By Dr. Linh Hoang
This summer, the widely popular and spectacularly successful movie Crazy Rich Asians made Asians evermore visible to the point of being now a popular mainstay of American culture. Many Asians exuded pride in seeing an all-Asian cast dominating the big screen and drawing a diverse crowd across the globe.
The movie is a romantic comedy based on a bestselling book of the same title. The movie jets one across different continents and exotic locations to feast on the glamour of the beautiful rich people. It is also an immigrant story about an intelligent hardworking young woman named Rachel Chu who is dating Nick Young. He happens to come from a very wealthy family in Singapore but has not revealed this to her. He has portrayed himself as a self-made man with a bright future. Nick’s background begins to be slowly peeled back when he invites Rachel to accompany him to Singapore to attend his best friend’s wedding. She learns much more about Nick and his family by discovering a world filled with extravagant consumption, delicate family dynamics, and the intoxication of money. Moreover, it is also very Asian.
Asian pundits and writers commented on how well Asian cultural markers weaved smoothly into the story without having to be explained. Of course for the Asian viewers, many of the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle Asian cultural markers were very real and painfully recognizable. The discussion of the importance of family by Eleanor Young, who is Nick’s domineering mother, is a constant theme for Asians around the world. Maintaining family cohesion and a respected family name comes first, then followed by an individual family member’s dreams. Self-sacrifice may be heart-wrenching, but when placed against the enduring bonds of family ties, it pales in comparison. One must swallow any selfishness in order to see the wider benefits of family and a collectivist approach to life. All makes for a strong family that will endure well beyond a child’s or a parent’s personal desires. But each person in the family knows that no matter what happens to one personally, the family unit will be there to support them.
Another cultural marker is food, which is distinctive and also shared communally. On their first night in Singapore, Rachel and, Nick, along with the wedding couple, feast on the sumptuous foods from street vendors. These vendors work in tight quarters whipping up their own specialty while drawing people in to savor their offerings. For Asians, the use of chopsticks makes sharing food a necessity. Those sticks can easily pick up a morsel of delicacy from one plate to another without dropping a beat. This sharing of food is a public act of social gathering as well as family intimacy.
One of Nick’s family traditions is gathering to wrap dumplings. This wrapping ritual brings together several generations of his family to wrap dumplings while reminiscing on past events and creating new memories. Food is fundamental to life but also takes on cultural significance because it is shared and enjoyed with others. For Asians, it represents a reminder of home and cultural connection. The Asian cuisine and utensils have traveled across borders and countries to satisfy many appetites while also making its distinctive mark on the global society.
One can say that these are two recognizable cultural markers that reaches across all cultures. People of different races and ethnicities have a specific understanding of family in their own lives. Food is prominent in many cultures, and each make special dishes. But there is a cultural marker seen in a different way in the movie—religious practice. For many Western people, Asians are usually stereotyped as either a believer in an Eastern religion such as Buddhism or practice some form of indigenous tradition that venerates spirits or ancestors. What the movie showcases instead, is that these Singaporeans are Christians and more specifically Methodists. Instead of speculating that Christianity only came much later to the country or is just a novelty for a beautiful wedding scene, the director instead zooms in on a Bible study and a church wedding. These settings are not adorned with any particular Asian cultural decorations, but instead the Bible study is set in a nicely appointed living room with comfortable sofas. It could be a setting for any mid-Western American Christian home where Bible study was a normal practice.
The church wedding is not in an opulent gothic cathedral, but instead set in a modest wooden church building. However, it is literally decked out with over the top decorations. There is water flowing down the main aisle surrounded by large foliage and white flowers reminding one of a quiet tropical setting. The movie probably took liberties with this scene. No pastor would allow water flowing down the aisle as the bride walks slowly through it. This setting seems to accomplish the requirement for many Christians to have a wedding inside a church building while yearning for the beauty of an outdoors setting. Nevertheless, the scene of a Christian wedding in an Asian film is probably something unexpected and raises the question of the place of a Western religion’s prominence within this Asian family.
It cannot go unnoticed that these religious scenes are significant because most popular movies and TV shows always show Asians practicing yoga, sitting in lotus position meditation or circumambulating around a sacred image. Instead, we see a group of women gathering for Bible study even though it goes awry because they start to gossip about the son. For Christians, gossiping is considered a sin so it is interesting that the bible study is interrupted momentarily by a phone call and whispering of the son’s new girlfriend. All of course shows the Christian struggle with sin. The women read from both the Old Testament and the New Testament showing how important both are to Christianity. This brief foray into the religious practices of these crazy rich Asians conveys how important Christianity is in their lives, even one that was only introduced in the 19thcentury to Singapore. It does also raises the question of when Christianity was introduced to Asia. For many Asian Christians, Christianity came to Asia before it landed on the shores of the United States of America. For instance, Christianity was introduced to India in the first century CE by Thomas the Apostle, to the Philippines in the 1500s and to Vietnam in the 1600s. These countries still maintain a healthy Catholic Christian population. Also, if one was to add up the population of Christians in China, it would be overwhelmingly more than the Christian population in the United States. These are but a few references to how Christianity in Asia is an important religion, similar to the popularity of Buddhism or Taoism.
The movie may not have intentionally tried to shatter the stereotype of Asians only practicing Buddhism or Hinduism, but it definitely brought awareness to the fact that Asians practice a dominant Western religious tradition. Showing Asians unabashedly practicing Christian prayer emphasizes the place of Christianity in Asia itself. But also, it helps to recast the understanding that Christianity had always been an Eastern religion, especially since it started in the Middle East and then made its way east before dominating Western Europe. This relocation of Christianity and its place within the Asian household challenges popular images of Asians only doing yoga or Zen meditation. The Asian Christian is not a novelty but this fact does not get recognized in popular culture. Crazy Rich Asians has provided an opportunity for people to talk about the practice of Christianity among Asians.