If you asked your barista or Uber driver to name a New York icon, they might say the “Statue of Liberty”, “Central Park”, or “the Empire State Building.” Ditto for London – “Big Ben” or “London Bridge” — or any other prominent city in the Western hemisphere.
Now, ask them about Singapore, and they might draw a blank. I know I still do, even after living there for almost all my life. I never knew how to explain the city’s most iconic features because unlike New York or London, Singapore hardly served as the backdrop for the hottest films or television shows.
But this summer, “Crazy Rich Asians” changed that. The film catapulted my country into popular culture – it was the backdrop for the hilarious yet touching romantic comedy. There were beautiful aerial shots of the financial district, tantalizing spreads of street food, and of course, dramatic displays of opulence in the mansions of the ultra-rich.
For a small country often associated with corporal punishment and a ban on selling gum, “Crazy Rich Asians” lent Singapore an air of desire and wonder so unlike its austere reputation. A good part of the film features real locations, blurring the line between fantasy and reality.
After the protagonists, Nick Young and Rachel Chu, land at Changi Airport, their friends take them to Newton Food Center, one of the biggest street food markets in Singapore. They drive along the well-maintained highways, breezing past public housing estates and tropical bougainvillea blooms. Rachel meets her friend Peik Lin in the hip area of Tanjong Pagar, where eclectic cafes are nestled among two-storied colonial-era houses.
Of course, nothing screams “crazy rich” like a wedding party in Gardens by the Bay, a park set in the heart of the city with massive, purple, avant-garde “Supertrees” – giant tree-like sculptures with lush vines twirling around their metal frames. In the distance is Marina Bay Sands, a luxury hotel and casino with the world’s highest infinity pool on the 57th floor.
Perhaps the most absurd display of affluence was the Young family’s enormous estate. In land-scarce Singapore, where more than 80 percent of the population lives in high-rise public housing, having a massive property symbolizes nothing but obscene wealth.
Unsurprisingly, scenes in the Youngs’ mansion were filmed in Carcosa Seri Negara, a house in Malaysia where the British High Commissioner used to live during colonial times. Unlike Singapore, Malaysia has far more land for the rich to relax in their giant mansions and beach hotels, so that they need not be cramped into their Singapore penthouses. (Full disclosure: I think Malaysia is a great place.)
All these vibrant scenes bring the allure of high society to my humid little island and I am more than happy to see Singapore making a splash on the silver screen. Some, however, have criticized the film for its superficial depiction of Singapore, which reinforces the stereotype that it is full of wealthy, educated, mainly Chinese individuals.
Indeed, “Crazy Rich Asians” does not portray all that makes Singapore unique — not its industrious working-class folks; not its endearing vernacular of Chinese, English, and Malay words; not its stellar public transportation systems; most certainly not its racial and ethnic diversity.
Most of the film’s main characters are Chinese, with the occasional non-Chinese Asian serving as masseuse or security guard. This grossly underrepresents the 36 percent of non-Chinese Singaporeans, especially Malays and Indians, and perpetuates stereotypes that minorities cannot be rich, educated, or worthy of starring in a film supposedly about Asians.
But the film is not meant to be a documentary. It is supposed to tell a compelling fictional story about how insanely wealthy some people are. The fact that the Youngs are “crazy rich” is an indicator that this is not the way most people, Singaporeans or not, live.
Beyond the glitz and glamor of old money is an emotional vulnerability that all of us, regardless of wealth or social status, can sympathize with. When Astrid cries in the car, we feel sorry for her because she is a woman whose husband has betrayed her, not because she is a wealthy socialite about to ruin her makeup.
Even Nick’s mother, the formidable Eleanor Young, who opposes her son’s relationship with Rachel, is not immune to human emotion. In the expertly-shot mahjong sequence, where the game’s progression symbolizes the tussle between love and family, Rachel explained to Eleanor the sacrifice she was willing to make for Nick and his family. She gives Eleanor the winning tile to represent Eleanor’s victory in the tussle between marrying for love and being loyal to one’s family duties.
Despite her initial misgivings, Eleanor relents in the end, giving Nick her own emerald wedding ring for him to propose to Rachel. She put her son’s happiness above her notions of family honor, an exceptionally difficult thing to do for a Chinese matriarch who believes that family comes before self. We see beyond Eleanor’s harsh exterior and discover the loving mother within.
These touching moments remind us that the film’s namesakes are not simply defined by power and privilege, just as Singapore is not defined by high-end boutiques, expensive hotels, or wealthy Chinese families. At their very core, even if we may believe otherwise, the ultra-rich are people with emotions and feelings like all of us.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is not meant to be a perfect representation of Asian culture or Singapore, and there are definitely issues that it neglects. If we focus on what the film covers, however, we see that its value lies in building a compelling and emotional storyline. Understandably, after the chronic under-representation and tokenization of Asian actors in Hollywood, there are lots of of high expectations for the film, but I do feel that asking a rom-com to satisfy all kinds of demands is impracticable.
Rather, I hope that the film provides a start for normalizing Asians in American popular culture, whether that happens though starring a more diverse Asian cast in other films, or showing mahjong tournaments in television shows. Of course, I also hope that my city, much like New York or London, will be featured in more mainstream films and not just on inflight magazines.