Updated: May 28
Dear Asian Youth,
Hollywood has a strange way of portraying individuals, societies, cultures, and ideas. With its popular movie industry, it is able to subtly promote what is known as cultural imperialism. There are countless movies set in foreign countries outside the western hemisphere that are voiced in English. By implying that all foreigners speak English in their native countries, American cinema promotes the American language, speech, and culture in non-American societies. This has a negative effect on different cultures by discreetly pushing them to become more Americanized and changing the way Americans perceive foreign cultures. A recent movie that demonstrates Hollywood’s Americanization of a foreign society is the blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians.
A little more than a year ago, the film Crazy Rich Asians hit theaters nationwide. For the past twenty-five years, The Joy Luck Club had been the only major film starring a majority-Asian cast. Although Crazy Rich Asians was widely celebrated for its Asian representation, the movie was not very fulfilling to its Chinese viewers for several reasons. Firstly, Hollywood virtually erased the entire non-Chinese population of Singapore, where the movie is set. This, along with the characters speaking British and American English rather than Singaporean English, poorly reflected the authentic ethnic makeup of the true setting. Out of Singapore’s four official languages, Chinese is only third on the list, and even then it is Mandarin Chinese. In the film, every character, with the exception of the grandmother, speaks Cantonese Chinese. In Singapore, less than 15% of the total population speaks Cantonese. Now picture this: a Chinese movie portraying all the American characters (except the grandmother) as German speakers. How accurate would that depiction be?
Additionally, the majority of Chinese families are not as wealthy and glamorous as Hollywood depicts them to be. The movie shows only the top one percent of Chinese families, the fairytale society, the Youngs of the world. This isn’t relatable to the average Chinese citizen. Of course, the movie is titled Crazy Rich Asians and accordingly, will advertise wealthy Asian families. However, in being the only modern blockbuster with Asian representation in Hollywood, the film is only reinforcing stereotypical beliefs—such as the model minority myth—that all Asians are prosperous and live upscale, extravagant lifestyles.
Lastly, many ways of the Young family are not considered Chinese in the least. It is highly uncommon for an entire Chinese family to have English names rather than Chinese names. The Young family’s English names are another connection to their British ties, suggesting they are culturally more British than they are Chinese. For example, Eleanor Young boasts to Rachel that she attended Oxford University as a social experience and to find a husband, rather than as an educational experience. To the Chinese, this behavior is deeply disgraceful since education is strongly emphasized in society. Confucian values emphasize lifelong learning, as it is believed to be intertwined with character-building and self-improvement.
To reiterate, there is no issue with a movie titled Crazy Rich Asians being about literal crazy rich Asians. The problem is the lack of representation of actual Asian culture in movies pretending to depict the same. Hollywood is not portraying authentic Chinese culture. It is portraying a carefully-crafted mix of American and British culture with a hint of Chinese influence. Movies are such a popular media format that it is crucial not to broadcast inaccuracies or stereotypes. As Americans, we should realize that characters of a specific culture should be played by actors of that culture. We shouldn’t dismiss a movie because its actors don’t fit the criteria of what we consider “normal.”
We should be open to the idea of seeing people of color on screen, not hidden away backstage. In a country built upon foreign cultures, showcasing diversity shouldn’t be a foreign concept. As moviegoers and film fanatics, you are critical to the success of Hollywood movies. As the audience, you hold immense power in deciding which types of movies flourish, and more importantly, which types don’t. In expressing interest in foreign cultures and advocating for more representation, you can help overcome the prejudice in the cinematic industry, and, from there, the real world.
- Chloe Deng