Is this possible? An all-Asian cast … and no martial arts?

New movie is highly relatable for Asian-Americans and a welcome step for Hollywood, writes Allyson Chiu.

Being Chinese-American, I grew up watching movies and TV shows with characters who looked like me, but didn‘t act like me.

One of them was Lawrence, the nerdy Chinese student in the 2003 film School of Rock. He was bespectacled, soft-spoken and insanely good at the piano.

Another was Lucy Liu‘s character Joan Watson in the popular CBS crime procedural Elementary. Before becoming a detective, she was the star of her class in medical school and had a career as a surgeon.

And I can‘t forget Ang Lee‘s epic 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was the first movie with an all-Asian cast that I watched. Every character seemed to be a martial arts master.

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As I kept seeing these characters, I became more acutely aware of how I didn‘t fit those moulds, as defined by Western pop culture. I was so bad at piano my teacher recommended I quit. I almost fainted in biology when I had to dissect a cat, and I have never once attempted to learn a martial art. I‘m a journalist.

Now the movie I have wanted my whole life has arrived – or, at least, the preview has.

The trailer for Crazy Rich Asians, based on a book of the same name by Kevin Kwan, was released last week. I‘ve watched it more than 10 times already.

It is loaded with Asian actors. In fact, it‘s the first major Hollywood production that isn‘t a period piece to have an all-Asian cast in 25 years. It‘s a love story.

Most important, it‘s an entire movie about Asians without martial arts or stereotypical nerds.

From what I can tell, this is an event I‘ve been waiting for: a film with Asian characters who are more like me.

Directed by Jon M. Chu, the Warner Bros. film follows an economics professor named Rachel Chu as she accompanies her longtime boyfriend, a fellow professor, to Singapore for a wedding and to meet his family. Unbeknown to Rachel, her boyfriend, Nick Young, is from one of the wealthiest families in Singapore, making him, well, crazy rich. Rachel is thrust into the exclusive world of old money and must face all the obstacles that come with dating “the Prince Harry of Asia”.

Many Asian-Americans, myself included, see this movie as so much more than your average popular chick-lit turned rom-com. Entertainment reporter Ashley Lee called the film “a pipe dream come true” and others have hailed it as “a historic moment for Asian Americans”.

Watching the trailer, I experienced something new. I looked at Rachel, played by Asian-American actress Constance Wu of ABC‘s Fresh Off the Boat, and completely related to her.

In the trailer, Rachel‘s friend Goh Peik Lin (played by Asian-American rapper Nora Lum, who goes by Awkwafina) tells her that Nick‘s mother “just thinks you‘re some, like, unrefined banana. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside”.

The term “banana” can be used in a derogatory way to describe Asian-Americans who are thought to have “lost” their Asian heritage and behave in a stereotypically white way. I don‘t agree with the use of that term to describe a person, yet I can sympathise with someone who has been called this.

Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians. facebook twitter email linkedin google-plus whatsapp pinterest reddit

My parents have jokingly called me a “banana”, like when I forgot how to write my name in Chinese – in my defence, it has more than 50 strokes – or when I held my chopsticks like a pencil.

Growing up in Guam, a US territory, I always felt more American than Chinese. I spoke English at home. My family didn‘t own a rice cooker until I was in high school.

Nick‘s mother was attempting to insult Rachel for her American traits. But when I‘m teased by my parents for my cultural faux pas, I don‘t feel like I‘ve abandoned my heritage. Rather, it‘s a product of my identity being a mix of Asian and American. I‘m fluent in Mandarin and I always take my shoes off before entering a home, but I grew up listening to the Backstreet Boys and Chinese food isn‘t even my favourite Asian cuisine.

I developed an attachment to Rachel‘s character long before I even knew there was going to be a movie. Not only is she a rare Asian-American female protagonist, her character is complex. She‘s multi-dimensional and embodies a host of relatable Chinese and American traits. She‘s real, not some caricature, and she‘s the star.

When I viewed the trailer, I saw for the first time in my memory a female lead with whom I shared not only my appearance but my experiences.

Take the scene in which Rachel is offered fragrant water in a glass bowl. It‘s meant for hand washing, but she tries to drink it. One of my first times eating at an upscale Chinese seafood restaurant, I was puzzled when people started plunging their hands into porcelain bowls of lemon water brought to the table after the crab course was served. I, too, thought it was for drinking.And Rachel‘s difficulty developing close relationships with people who share her ethnicity, but not her experiences, is something many can relate to.

This feeling of being a stranger in my ancestral country stems from the fact that the Asian-American experience is not the same as the Asian experience. Through the all-Asian cast who portray distinct characters, each with their own complex personalities and cultural backgrounds, this movie tries to explain that to a worldwide audience.

Crazy Rich Asians shouldn‘t be seen as the solution to all of Hollywood‘s representation problems, and it even struggles with its own diversity and inclusion issues.

But it is a step in the right direction for the industry, long criticised for “whitewashing” Asian characters or not casting Asians in leading roles.

This movie gives me hope.