While Crazy Rich Asians is not the first big budget Hollywood production to be filmed in Singapore, it has a special status: It is based on a bestseller written by a Singaporean, and the story, populated by a cast of Singaporean characters, largely takes place in the Republic.
But while it is touted as one of the few big budget Hollywood productions with an all-Asian cast, none of the main roles are played by Singaporeans. Nevertheless, the local actors cast in the movie still felt the pressure of representing the country.
Speaking to reporters on the Crazy Rich Asians set at CHIJMES in June 2017, Selena Tan and Amy Cheng revealed that, together with fellow veteran actress Janice Koh, they had discussed a burning issue: whether their characters should be speaking Singlish.
“Janice was like, ‘This generation, our generation, we need to speak Singlish!'” said Cheng, who would sometimes deliver two versions of her lines – one in Singlish, the other in more neutral tones – for Taiwanese-American director Jon M Chu to choose from.
And while acknowledging that Chu was always open to ideas, Tan noted, “We tried to add a couple of things (in Singlish), and then (Chu) was like, ‘Okay, can you go back to the script?'”
She added with a laugh, “I wanna say shiok, I wanna say alamak, I managed a hanor somewhere in there! I kind of sneak it in, and then I let Jon say, ‘don’t do that'”
Ultimately, Tan and Cheng reconciled themselves to Chu’s instructions by rationalising that the megarich of Singapore, who are often educated abroad or have spent time overseas, would not necessarily be speaking Singlish.
“When Janice and I were overthinking everything, we finally decided that … if it’s Crazy Rich Asians and we belong to a particular old money or a really, really rich Singaporean set, we wouldn’t be talking like ourselves … and we code switch a lot.”
Putting Singapore on the map
Tan, Cheng and Koh all play members of the extended Young family, the fabulously rich household at the heart of the story.
Given that the main roles are not played by Singaporeans, does Cheng feel that the story has been kept authentically Singaporean? She replied, “I think it’s a step in the right direction. You can’t expect the first production to be all about Singapore and really authentically Singaporean … It’s telling a different story about a certain segment of society and I think it’s authentic as-is.”
Director Chu, who helmed Now You See Me 2 and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, also joins the media roundtables at several points and is a gregarious and passionate presence. Asked if he felt the weight of expectation, Chu acknowledged that the movie would not please everyone.
But he stressed, “We decided very early on that this is not the movie to solve all representation issues. This is a very specific movie, we have a very specific world, very specific characters. This is not going to solve everything.”
Chu added, “But what it can do is break open that box just a little bit more, so that all the other people who have great stories to tell, all these actors who have talent to show, it gives permission for other people to do it.”
Nevertheless, his Singaporean cast members still wish that the movie was a little bit more, well, Singaporean.
‘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,” lamented Tan.
Asked if there was one thing she would add to the movie, Tan responded with a laugh, “A few more Singlish words!”
Crazy Rich Asians opens in Singapore cinemas on 22 August.