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University panel discusses film “Crazy Rich Asians”

Professors, graduate students talk racial, social representations featured in the film

The film “Crazy Rich Asians” has sparked discussions since its release. In efforts to create a space for open dialogue on how the film impacts and portrays both Asian American and wider Asian communities, the South East Asian Studies Initiative, Brown University Merlions, the East Asian Studies Departmental Undergraduate Group and Ethnic Studies DUG co-sponsored a panel and critical discussion forum held last Thursday in List Auditorium. Panelists included  a selection of professors and graduate students.

“The movie raised a lot of points of discussion for students and the public at large about the role of South East Asia, media images of Asians and (media portrayals of) Asian Americans,” said Quinton Huang ’19, senior advisor at SEASI and an organizer of the event. “It’s a very meaningful discussion for people to have.”

Visiting Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies Ellie Choi opened the panel with a “postcolonial, transnational read” of the film and critiqued the work’s skewed portrayal of class. As the title suggests, “Crazy Rich Asians” generally depicts the “very, very wealthy,” she said.

Associate Professor of American Studies Robert Lee also commented on the film’s emphasis on wealth. There was a “vacuousness in the ostentatious abundance” portrayed in the movie, Lee said. He also brought up the issue of how the film’s genre should be perceived: “It’s not a documentary, not a drama. … It’s a basic rom-com,” he said.

In a similar vein, graduate student panelist Mark Tseng-Putterman GS, a doctoral student in American Studies, said there were “impossible standards placed on ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’” especially with regard to representation, as there is more pressure for the film to be representative of the Asian American experience because of how rarely these stories are portrayed in Hollywood. “We feel deprived and must fight to tell our own stories,” he said.

“That pressure and that expectation have been partially generated by the marketing strategy of the film itself,” Tseng-Putterman said. He continued to criticize the formation of a “movement” around the film, and asked “what it means, in this moment of political crisis for so many immigrant and refugee communities, that the most visible Asian American movement has been to funnel money into the pockets of Warner Brothers.”

Ruby Thiagarajan GS, graduate student in Public Humanities, brought a Singaporean perspective to the panel. She said that the film resonated with Asian Americans’ “desire to see themselves as characters that can exist outside of their race.” She questioned why a movie about the Asian American experience had to be told in Asia. “Asian Americans exist in America, but it seems like the … entertainment industry doesn’t let them get past their Asianness,” she said.

She brought up “the differences between thinking about Asian audiences and Asian American audiences,” and stated that her experience watching the movie in Singapore was very different than what it would have been watching it in the United States. She highlighted various “missteps” that take place during the film and focused on the issue of the “fabrication of Chineseness” in Singapore. Scenes like the folding of dumplings in the Young household and gambling in mah-jong parlours “would make sense to a Chinese-diasporic imagination, but is not really based on the reality of Singapore.”

This depiction of Singapore raises questions about representation. “If this film is billed as a success for Asian representation in Hollywood, what does it mean if Asian representation means (only) Asian American representation?” Thiagarajan asked the audience. “Singapore joins a long list of countries that have been grossly misrepresented by Hollywood,” she added.

Audience questions both supported and challenged the opinions of the panelists. An audience member spoke about the lack of South and Southeast Asian representation in the movie. Despite the fact that Singapore is a multiethnic state, the film lacked ethnic diversity. “I’m a Singaporean Indian and Singapore is not completely Chinese,” Thiagarajan said in response to this point. “I do think that it’s an important question to ask. … The little Indian and South Asian representation you do get in the movie is incredibly racist,” she continued. Other questions posed by audience members grappled with racial representation, the biases of the media industry at large and the capitalist ideas embedded in the film’s narrative.

At the event, attendees stayed after to ask questions, speak to the panelists and engage in conversations among themselves. “This discussion isn’t limited to this panel, but is something we will all continue,” Huang said. 

Huang hopes that more events like this will be held through the sponsoring DUGs and student initiatives. “Students want to have these discussions,” he said.



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