By Alex Grubbs, Point Park News Service
After 22 years of being an Asian-American (half-Filipino and half-white), I finally had the opportunity to see a reflection of myself on the big screen: the British-Malaysian actor Henry Golding playing Nick Young, the son of a wealthy family who owns major real estate, in “Crazy Rich Asians.” Based on the book by Kevin Kwan, this is the first major film with an all-Asian cast since “The Joy Luck Club,” which was released in 1993.
Contemporary U.S. media finally showcased a different side to Asian culture, away from nuanced side roles and demeaning stereotypes. Nick Young represents everything I would want to be in my life. He did not need to face adversity to be successful. From a young age, he was destined to take over his family’s business. He suffered no financial struggles. He showed that Asian men can be powerful, can be romantic, can be the “Asian bachelor.” That line alone from Peik Lin, played by the rapper and actress Awkwafina, humanizes Asian men on a whole different level.
Growing up with Asian descent in America, I was constantly made fun of. I didn’t feel I could be successful because people wouldn’t think I was good enough, because I was Asian. I didn’t feel I was good enough to be in relationships, because I was Asian. Maybe if I was fully white, then I would be good enough. Though I did grow out of that as I came into my own in college, those feelings linger.
So, it’s an emotional moment when Nick walks out, and he’s called the “Asian bachelor.” In American culture, I now feel validated and recognized. It’s disappointing that I’ve waited 22 years to see myself on the big screen in the U.S.
In addition, here are strong, powerful Asians, with matriarch Eleanor Young, played by Malaysian cinema legend Michelle Yeoh, and an NYU economics professor in game theory who grew up in grave circumstances with an immigrant mother Rachel Chu, played by Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat).
Rachel, being Nick’s girlfriend, was rejected by Nick’s mother, for not only being American and not understanding the way of life in Singapore, but for not being from a wealthy family. She even tells Rachel, “You will never be enough.”
Now mind you, I watched this movie with my mother, who was born and raised in a poor village in the southern Philippines. She burst into tears because she related. Maybe not in terms of being rejected by her boyfriend’s mother, but in the context that she was told she would never be good enough. She grew up with nothing and faced adversity in coming to the U.S. and building her new life. She understands the feeling. She is still told constantly from others that she will never be enough, but she always proves them wrong.
There also is a point in the movie where Nick has to decide between Rachel or his family’s fortune. This is telling of broad Asian culture where family is a strong value, and it’s represented throughout the movie, especially in Eleanor’s determination to keep her family together. And I can relate to this feeling, as my own family was disappointed I didn’t put my mother’s maiden name on my undergraduate diploma because it didn’t recognize the honor it put on the family.
There have been criticisms to the movie on having Henry Golding playing the role of Nick Young because he’s half-British. That does not discredit his Malaysian roots. He’s not less Asian because he’s not full.
Although I may disagree with that criticism, I do think the movie washes every Asian to be Chinese. In America, historically and currently, Asian is considered to be of the Far East descent – Chinese, Japanese or Korean. This movie heavily focused on Chinese culture in Singapore. My problem with this is many of the actors are not even Chinese. In a culture that automatically assumes most Asians are Chinese, this reinforces the notion that it’s true when it’s not.
However, director Jon M. Chu has said that this movie isn’t going to represent all Asians, but it will be a catalyst to start more dialogue and contemporary American media appearances from more Asian cultures, especially male Asians in main roles. I hope this movement continues.