The movie “Crazy Rich Asians” has made headlines for being one of the few movies in Hollywood history to have an almost all-Asian cast. This particular rom-com has a narrative we’ve seen before: parental disapproval of young love. The movie is intended to educate Hollywood audiences about the identity struggles of Asian Americans, and about Asian culture itself. While it succeeded in doing the former, it gravely butchered the latter.
In short, “Crazy Rich Asians” inaccurately depicts Singapore.
I make this claim because I lived in Singapore for six years, and it’s far from what is depicted in the movie. Of the local population, Singapore is made up of four dominant ethnic groups: Chinese (74.3 percent), Malays (13.3 percent), Indians (9.1 percent) and Eurasians (less than three percent). Singapore has four official languages: English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Both my parents are Tamilian and my mother is a Malaysian citizen of Indian origin. Throughout the entire movie, there is only one race portrayed: the Chinese. This portrayal of a single race is implicitly contributing to “Chinese normativity” and the effacing of other ethnic minorities in Singapore.
Behind Singapore’s concrete jungle and facade of multiculturalism lies a rather depressing history, one where ethnic minorities have been oppressed. Like the term “white privilege,” the term “Chinese privilege” exists in Singapore. Women in hijabs are denied jobs because of their faith. Recruiters often give strong preferences to ethnically Chinese candidates or candidates that can speak Chinese. Singaporean police also have a history of oppressing the Tamil language. Those that are darker skinned in Singapore, particularly Indians, are racially profiled and looked down upon in as second class citizens. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, once claimed that Singapore could not integrate Muslims into society, simply because their faith differs from that of the typical Chinese person.
One survey amongst minority races in Singapore showed agreement that the majority race, the Chinese, had certain implicit advantages in society. Being the largest group tends to bring with it implicit privileges. These privileges can be subtle and difficult to determine.
I cannot speak for other countries, but I know that in Singapore, “Chinese privilege” is a very legitimate problem. This movie contributes to the effacing of the other ethnic minorities in Singapore. The fact is ethnic minorities play a pretty significant role in the country—whether it be politically or culturally—and that needs to be recognized. “Crazy Rich Asians” fails to recognize this.
While I do understand that this movie largely concerns a wealthy Chinese family and its social circles, it barely represents the true diversity of Singapore. I believe this movie could have been about an elite family in China, and it would have made no difference to the plot whatsoever. The word Singapore can pretty much be swapped with China and the movie would remain the same. Even the movie’s first scene quotes Napoleon Bonaparte: “Let China sleep, for when she awakens she will shake the world.” This quote seems irrelevant considering the fact that the movie is set in Singapore.
Every time a shot or scene of Singapore is shown, it is “Chinese-washed.” What I mean by this is that the streets they chose to film on seem to be very heavily influenced by Chinese culture. Every time the protagonist, Rachel Chu, wasn’t in the Young residence, it seemed as if she was roaming a hipster metropolitan city in China. While there are places like that in Singapore, it largely isn’t like that. The movie failed to capture Singapore’s true multiethnic heritage. Indian-Singaporean and Malay-Singaporean culture seemed to be completely out of the picture. If a movie is being made about Singapore and its culture, it cannot be done without the representation of Indian and Malay cultures. Not even a reference to other ethnic minorities and their cultures is made throughout the course of the film.
There is also a scene that I found highly problematic in the movie. This is the scene where Rachel and her best friend, Peik Lin, pull up at the Young residence and are confronted by two Indian Gurkhas. The way these two Sikh Indian Gurkhas are portrayed is very unsettling. They are depicted as malicious characters out to get the Rachel and her friend. Rachel is clearly petrified of these Sikhs. Furthermore, the ominous music played in the background of this scene enforces a racist attitude towards people of color in Singapore.
The least the director could have done is to do justice to the fact that this movie was set in Singapore. What’s the point of setting it in Singapore if Singapore isn’t even accurately depicted? Why not just set it in China? The fact that this was a big success at the box office means that the perception of Singapore has now been distorted by popular culture. The Singapore portrayed in “Crazy Rich Asians” is one of a rich Chinese society, a place unwelcoming to outsiders.
The fact is this isn’t the Singapore that I grew up in, and it is not the Singapore that many know to be true.
Aditi Mahesh is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.