I sat down with my mother in early September and had a long conversation about the movie “Crazy Rich Asians”. The word "sayang” is a Singlish slang term (originally a Malay word, though it also exists in Tagalog) that has two meanings: one is “such a pity,” and the other is “to dote on or love someone.” This article has a little of both.
In the month that “Crazy Rich Asians” has been out, many friends have asked me, “Is that what Singapore is really like?” As my mother’s side of the family is Singaporean, I have been to Singapore a handful of times and I know about Singapore from a relatively external perspective. What I find missing from the American discourse about this movie are Singaporean voices like my mother’s.
“It’s true to the book,” my mom said. “The writer himself is not showing the true Singapore, he’s showing the top one percent … It wasn’t intended to show the other 99 percent. Because apparently, the author himself comes from a family of the one percent … he’s the great-grandson of the OCBC founder, one of the oldest banks in Singapore.”
For people who have never been to Singapore, they might think the extravagant, luxurious wealth of the families in the movie is the lifestyle for most Singaporeans.
“(Did) the movie stay true to the story? Yes. But did it depict Singaporeans? No,” my mom said. “So for me, as a Singaporean, looking at the movie, I’ll be like, ‘Huh, it doesn’t show you the true part of Singapore.’”
I was surprised when the movie ended without a single closeup shot of an Housing Development Board flat — the government housing in which that more than 80 percent of Singaporeans live. While it may be exciting for some to see an Asian society depicted with similar glitz and glamour as European or American cities, many Singaporeans say it does not represent the average Singaporean — or even the city as a whole — at all. But that’s not the only way “Crazy Rich Asians” failed to be Singaporean.
When asked about the “Singaporeanness” of this movie, my mom said she wished “they had gotten more Singaporean actors because there are so many actors in Singapore, but instead they filled the cast with people from all over … it’s supposed to be all these Singaporean people, but yet you have people who are from the Philippines and Vietnam and everywhere but Singapore.”
So much of the conversation about “Crazy Rich Asians” in the U.S. has been about representation — particularly of Singapore’s ethnic minorities — and many were excited about the appearance of a few non-Chinese actors like Filipino-American actor Nico Santos. This is where the Asian-American and Asian receptions of this movie differ — for many Asian Americans, it’s a step (if not a very big one) toward greater Asian representation in Hollywood. For many Singaporeans, it’s inaccurate. On top of that, Singaporean actors were told to tone down their Singlish speech for the movie. Of the few Singaporean actors present, only Koh Chieng Mun’s Neena Goh (Peik Lin Goh’s mother) speaks unrestrained Singlish.
“Do I care that it has an all-Asian cast? Or all-Asian employees in the background, directors, producers? No, I don’t,” my mom said. “Because it doesn’t matter to me — well, not that it doesn’t matter to me, but to me I grew up seeing movies that were made in Asia that had all-Asian casts.”
I wonder sometimes how my life might have been different if I had seen people who look like me on my TV screen growing up, like my mom did. Perhaps that’s the reason I’ve watched “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” six times. I honestly think movie is more societally significant for Asian Americans than “Crazy Rich Asians”.
My mom: Because you have an Asian-American girl acting in a movie where everyone else is white, and she has the main role, and she doesn’t act stupidly!
Me: Exactly. Because the thing is, in “Crazy Rich Asians”, the only person who is very Asian, very Singaporean, is Peik Lin Goh’s mom. She acts so stupidly!
My mom: When I was talking about (how) there are some parts where I cringed, that’s the part I cringed at.
Me: And like seriously, all of the other Asians in the movie have American or British accents. So in a way, they’re kind of white? Or trying to be white? So they’re making fun of the Singaporeans in the movie!
My mom: Correct. She’s the “Asian” person in the movie, the true Asian person in the movie, and therefore she has to act stupid.
Me: Exactly, so what kind of societal significance is that? I feel like you can’t take representation at face value, (you have to think about) what kind of representation is it.
