When I stepped into the movie theater last week to watch Crazy Rich Asians, I felt waves of anxiety, skepticism, and hope. I knew that seeing an all-Asian cast on screen was something new and important, especially since there are so few Asian American faces in Hollywood movies and television shows that none can be taken for granted. I knew that scores of Asian American actors and producers had worked tirelessly to make this movie happen on their terms. But the pressure riding on this one romcom was huge — the Asian American community knew that if it didn't attract white audiences, we might be stuck waiting decades for another movie that centered on our lived experiences. I didn't expect or want it to be perfect, but I needed it to be good enough.
When I was growing up, my favorite television show was Zoom, an early 2000s PBS show that featured a rotating cast of kids who showcased wacky science experiments and crafts. But while I had fun learning how to make glue from this show — much to my mom's irritation — the reason I loved it so much was because Zoom's cast featured a Chinese American girl. Every afternoon, I knew that I could turn on the television and see someone who looked like me receiving an equal amount of airtime as the white cast members.
Maybe that's why I was never quite satisfied with other more famous "Asian American roles," like Lane Kim in Gilmore Girls or Cristina Yang in Grey's Anatomy. Not to say they weren't important — I just itched to see an Asian American character in the limelight instead of playing second fiddle to a white character.
A decade later, I had gotten used to the lack of Asian American faces in movies and television shows, having grown out of my Zoom days. But Hollywood was just starting to realize that diversity sells, which meant that Asian Americans were becoming visible in blockbuster movies and prime-time sitcoms. There was Disney's Big Hero 6 in 2014, an animated movie about a Japanese American robotics genius; ABC's Fresh Off the Boat in 2015, the first sitcom since Margaret Cho's All-American Girl in 1994 that centered on an Asian American family's experiences; and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi last December. (When she appeared on the screen for the first time, I was surprised at how much emotion I felt.)
All this momentum culminated in Jon M. Chu's Crazy Rich Asians, a colorful romcom about how economics professor Rachel Chu finds out that her Singaporean boyfriend comes from an overwhelmingly rich family, based on Kevin Kwan's bestselling novel. The first major studio movie to feature an all-Asian American cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993, everyone began calling the movie a "watershed moment."
I was skeptical. Asian Americans had been burned by Hollywood one too many times
. Directors frequently cast white actors and actresses in roles that were written as Asian American. In 2015, Emma Stone starred as a character named Allison Ng in Aloha, who was supposed to be half-Swedish, a quarter-Hawaiian, and a quarter-Chinese. Canadian actor Justin Chatwin was Goku in Hollywood's Dragonball Evolution in 2009. And there was Scarlett Johansson's now-notorious role as a Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell, an adaptation of a Japanese manga, just last year. It wasn't that long ago when Hollywood directors were blaming the absence of Asian talent on screens on smaller talent pools, doubt about whether the movie would sell, and lack of necessity for diverse faces in certain stories. I wasn't convinced Crazy Rich Asians would smash those excuses, but I wanted to believe it would.
As I watched Crazy Rich Asians, I worried that audiences would find the storytelling shallow, even though I knew that this movie was being billed as a fun and summery romcom. One of my closest friends is Singaporean and has been vocal in her criticism of how Crazy Rich Asians glosses over the lived realities of most Singaporeans, who, unsurprisingly, don't have millions of dollars to drop on earrings.
I also agonized over whether people would recognize that Rachel's Asian American experience is unique to her and realized that it was because historically, people struggle to understand the diversity that exists within "Asian Americanness." Rachel's experience, while totally valid, is not that of every Chinese American woman. How one experiences Asian Americanness is also influenced by where they grow up, where they go to school, how open-minded their communities are, and a host of other factors. If Crazy Rich Asians achieves box-office success, maybe Hollywood executives will finally see the value in reflecting the diversity, complexities, and nuances of all Asian American experiences. But I also knew that with any step forward, as with the racist backlash Tran faced after her historic casting as the first Asian American woman in a leading role in a Star Wars movie, there was going to be adversity.
(Turns out that my anxiety about pushback wasn't without good reason. Earlier this month, a Crazy Rich Asians movie poster was vandalized with racist slurs in Vancouver.)
Yes, Crazy Rich Asians is a fun movie. There was so much eye candy that I felt as if I were watching a version of Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby again, except that this time it was set in Singapore. There are plenty of shirtless scenes and romantic kisses that will make anyone rethink the idea that Asian men aren't sexy. Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Queens rapper Awkwafina stole every scene they were in. And yes, I enjoyed the pairing of a lavish makeover scene to Sally Yeh's Cantonese cover of Madonna's "Material Girl."
But the thing that encouraged me the most wasn't anything that happened during the movie itself. It was when the credits ran and I saw the dozens of names of Asian Americans who were involved in production, casting, costume design, set design, music, and sound mixing. This fortified my belief that Crazy Rich Asians wasn't just a moment when Warner Bros. decided to see if an Asian American narrative was going to make the studio money. There were hundreds of people who looked like me working in Hollywood to make sure that our stories got told the right way. It was a movement that was going to hold the entertainment industry accountable for any kind of future "Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell" flubs.
Some of my Asian American friends have asked me whether they're obligated to go see Crazy Rich Asians because its existence is so significant to the Asian American community, but the truth is that it's not going to be everyone's kind of movie. However, it gives me hope that other narratives, like sci-fi and horror, can be told through an Asian American lens in the future.