This summer, I constantly found myself in uncomfortable situations in which the upcoming movie Crazy Rich Asians was brought up. When asked my thoughts on the film, I say the simple truth: I read the book my freshman year of high school and thought I was destined to be Rachel Chu. Only afterwards did I realize that I liked it so much because I rarely read novels whose main characters are Asian. In Kwan’s series, Asians are love interests, protagonists, antagonists, and everything in between. Even though I am not Crazy Rich, I can clearly see how Kwan undeniably captures the mannerisms of Asian people. One part of the story that I remember in particular is how a mom stayed with her daughter when visiting Hong Kong despite having more than enough money to stay at a hotel. As a fifteen-year-old, these qualities made Crazy Rich Asians feel relatable and personal to me.
As the first movie in twenty years to feature an Asian majority cast, the last one being The Joy Luck Club, the publicity that Crazy Rich Asians has received does not come as a surprise. The underrepresentation of Asians in film has been problematic since the beginning of Hollywood. In the early 1900s, the British author of the Fu Manchu series described the character as the “yellow peril incarnate in one man.” The popularity of the series shed a negative light on the Asian race. When represented, Asians were portrayed as villainous.
Soon thereafter, a wave of anti-Asian rhetoric in the United States created yellowface, the first widely recognized Asian appearance in American pop culture. Used to make a white person look East Asian, an actor’s skin would be painted yellow, their eyebrows would be arched, and their eyes would be pulled to look smaller. Shockingly, in this “politically correct” day and age, films featuring yellowface are no less renowned than they were decades ago. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an industry favorite, and the fact that the third biggest star in the film, Mickey Rooney, is wearing yellowface is rarely brought up. His role as a Japanese photographer was the only non-white one in the film, which just makes it exponentially more disappointing as he is played by a white man. It is shocking how much our society enjoys movies that propagate racist behavior.
Even when yellowface declined in popularity, Hollywood’s Asian American actors did not increase in prevalence. While both Asian actors and white actors auditioned for Asian characters, only white actors were being cast. For example, in 1935, MGM cast German-born Luise Rainer over Chinese American May Wong in its adaptation of Pearl S. Beck’s The Good Earth, which details the story of a Chinese peasant family before World War I. The problem persists today; just recently, Emma Stone was cast as a half-Asian character in Aloha. While director Cameron Crowe later apologized for doing so, the fact of the matter is that Asians seeking representation in media are vastly overlooked.
A study by the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism shows that industry racism is still extremely prevalent today. In 2014, a mere five percent of speaking roles in the 100 top grossing movies went to Asian actors, compared to the 12.5 percent for black actors and the whopping 73 percent for white actors. To this day, more white actresses have won Oscars for playing Asians in film than Asian-American actresses have won at all. In a more recent study, research showed that Asians are the least represented racial group in the media.
This brings me back to my point about Crazy Rich Asians. While I enjoyed reading the books, it is frightening to think that this is being marketed as the Asian movie, because it is evident to me that there are still so many problems that need to be addressed. Why did they hire a Japanese movie star to play a Chinese character? Why was a half-Asian male hired to portray a fully Asian one? At the same time, the fact that there has been so much coverage just because it is an Asian-led film in itself should raise eyebrows as it is a sign of how underrepresented Asians are even in this progressive time.
For these reasons, I feel like it is my duty to watch Crazy Rich Asians. Beggars can’t be choosers, and being an Asian American looking for media representation can feel like being a beggar. It is up to us to enact the necessary steps needed for change, which is why the undeniable hype surrounding Crazy Rich Asians should be fueled, and why another Asian-driven movie should follow. I want to see Asians portrayed as regular people. I want to watch an movie with an Asian majority cast and forget why it is different. We cannot lose the momentum that we have created.