One thing that struck me, and one thing that I always pay attention to when it comes to movies, is the soundtrack. When Rachel arrives in Singapore, there is a vibrant montage of her taking in her new surroundings as classic Chinese tracks from the mid-twentieth century plays in the background. It’s reminiscent of the romanticism frequently featured in American film about Europe; the almost nostalgic blend of history, wonder, and romance. It’s what I felt when watching everything from Lizzie McGuire: The Movie to Call Me By Your Name. It made me realise that I had never viewed my own surroundings with the same awe while I was growing up. Crazy Rich Asians shows us that we should be in awe of cities, countries, and continent That our homes have just as much history. That we should be proud of it and the love it has to offer. The best part? the film does it beautifully without orientalising Singapore (or Asia) for one second.
The scene that really brought me to tears, however, was Araminta’s wedding. I had never been one to cry during a wedding scene. I always felt detached from the white churches, walks down aisles, and the iconic “I now pronounce you husband and wife, you may kiss the bride”. As a Moslem-raised Javanese, I grew up watching my aunts, uncles, and cousins kneeling next to their partners in a mosque. The wedding pictures embedded in my earliest memory was of my mother in a kebaya, with traditional Javanese makeup across her forehead, covered in heavy golden jewellery and fresh flowers. As a young child surrounded by images of the Western White Wedding, I refused to imagine myself having the traditional wedding the women who came before me had. Now that I’m older, I realise how horribly brainwashed I had been. And that’s not to say that Indonesian culture doesn’t have its own horrible brainwashing mechanics—particularly regarding women and marriages. However, seeing Araminta with her bare golden feet, walking down an aisle that looks like something straight out of my fondest memories of staying at my grandma’s home in Bali, with Kina Grannis’s acoustic rendition of one of my grandfather’s favourite love songs, simply took my breath away. When the guitar stops playing to welcome total silence as Araminta’s foot hits the water, I bit back a choked sob. I was more than surprised at my own emotional reaction. Wedding scenes never got to me, but I realised that it’s because they never truly connected with me.
There are many other heart-wrenching scenes that stuck with me. Nick speaking in Bahasa Indonesia to order saté from a street vendor. The view of the Marina Bay Sands hotel I used to walk around, admiring from afar. Seeing Mateo from Superstore play Oliver, a gay Asian who is not cast away or disowned by his very traditional family. The lines in Mandarin I can pick up from years of classes I received in school. Nick and his family fondly reminiscing as they made dumplings together. Astrid, who instead of begging her unhappy husband to stay with her as she did in the book, firmly states that it is not her “responsibility to make (him) feel like a man”. Fiona, who sassily rejects Eddie’s horrible attitude instead of receding to a timid demeanour as she did in the books. Rachel’s mother, who is a successful immigrant and single-mother after fleeing from her abusive husband. Her unwavering bond with Rachel.
As a conclusion, I’ll discuss the million dollar question: is the film better than the book? Well, it’s different. The book, I think, is as accurate as a representation of the Chinese diaspora can be. There are crude details left out of the film, most likely for rating reasons, that perfectly encapsulate both the drama and the vocabulary I’ve heard and encountered while growing up. The film, however, is what Love, Simon (which I highly recommend) is for gay people. It’s the ideal outcome. Rachel and Nick healthily communicates before the whole ordeal blows up, Rachel doesn’t attack her mother after she finds out about her father, the female characters are all strong and refuse to have their lives dictated by their husbands.
Either way, both stories consist of dramatic tales from a family so rich, logic says it should be an unreachable dream the middle class can fantasise about and buy into. Yet, I have never felt more connected to a story in my entire life. That’s because Crazy Rich Asians isn’t (just) an Asian Great Gatsby with unrealistic frivolity. It’s about family, identity, and love. That’s why I believe that despite it being an Asian story, Crazy Rich Asians will connect with everyone. Asian or not. Representation is very hard to explain to people who have been represented their whole lives (to the people who got to wear their blonde hair in top knots and stuff their pale feet into Ugg boots). When you have seen your identity defined time and time again through multidimensional, multifaceted characters, your identity would be just as unwavering as Rachel’s. Like every other story out there that features white leads, Crazy Rich Asians is a story about humans. But when you grow up watching human stories with humans that don’t look like you, you question your worth. Are you thin enough, tall enough, light-skinned enough, slender-nosed enough, big-eyed enough? Are you white enough to find the love and happiness the characters you grew up watching did? As an adult, I know now that I don’t have to be any of those things to find love and happiness, even though many of my insecurities still stem from that. But as a child, how I wish I had something like Crazy Rich Asians to show me that I was enough.
© Selena Soemakno. All rights served unless stated otherwise.