The Worrying Cross-Strait and Linguistic Messages of 'Crazy Rich Asians'

The Worrying Cross-Strait and Linguistic Messages of 'Crazy Rich Asians'
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Why you need to know

The film is now in theaters in Taiwan. Is it a victory for Asian representation in Hollywood, or for the linguistic and cultural domination of the Chinese Communist Party?

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The release of "Crazy Rich Asians" in theaters this month yielded plenty of commentary: Is it a triumph of representation for all Asians, or only for a small slice of Westerners of Asian descent? Is it actually more American than Asian in its celebration of romantic love above filial piety?

However, one factor has been overlooked: the language and cross-Strait politics of the movie; namely, how heavily they have been influenced by the cultural dominance of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

Derived from a book inspired by the lives of a stratospherically wealthy Sinophone diaspora and a Hollywood studio system ever more dependent on audiences from China, “Crazy Rich Asians” ultimately parrots the propaganda and policies of the Chinese government and other Sinicizing administrations in east and southeast Asia.

To buy into its harmonious vision of an extended Chinese family scattered throughout the continent – with the self-made, Chinese-American heroine Rachel Chu as the only outsider – is to forget that China has sought to punish those in Asia and overseas who refuse to ally with its linguistic or imperialist agendas.

Hokkien and Cantonese: Kept out of earshot

As soon as the movie premiered in the United States, my Facebook feed lit up with posts from my Taiwanese and Hong Kongese friends stating how moved they were to hear Hokkien (Southern Min or Taiwanese) and Cantonese, respectively, spoken in a Hollywood production. I watched the movie waiting expectantly for the bits of my Taiwanese family’s native tongue that my friends had promised.

Despite my overall enjoyment of the film, my elation was mixed with disappointment. Why did the dashing Nick Young’s tradition-minded grandmother speak Mandarin – in a northern Chinese accent, no less – and not Cantonese, as she does in Kevin Kwan’s books?

The Youngs are specifically described as having emigrated from China in the 1800s. As a matter of historical accuracy, it is highly improbable that Nick’s “A Ma” (grandmother) would speak Mandarin as her default language, especially in intimate family settings.

More than three-quarters of Singaporeans claim Chinese ancestry. Just under half are descended from Hokkien-speaking immigrants; a smaller proportion from Cantonese speakers. Mandarin only began to flourish after the Singaporean government launched a “Speak Mandarin” campaign in the 1970s, and native Mandarin speakers began to move to the island in more significant numbers beginning in the 1990s. The rise of Mandarin has come at the cost of other, longer-rooted Chinese languages.

Repressive government initiatives to solidify Mandarin as the region’s common tongue have been so successful in Singapore, Taiwan, and China that Hokkien and Cantonese are now routinely mistaken in popular culture as mere dialects of Mandarin.

Mandarin thus functions in the movie just as it does in government policies: as an artificial marker of class and sophistication. Cantonese, and especially Hokkien, are used as signifiers of marginality and lower status.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Actress Michelle Yeoh, who plays Eleanor Young in 'Crazy Rich Asians.'

Eleanor Young, Nick’s mother, whose family language is Cantonese, admits that she was not (this anachronistic, Mandarin-speaking) A Ma’s first choice as a daughter-in-law. Rachel, whose self-confidence and pureness of heart the movie champions, was taught by her single mother to speak Mandarin.

By contrast, the mother of Goh Peik Lin, Rachel’s college classmate, speaks the movie’s only full Hokkien sentence (“What a sweet talker,” hiah-nih gâu kong-ōe in POJ romanization, from which Taiwanese romanization is derived) while showing Rachel around her gaudy, nouveau-riche home, described for the audience’s amusement as being modeled after Versailles and “Donald Trump’s toilet.” Mr. Goh, Peik Lin’s crass father, pushes Rachel to eat (chia̍h, chia̍h, chia̍h) from an overstuffed lunch table while trying to set her up with his sweet but socially-inappropriate son.

Mandarin thus functions in the movie just as it does in government policies: as an artificial marker of class and sophistication. Cantonese, and especially Hokkien, are used as signifiers of marginality and lower status.

The Gohs may be good-hearted, as they show when they nurse Rachel through a bout of heartbreak, but they are nevertheless excluded from Singapore’s social elite. This positionality is signaled to viewers in part through their native tongue.

Hokkien is spoken only two other times in the film: by night market vendors, saying “thank you” (kám-sīa) to their customers, and by Eleanor, the movie’s antagonist, in a pivotal scene at the very end, when she tells Rachel that Singaporeans prefer to stick to their “own kind of people” (ka-kī lâng).

All in all, while the novel liberally uses Cantonese and Hokkien phrases and idioms (translated and explained in gossipy footnotes) to create a believable patter of “Singlish,” the movie foregoes any attempt to creatively interpolate these two languages. Instead, it largely scraps them.

