Crazy Rich Asians is the beach-read-turned-blockbuster adaptation we’re familiar with, but with one huge difference. The entire cast of the film, and the director, is Asian. It’s that simple, yet it hasn’t been seen in Hollywood in 25 years.
The film’s release comes amid a reckoning over the importance of genuine cultural representation in pop culture. A conversation propelled by the tremendous success of Black Panther earlier this year. Is this a sign Hollywood is finally telling diverse stories, or simply two movies based on already successful properties being cast right?
Madelyn Chung, freelance writer at Flare.com, joins “The Big Story” podcast today and shares what it was like to grow up rarely seeing images in the media of people – especially women – who looked like her, and why Crazy Rich Asians is such an important movie for this generation and generations to come.
She says the first Asian person she saw on TV, growing up was probably figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi. “Either that, or the yellow Power Ranger… back then, I didn’t realize how racist that was that the yellow one was the Asian one and the black one was the black one.”
“Kristi Yamaguchi, for sure, was the one that stood out for me. I saw her on screen and I said, ‘Mom, I want to be a figure skater. I want to be just like her. I ‘changed’ my middle name to ‘Kristi’ and signed everything ‘Madelyn Kristi Chung’ because I was so obsessed with her.”
“It wasn’t until probably earlier this year that I realized, ‘Oh my god, the reason that I loved Kristi Yamaguchi so much was because she looked like me.'”
Chung points out when she was a child, she didn’t see anyone else on TV who looked like her. “Now, looking back, that was kind of ground-breaking that we saw an Asian woman who was celebrated and praised for being herself, and not being portrayed in a stereotypical light, which is what we’re used to seeing in Hollywood and on the big screen.”
She feels in her high school years, she was compared to every Asian actress. “People would be like, ‘Oh my gosh, you look like Lucy Liu. I look nothing like Lucy Liu. I don’t have freckles. I do not look like her. They were like, you look like Keiko [Agena] from Gilmore Girls. She played Lane, Rory’s best friend.”
“Just because I’m Asian doesn’t mean I look like them. The same way that just because you’re white, it doesn’t mean you look like every single white person on TV or on screen.”
She resented the comparisons.
“For example, Lane on Gilmore Girls was really nerdy, Korean, with a really, really strict mom who was super religious and wouldn’t let her date anyone except if he was a Korean guy who went to church. Or it was the hyper-sexualized [character] like Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels. I was kind of like, ‘I don’t really feel like I fit into any of those boxes. I feel like I am my own person, but I’m not being represented on screen.'”
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Chung says she wanted to make herself “more white.”
“I grew up in a predominantly white town… Everyone around me was white. I grew up with a single mom… She is extremely progressive… She did a really good job of raising me Canadian but still sticking to my morals and values. I remember when I was younger, she would have me go around and tell all my classmates about Chinese New Year, for example, to teach everyone about my culture because no one really was like me.”
She says as she grew older, that made her feel as though she stood out. She felt different and isolated.
“I tried to white wash myself. I tried to not associate myself with Asian characters. If people were like, ‘Do you speak Chinese?’ I was like, ‘No. French was my first language. I speak French.’ I tried to make myself more Canadian as opposed to Chinese. I look back on that and it makes me so sad that I used to be like that. It makes me embarrassed.”
Chung says with age and time, and spending more time with her relatives, she’s come to realize she can be herself and celebrate her culture. “I so with I could speak Cantonese fluently. Because I want to speak with my elders… “I think it was a matter of just accepting who I am and my family… being proud of my heritage and the countries where my families come from.”
She adds seeing more Asians in movies and on TV was a factor. “Being portrayed in a different light helps.”
“One example that I can think of is social media. When bloggers first came on the scene, there were all these Asian bloggers popping up. I was like, ‘Whoa. These are real girls like me, who love fashion and I can relate to them. We have similar body types. They’re not super tall, super skinny white girls. We have similar body types. I can wear the same types of clothes as them. I can relate to them. I can look up to them.”
She says Crazy Rich Asians is an extremely important film, admitting she dismissed the book when she first heard about it.
“I was like, ‘Oh, the crazy, rich Asian stereotype? Screw that, I’m not going to read it’… I was just like, ‘No. It’s just going to go into that stereotype. I don’t want to read into it. It’s going to make me feel bad about myself. But my friend said, ‘No. It’s actually really, really good. Read it.'”
Chung read it in two days.
“The fact that this is an all-Asian cast, it’s directed by an Asian guy, and it’s the first time in 25 years that we’ve seen that — it’s huge. I’m hoping that this time around, because of social media and because we’re seeing all these people expressing their feelings and their love and their pride and we’re seeing all these think pieces come out about how important this is, it’s really going to propel more representation and diversity on screen.”
She thinks one of the main reasons the movie is such a hit is because it doesn’t only appeal to Asians.
“It’s appealing to a mass audience. Everyone’s talking about it. I have so many friends who are not Asian who have already seen the movie. They’re like, ‘I loved it. I laughed, I cried, I cheered. It was great.’ It’s the typical rom-com, except this time around, it has Asian actors and it’s telling stories from different walks of life for Asians.”
“The amount of pride it brings to see yourself represented on screen, represented in media and celebrated, praised… I don’t know how to describe it. It’s so moving. I wish this had happened to me when I was younger so that I didn’t really resent my roots and want to white wash myself. But I’m so happy that I get to see it in my lifetime and I’m happy it’s happening now.”