Crazy Rich Asians: Those Still Invisible in the Fight for Representation

Many of us in the Asian and Asian American community believe we have finally won in the fight for Asian representation, with Crazy Rich Asians (2018) as our champion. In a film and media industry that has sought to ignore, replace, and misrepresent us, it seems we have finally reclaimed our voices and taken control of our narratives. But the narratives I see in Crazy Rich Asians are not mine. The characters I see are not me. While their faces hint at shared experiences, their lives speak of those I have never known.

The ambivalence I feel toward Crazy Rich Asians comes from a personal place. I’m a Vietnamese American, the son of refugees, and the first to attend college from a single-parent, low-income household. Therefore, sitting in the theater and watching scene after scene of Asian characters in extravagant homes, luxury cars, and designer clothes, I couldn’t help but feel a certain pain. I know all too well that stories like mine are seldom even whispered in the conversations of representation. And whereas many left theaters with hearts full, I left with lingering dissatisfaction. Where I wanted to feel unbridled joy, I felt aching frustration. Where I hoped to be reaffirmed in my identity as an Asian in America, I was reminded that there exist those of us under that umbrella who remain invisible.

A major theme in the conversation of Asian representation has been to correct the stereotypical, caricaturesque depictions of Asians. However, I question if portrayals of extremely wealthy Asians do our narratives any more justice. No longer are we “dragon ladies,” Long Duk Dongs, and Fu Manchus. Instead we are crazy rich, and we are Asian, an association that, due to the model minority myth, is just as pervasive and toxic as that of foreignness and Asianness. The CEOs, playboys, and multimillionaires in Crazy Rich Asians are just as unrecognizable to me as any typical Asian “foreigner” depiction. They are but caricatures of a different form, exaggerated conflations of success, wealth, and Asians.

Such representation perpetuates invisibilization. And while I acknowledge and appreciate the inclusion of the film’s protagonist, Rachel Chu’s, backstory of being from a low socioeconomic background, in a world saturated by images of “crazy rich Asians,” such stories are perceived as the exception rather than the norm. Likewise, there are a myriad of Asians in America who suffer from systemic inequity, who fall outside the model minority stereotype, yet whose stories are erased by it. I recognize that all communities are marginalized uniquely within Asian America. However, for this piece, I draw specific attention to Southeast Asian communities and the struggles we have endured in silence.

We are a people born out of war and resettlement, the aftermaths of which we still feel today. Lack of support systems for the influx of refugees following the war in Vietnam has made integration for Southeast Asians here an ongoing battle. Amongst other racial and ethnic groups, we possess high poverty rates relative to the national average of 11%, with 27% of Hmong Americans, 18% of Cambodian Americans, 13% of Vietnamese Americans, and 12% of Laotian Americans living in poverty in 2013. While poverty rates are high, education rates remain low, as many experience barriers to education, including low levels of English proficiency, racism from peers and school authorities, and as was just noted, poverty itself. As a result, Southeast Asians have some of the highest secondary school dropout rates, with 39% of Hmong Americans, 38% of Cambodian Americans,  and 34% of Laotian Americans of 25 years or older lacking a high school diploma. Such environmental circumstances have funneled a significant number of Southeast Asians into the criminal justice system, and through a migration-to school-to prison-to deportation pipeline, many of them are in danger of being forced to return to the very lands from which they fled. The danger of deportation of 1,500 Southeast Asians, many of whom have lived here a majority of their lives and are being deported for criminal convictions that have been served, acts as a reminder that we, like many other marginalized groups, were never fully welcome in this country.

Yet, such injustices continue in our communities. Due to the model minority myth and an East-Asian-dominated Asian American narrative, Southeast Asians have been pushed to the margins of the margin, our oppressions simultaneously compounded and erased. Our pains are unique from that of the dominant categories of Asian America. Still, we are lumped into the same monolith and are forced into the same misconceived mold of the model minority myth. Because of our failures to achieve the same degree of “assimilation” and “success” as our model counterparts, we are often juxtaposed as the “bad” type of Asians. But when advantageous for a political agenda, we are praised equally. In either circumstance, the end goal is always to control our external perceptions, to use us, to dominate us. 

