Singapore wary of 'Crazy Rich Asians' film

Kirsten Han
A scene from the film

Hailed as a watershed moment for Asian American representation in Hollywood, the new romantic comedy ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ has been given a more muted reception in Singapore, the setting of the colourful tale of glamour and excess.

As the first Hollywood movie to feature an all-East Asian cast in 25 years, it has been widely touted as a progressive win for Asian Americans who have long been shortchanged on US screen time.

The film has an impressive 92 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where critics praise it for having “a terrific cast and a surfeit of visual razzle dazzle.” Jon Chu, the director, has described his creation as “more than just a movie, it’s a movement.” But in Singapore, where the movie will premiere on Wednesday, locals are watching the glowing reviews unfold with bemusement and a more critical eye of how their tiny Southeast Asian city-state is being portrayed to the world.

This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Sonoya Mizuno in a scene from the film "Crazy Rich Asians." 

An embarrassing red carpet malfunction when the film opened in Los Angeles on 7 August, did not go unnoticed.

As the film’s stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh smiled and posed in the foreground, the Singapore Tourism Board’s logo on the backdrop panel read “Sincapore: Passion Made Poss ble”, a misspelling of the official slogan “Singapore: Passion Made Possible”.

The organisers later explained that the lettering had melted in the “extreme heat.”

However, more serious concerns have been raised that while the movie does offer more representation for Asians in the United States, that it does not take care to depict Singapore in the same representative way.

Based on a novel of the same name by Singaporean author Kevin Kwan, the narrative follows a Chinese American economics professor who flies Singapore to attend a wedding with her boyfriend, only to find out that her partner comes from one of the city-state’s richest families.

But when the trailer was released in April this year, Singaporeans immediately pointed to a lack of Singlish—a local patois spoken across the island. A parody Singlish dub of the trailer swiftly began to circulate on social media.

Singaporean cast members have said that they wished they’d been able to speak more Singlish in the film.

A scene from "Crazy Rich Asians."

“When we watch American movies, I know what they sound like in America … But I just wish that somebody else watching us somewhere else would know our lingo and our slang words as well,” actress Selena Tan told Yahoo! News.

The exclusion of Singapore’s non-Chinese minorities has also been pointed out in the rom-com’s glossy portrayal of a secret, moneyed elite.

While 76 per cent of the country’s population are Chinese, 15 per cent of the island’s citizens are Malay, and 6.6 per cent are Indian. Critics note that they have been relegated to the background, rather than taking prominent roles that would paint a more accurate picture of Singapore’s cultural diversity.

“In its representation of Singapore, I definitely had to constantly remind myself of the context in which this film was made - for Asian Americans in America looking onto Singapore,” said Singaporean actor Shrey Bhargava. “I did yearn to see more minority Singaporeans in the film and Singapore's muticultural diversity to be celebrated, especially given that [Crazy Rich Asians] was marketed as a win for representation.”

Attendees pose for a picture at a booth promoting the new movie "Crazy Rich Asians" Credit:  MIKE BLAKE

Yet despite its flaws, the rare focus on Singapore in such a high profile Hollywood movie and, moreover, one which stars several much-loved local actors, has also been warmly welcomed.

“Being fictional, the movie obviously does not reflect the whole of Singapore nor the lives of Singaporeans in general,” said Lynette Pang, Assistant Chief Executive of the Marketing Group at the Singapore Tourism Board.

“We do think the story is an engaging one and with Singapore being prominently featured, we hope that the movie can pique the interest of viewers, especially in the North American markets.” Ms Pang said the making of the film had employed 297 local crew members as well as 12 Singapore-based cast members, including Tan Kheung Hua and Janice Koh.

“All in all, this is a win for Singapore as we think the movie can help further profile Singapore’s home-grown talents,” she said.