The Youngs, the fabulously rich family in Crazy Rich Asians, were not explicitly Peranakan in the book on which the film is based upon – the idea to make them Peranakan came from the film’s production designer, Nelson Coates.
Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore had a chat with the award-winning set design guru when he was in Singapore last week for Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, the highlight event of Singapore Design Week. Crazy Rich Asians won best production design for a contemporary film at the Art Directors Guild Production Design Awards last month. Coates was instrumental in the look of the film, which was directed by Jon Chu.
Set in the glitzy world of the Singapore’s ultra-rich, Crazy Rich Asians was adapted from Singapore-born American author Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel of the same name. The film was celebrated as Hollywood’s first film in 25 years with an all-Asian cast in a contemporary setting (the last such film was 1993’s The Joy Luck Club). The fish-out-of-water story is about the obstacles an Asian-American woman must face when her boyfriend brings her to Singapore to meet his wealthy family, the Youngs.
Coates told us that Kwan was thrilled with the idea of having the Young family be Peranakan, as the set design of their house fit his vision perfectly.
“It’s not mentioned in the book at all,” said Coates of the Youngs’ Peranakan heritage. “But with the family supposedly having been in the Straits peninsula for so long, it made sense to introduce that specific regional thing. It just makes it feel that much more authentic. We’ve never seen this in a Western movie ever. So why not?”
Peranakans are the descendants of Chinese migrant traders who came to the British Straits Settlements centuries ago. Many Peranakan families became very wealthy over the years.
In the film, the Young family lives in Tyersall Park, a sprawling property supposedly near the Botanic Gardens which includes a huge house and surrounding gardens. Producers could not find a suitable house in Singapore, so they settled on a colonial residence in Kuala Lumpur eventually for the film set.
“Kevin Kwan thought it was perfect,” Coates added. “Literally the first time we met in person was on the set of the house, and when he walked out into the conservatory he almost started crying. He was like, this is beyond my wildest expectations. He really embraced the details that I brought into the movie, and was thrilled with the direction that we took it in visually.”
Peranakan elements in the film included nonya kueh, floral and animal decor, inlaid mother-of-pearl furniture, lacquered chairs, glazed ceramic tiles, and William Morris–style wallpaper.
Besides the Peranakan inspiration for Crazy Rich Asians, Coates said many other Singaporean elements also made it into the film, so much so that it almost turned into a travelogue or a tourism advertisement for Singapore. Locations in Singapore featured in the film include the Merlion, Gardens by the Bay, Marina Bay Sands and Peranakan shophouses in Bukit Pasoh and Ann Siang Hill.
“I love Singapore,” said Coates. “We wanted to introduce details throughout the movie that showcase the city and the country. But it is so beautiful and romantic that you want to film it in a romantic way. We see all these things that are maybe a little touristy, but also help viewers that don’t even know where Singapore is.”
Coates is currently in discussions with Chu over the two upcoming sequels to Crazy Rich Asians, which are in the scriptwriting stage of development. The two films will be shot back to back, which will make it easier to accommodate the schedules of the large cast.
The production designer leaves us with a teaser about the sequels: “There were many wonderful stories from the first book that didn’t make it into the movie. The screenwriters and Jon Chu are talking about how to structure the story so that characters that weren’t in the second book but we love, might have some place to be involved.”
As for which characters those might be, Coates remains tight-lipped for now!