I grew up in Sydney, Australia, in a leafy suburb (when are they ever anything but?) with two brothers, a roster of goldfish and more books than sense. I made friends, I went to school, I studied journalism at university, my family and I would go on holidays together, I fell in love, and out of it again, and then I moved to London.
That’s my 27 years in about 65 words or less.
Well, almost. My dad is Chinese. My grandparents and all my aunts and uncles and cousins are Chinese. As am I, or biracial to be specific, since my mum is Australian. I may not look Chinese, and people who ask me where I’m from first demand to know whether I am South American or Hawaiian and then dubiously raise their eyebrows when I resignedly say ‘Sydney, but my dad is from Hong Kong’.
But there you have it. I am an Asian Australian woman, straddling two different cultures and two different sides of my self. And that particular specificity of me, all the nuts and the bolts and the bits and the pieces of who I am, is nowhere to be seen in this month’s most buzzed about new movie Crazy Rich Asians. And that’s okay.
Crazy Rich Asians premiered last week in the US (September 14 is the release date here in the UK) to largely unanimous critical acclaim and a record-breaking £26.6 million opening weekend at the box office.
The first film from a major Hollywood studio to feature an entirely Asian American, Australian and British cast in 25 years (sigh), it tells the story of Rachel (Constance Wu), an economics professor who accompanies her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding, my new internet boyfriend) to meet his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) and family in Singapore, never knowing that he’s the scion of one of the country’s wealthiest and most elite families.
In the Venn diagram of my particular pop culture preferences, Crazy Rich Asians would be the fizzy, champagne-bubble centre. I like romantic comedies, I like watching gorgeous men with sharp, icy cheekbones button and unbutton suits, I like seeing Michelle Yeoh in bedazzled haute couture playing mah jeong. Even if this movie didn’t feature a diverse Asian cast and even if it didn’t star Michelle Yeoh, I would be all in.
But not everyone is.
Since the movie first started screening to critics a growing chorus of dissent and anxiety has filtered through the media. It’s too Asian, some critics said, or the “worst” kind of Asian, or it’s not Asian enough. It only speaks to one particular kind of Singaporean experience, others noted, and its lead actor Golding is, in fact, “only” half Asian.
Why weren’t the stars of the film wearing Asian designers on the red carpet? Or if they were wearing Asian designers, how come they weren’t wearing traditional Asian dress and not Westernised gowns? How come everyone in this movie is good looking according to traditional European standards of beauty and not Asian ones?
And so on, and so forth. (Et cetera, et cetera, as one of the most infamously white-washed Asian characters onscreen would have said.)
I’m excited about this movie. I plan on seeing it in cinemas in Australia when I go home next week and again in September when the film is released here in the UK. I fully intend on swooning every time Henry Golding or Chris Pang, the actor who plays Nick’s best friend Colin Khoo, appear onscreen. I will laugh at Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and her impeccable comedic timing, pore over every single one of Astrid (Gemma Chan’s) ensembles and I’ll probably cry, too.
On a macro level this movie bears no resemblance to my life or my experiences as an Asian woman. My family lives in Hong Kong and Sydney, not Singapore and New York. They do not jet around on private planes, commandeer casinos in Macau and private islands in the Philippines for hen dos and stag nights, they don’t buy out entire hotels in London after being refused entry just to make a point about racism, they don’t drop millions of dollars on a single pair of earrings because they’re feeling sad.
My family is neither crazy, nor rich. But they are Asian.
Crazy Rich Asians is not the definitive Asian movie, and nor should it be. That’s like saying Christopher Robin has to be the definitive British movie about grown men who speak to stuffed animals or complaining that Ant Man & The Wasp doesn’t speak to your personal experience because you’re not, you know, a superhero. Crazy Rich Asians shouldn’t have to be all things to all people.
It’s the first movie from Hollywood in 25 years to even consider putting the Asian experience front and centre in its storytelling. Why should it be tasked with undoing those 25 years (and more) of wrongs?
This is something I talk about often with my friends the fashion and beauty blogger Peony Lim and photographer Kit Lee. Both are British Asian (Peony is half Chinese, like me), and over the years we mourned the lack of representation in fashion, in beauty and in pop culture of faces and stories that looked and sounded like us.
It’s why we decided to make Three Dumplings, a podcast about what it means to be an Asian woman in 2018, which launches next week with our first episode on how Hollywood is slowly realising the importance of telling Asian stories.
“When I was growing up there was nobody who looked like me or my family on television or in movies,” Lim tells me, echoing my own childhood in Australia spent consuming predominantly white media.
“With my website and now with our podcast I want to speak to those girls who felt isolated and ignored as I did when I was a teenager. I still don’t feel like we have enough representation, but it’s getting better.”
She’s right, it is getting better. Crazy Rich Asians does what Pride and Prejudice or The Great Gatsby or any Nancy Meyers movie in the canon of romantic comedies have done for white audiences: tell the story of preternaturally gorgeous people in love.
This month To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before does what Pretty in Pink and 10 Things I Hate About You and Mean Girls have done for white audiences: tell the story of the exquisite agony of being a teenager. Also this month, The Meg and Searching do what, um, Jaws and Taken have done for white audiences: tell the story of intrepid shark hunters and action heroes looking for their missing daughters.
What can I say, I’m greedy. I want a dim sum buffet of Asian stories, I want a never-ending, Chinese New Year banquet feast of representation. I want movies about every possible facet of the Asian experience and I want them in every cinema in every multiplex, on every Netflix app on every device, on every bookshelf and every radio station and every art gallery and every theatre in every city of every diaspora.
I want Asian superheroes and Asian action stars, I want Asian leading men and women, I want an Asian James Bond (Henry Golding could do it with his eyes closed and his hands tied behind his back, don’t fight me on that one), I want more Asian romantic comedies, scores and scores of them, I want Asian dramas, I want Asian sitcoms, I want Asian historical epics, I want Asian talk show hosts and Asian news anchors and Asian legal dramas and police procedurals and hospital soaps.
I want it all, all of it, every single story told every single way, from every creator who wants to share their own experiences, their own history, their own identity. Crazy Rich Asians is only the first delightful course, the amuse-bouche of what I want when it comes to Asian representation.
I want it all. And then I want more.
Crazy Rich Asians is in UK cinemas from September 14.
Images: Warner Bros, Netflix