Crazy Rich Asians capitalizes on the common perception of Asians in America - that we are all successful, extremely well-off light-skinned Asians. In a society where we are constantly at risk of becoming what founder of critical race theory and Asian American activist Mari Matsuda, calls the racial bourgeoisie, this is extremely troubling. Time and time again, our valorization by the dominant power has been employed to pathologize blackness and erase the oppression of communities of color, while our ostracism has denied us political power and full social-cultural acceptance into American society. 

This stratification, this “middle class” racial status of ours within the black-white binary has positioned us as proxy whites, and often we have bought into it and reaped the privileges of this conditional acceptance. It has made us complicit, and far too often has our community been and continues to be a bystander in the face of injustice. Our failure to recognize that the model minority myth as not just simply a stereotype, but a mode of our subordination and the maintenance of a racial hierarchy built upon anti-blackness and white supremacy, has rendered us incapable of critically deconstructing our positionality in America’s racial fabric.

These are the wars being ignored in the fight for representation. It is possible that the APIA community has become so transfixed in this struggle, framing it as the issue for Asian America, that we have deflected  energy away from the less “attractive,” but more imperative problems gripping our communities.  While I believe that film and media representation is an important matter, it is only a symptom of the larger structural issues from which it manifests. By diverting so much attention to the conversation of representation, we may fail to recognize the need for critical dialogue and active engagement around APIA communities’ struggles with issues like anti-blackness and colorism, intergenerational trauma and mental health, poverty, education, and housing and gentrification. Solely achieving representation without effectively addressing these issues is nothing but a symbolic win, a superficial solution for deeply institutionalized problems.

Despite my criticisms, I recognize that the film comes with many merits and believe that it is, in fact, a step forward. To be Asian in America has always been synonymous with being seen as a perpetual foreigner, an exotic, backwards, and ultimately unassimilable “Other.” Such is the backbone of centuries of Orientalist ideologies that construct an irreconcilable dichotomy between East and West, between “barbarism” and “civilization.” It has served to simultaneously reinforce Western identity and perceived superiority and to justify the alienation and subordination of “Orientals.” Film and media has done much of the same, writing us into marginal existence and speaking for us in the ways the West believes to “know” us. Whether our roles are  “dragon ladies,” martial arts masters, war brides, ancient mystics, socially awkward math whizzes, and so on, the message always remains the same: we are somehow inherently different; we don’t belong.

As a result, when your only access to Asians in American media has been limited to caricatures, stereotypes, and tokens, you can’t help but feel a sense of pride seeing someone who looks like you onscreen, trying to tell a story only you and those like you can fully grasp. It’s a film made by Asians for Asians, and it’s that intentionality that makes the film so radical.  

Often has our allegiance to whiteness pushed us to dilute our Asianness for that ever-elusive conditional acceptance. Such is reflected in the popular, and often considered “progressive,” thought that a character’s Asian identity should not have to be central to the film, especially for films that take place in an American context. In other words, characters are painted as unhyphenated Americans. Although this may work in some contexts, I assert that overemphasis of this approach is more so an adoption of a false  “color-blind” ideology that does more to reinforce associations of Americanness and whiteness than it does to offer truly progressive forms of representation. However, Crazy Rich Asians resists that urge. It makes little to no sacrifices of cultural nuance and appeal, little to no concessions to white audiences. It is unapologetic in its Asianness and the message is clear.  We are here. We are real. We belong.

They may try to erase us, but we must resist erasing ourselves.

So enjoy this. Celebrate this. Remember this. They say the door is open. But with every door that opens, I am wary of the new gatekeepers. Recognize that this victory may also be conditional, that this one story may set precedence for those to come. The fight is far from over. There is still so much more to be done, and it must be done with intentionality and with those historically forgotten in memory. We must continue to foster critical dialogue in our communities around the various systemic injustices we face and dismantle the model minority myth. For too long have we purchased the privileges of proxy whiteness on credit, the price of which we pay in our continued oppression and that of other communities of color. We cannot continue to let our identities and experiences be weaponized to reinforce the structural violence inflicted on ourselves and on black and brown bodies.

Furthermore, we must constantly evaluate who has the power and privilege in our community to uplift our stories, and thus, the ability to either visibilize or erase. The countless stories that have been scribbled into the margins must be centered in order to achieve true representation and correct external perceptions of Asian America. If Crazy Rich Asians is the victory that we hope it is, then maybe it has finally gotten a foot in the door. All I ask now is that we remember to brace it open for those of us whose faces have gone unseen, names have gone unspoken, and lives have gone on, invisibly.