Maybe Crazy Rich Asians was never going to live up to my expectations. So much hype has surrounded the adaptation of Kevin Kwan's bestselling novel about a American-Chinese woman from a poor family falling in love with the heir to a Singaporean fortune. And not only is it the first major Hollywood film in a generation to have an all-Asian cast, it's a box office smash which is being hailed as a watershed moment for diversity in film.
Millions of people have been waiting for this moment, and after Black Panther was such a sensation for the African-American community there is a lot of justifiable excitement about seeing our own faces on screen. Tweets have gone viral about how seeing the film made some proud to be Asian for the first time. Still, I can't help feeling Crazy Rich Asians is just Twilight with Chinese people and good jokes. It only represents me in a very superficial way; it’s about rich people, not Asian culture.
The plot is typical Hollywood fare: a rich man falls in love with an ordinary girl, who while brainy has no idea how wealthy his family is. The Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu), has been dating Nick Young (Henry Golding) for a year without realising he is the heir to half of Singapore.
Only when they take their seats in first class on the way to meet his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) does Rachel realise they might be slightly richer than she thought. Apparently, she’s never heard of Google. It’s like any other fairy tale or rom-com with a prince charming, except there are overbearing mothers who make dumplings and play mahjong.
Growing up in a Chinese-Thai family, I can relate to some of the family dynamics and mentalities that cause tension in the movie. Eleanor doesn’t approve of Rachel, and my father never met a boyfriend of mine he deemed acceptable. My family is not even rich, and in his mind no one will ever be good enough for me. That includes my husband.
Expecting your children to marry for family connections isn't exclusive to Asian culture. European royal families have been doing that since they started. Marrying Meghan Markle into the British royal family didn't happen without a careful calculation of what she brought to the table: Hollywood fame, open-mindedness and, yes, cultural diversity.
And for a film set in Singapore, no one spoke Singlish. I was hoping to see Michelle Yeoh say “can la”, or refer to poor people as being from the “kampung”.
This is still a lot better than how Thailand is represented in Hollywood. Thai people are always associated with prostitution, drugs or caricatures of transgender women. The Hangover Part II had all of the above, while the Sydney-centric series of Top of the Lake added surrogacy to the sex trafficking stereotype.
When I saw Black Panther, I left the cinema wishing I was African for how well they were portrayed in the movie. I didn’t leave Crazy Rich Asians feeling cool being part Chinese.
We have rich people in Thailand too, and they are far wilder than those in the movie. One crazy rich person hunted down a protected black leopard in a national park for dinner and got away with it. Another crazy rich kid killed a policeman while speeding drunk in his gunmetal grey Ferrari and got away with it. I grew up in a city where Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royce Phantoms are sold in malls, and the car parks have more spaces set aside for supercars than the disabled.
Shutting down department stores or taking over hotels is just using money the way it’s meant to be used – the real power comes when you can buy things you shouldn’t be able to. This movie is not even half as crazy as real rich people in Asian countries, and we shouldn't glorify their lifestyle in film.
Penjai Sinsamersuk is a consultant and writer who lives in Sydney.