Despite its cringeworthy Asian caricatures and otherwise deliberately palatable Asianness, the movie does depict something that seems almost universal: the drama of Chinese-Singaporean families.
“If you read the book there’s more drama … all the typical Singapore drama of a Chinese family,” my mom said. “The grandmother looks very friendly, but she’s really the dragon. Nick’s mom is scared of her!”
My mom can tell countless stories that sound just a little too similar to Nick and Rachel’s.
“In Asian or in Chinese families, I don’t know why the woman (is always) the evil mother-in-law,” she said. “Why, when they have a son, they always have a very hard time accepting the son’s wife or girlfriend.”
My mom believes that “whatever you say is not going to change (your son’s) mind, so just accept (his partner) and bring her into the family. But it seems like in Singapore, all these families (give their sons a hard time)! I don’t know why. They can’t seem to think beyond themselves not liking the person, they’re not thinking in terms of later on when the person is married, have grandchildren, you know? Too bad if you don’t like the wife.” My mom is also aware that this perspective would deem her “too American” in Singapore.
This tension — between what it means to be “American” and what it means to be “Asian” — was probably what my mom and I talked about the most after seeing the movie.
Me: What did you think of the tension between Rachel and Nick’s mom?
My mom: It’s just like her son is marrying a white girl. Which is very true. Like I would not expect you guys to marry a Singaporean man, because you guys would not understand the Singaporean man, and the Singaporean man’s family will not understand you guys.
This comes up often in my own family. My mom came to the U.S. in the 1980s with my dad, who is Filipino. Most of her family still lives in Singapore, but my sister and I were born and raised in the U.S. My sister and I are "ang moh kia," or American kids. If I am the equivalent of Rachel in the movie, an Asian American who grew up in America, this means I too am basically a “white girl.” I would be lying if I said that didn’t hurt. While it’s been a source of pain for me, it’s a source of anxiety about the future for my mom.
My mom: So in terms of Rachel and the mother-in-law, yes, I can totally understand the mother-in-law’s concerns, as in, you are American; even though you look Asian, you are American through and through. How am I supposed to make you understand the way we do things here? Certain things — traditions and cultural differences — are what is going to be (difficult). Who is then going to give way?
Say, for example, these Asian families, one thing they expect from their kids is that they will take care of their parents when they’re older. In fact, (they expect their kids will) give money to the parents and everything. I’m not expecting you guys to do that!
I know that I want to do things like take care of my parents when they’re older and give part of my salary to my parents when I start working, but I can’t deny the underlying truth: I don’t act like a typical Asian kid because I’m not. I’m Asian American. But it’s not just me who has had to negotiate the Asian and American parts of myself — my mom has too.
Me: “The Joy Luck Club” was the last movie to feature an all-Asian cast. You saw “The Joy Luck Club” — how do you compare “Crazy Rich Asians” to that movie?
My mom: Well, “The Joy Luck Club” is different … “The Joy Luck Club” is about these parents who are immigrants, who are raising American-born children which is kind of like my relationship (with you) … “The Joy Luck Club” is a lot deeper; it’s about the relationship between (the) immigrant mom and the American-born kid. So that is actually kind of hard.
When I first read “The Joy Luck Club” in 1988, I was all on the side of the mothers. Like, “Of course the kid has to do this! These daughters are very unreasonable, they should listen to their parents, blah blah blah, of course their mom has the right to tell them what to do and control them,” and all that. But then, now after having my own American kids, I read that book again later — maybe within the last five years — and I thought, “Oh my god, my thinking has shifted… yeah, the children have their rights, the children have to have their freedom to choose.” And I thought, oh my goodness, just in the span of 30 years. So I read the book when I was 27, and now I’m 57.
Though perhaps shallower, “Crazy Rich Asians” gets at the same core theme that “The Joy Luck Club” does: the tension between Asian and Asian American, traditional values and individual expression. As I grow older, I think my mom and I understand each other more — we are both somewhere in between, though we sit in different places. Whether it’s unpacking “Crazy Rich Asians” or packing our bags for Singapore, I’m just glad we’re in between together.