Read More: OPINION: China's Soft Power Push Risks Igniting Divides in Singapore

Embracing the PRC vision of 'family'

In the movie version of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the main characters all identify as culturally Chinese, although much of the narrative tension derives from the initial refusal of Nick's jet-setting, western-educated family to accept an American-born daughter of a Chinese immigrant as one of their own. Nick's cousins are introduced in a quick montage that underscore's the movie's apolitical, cross-border definition of what it means to be Chinese: there's Eddie Cheng, an insecure banker living in Hong Kong, Alastair Cheng, a dilettante filmmaker based in Taiwan, and Astrid Leung, a kind socialite who travels to Shanghai for frequent shopping trips. By subsuming Taiwan and Hong Kong in its visions of “Chineseness,” however, the movie does a disservice to the bold and persistent efforts of real-life Taiwanese and Hong Kongese to reject membership in a coercive Chinese “family” helmed by the PRC.

The Young-Leung-Cheng definition of family is ultimately benign and open to evolution. The Chinese government’s definition, however, is anything but. Chinese policy towards Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang in particular has raised the stakes for what the term “Chinese” means, whether in terms of nationality (中國人), a constructed Han ethnicity (華人), or language (more and more often, “Chinese” equates to Mandarin), as well as the costs associated with rejecting any or all of these definitions.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
'Crazy Rich Asians' does not comment on the 1992 Consensus, but like Taiwanese cafe 85C, it operates at the whim of Chinese influence.

China insists that Taiwanese and Hong Kongese belong to a unified Chinese family, but its actions towards these two groups resemble intimate partner abuse. Alleged ancestral ties are used as excuses for political and economic coercion.

Take the example of Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)’s visit to a branch of the bakery 85C during her recent stopover in Los Angeles and its subsequent fallout. Bombarded by threats from Chinese internet users who consider Taiwan part of their country (even though it has never been governed by the PRC), management of the Taiwanese bakery chain issued a hasty apology “oppos[ing] any behavior or remarks that divide the feelings” of Chinese and Taiwanese, promising to “uphold the cross-Strait family,” and pledging their support of the “1992 consensus” – a supposed agreement made by the Chinese Communist Party and Taiwan’s then-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) which is unrecognized by Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

China insists that Taiwanese and Hong Kongese belong to a unified Chinese family, but its actions towards these two groups resemble intimate partner abuse.

By comparison, the characters of “Crazy Rich Asians” can call themselves Chinese or Singaporeans as they please, with no repercussions either way, precisely because Singapore’s status as a nation is not under Chinese assault.

Nick tells Rachel multiple times how much he’s wanted to show her around “the island” and introduce her to the places he loved growing up. As someone who obsessively consumes international media about Taiwan, that phrase – “the island” – caught my attention. Singapore and Taiwan are both islands where a majority, but not all, of the inhabitants are descended from settlers and colonists who arrived from the area now governed by the PRC. And yet one is allowed, by the international community, to exist as an independent nation-state, while the other is treated most often as a non-entity or a deluded curiosity, despite being one of the freest and most democratic societies in all of Asia.

(In a particularly awkward and meta example, Reuters reported this week on a Chinese citizen who was detained for asking on social media what law prevented someone from calling Taiwan a country. But the report itself declined to describe Taiwan as a country, falling back instead on the phrase “self-ruled island,” three words that recur consistently in Anglophone press coverage of the place.)

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
International media often declines to refer to Taiwan as a country, preferring terms such as 'self-ruled island.'

So ultimately, what political message does “Crazy Rich Asians” intend to send?

The movie opens with a quote by Napoleon Bonaparte: “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will move the world.” In the context of the scene that follows – the Youngs are refused entrance to a posh British hotel because of their race, so Eleanor decides to buy it out from under the management – the quote reads as a humorous, anodyne reminder not to make assumptions about wealth or status.

In light of present-day geopolitics, however – ranging from Chinese pressure in even the most low-profile arenas against recognition of Taiwanese identity and dignity to the documented reports of Uyghurs being imprisoned en masse in reeducation camps in Xinjiang) – it seems as if the filmmakers have not adequately considered what it means to cheerlead for Chinese power as it is currently being wielded.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Actress Constance Wu, who stars as Rachel Chu in 'Crazy Rich Asians.'

The movie’s depiction of a culturally Chinese diasporic family eclipsing Western power by their wealth and wits is sure to be appealing to Chinese audiences. (That is, of course, if the film is indeed released in China.) What happens, however, if the movie’s director (Jon Chu, of half-Taiwanese descent) or its top-billed star (Constance Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants) refuse to identify as Chinese, or claim a Taiwanese identity over any sense of a Chinese one?

Made with an eye towards a Chinese audience crazy rich in the aggregate, “Crazy Rich Asians” may eventually be forced to admit that it is more for some Asians than for others.

Read Next: CARTOON: China's Cash for Central American Control

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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