In 2014, my father, brother and I made a trip to Hainan Island to celebrate my grandfather’s 80th birthday. Although he was born and raised in Shanghai, my father’s family are Hainanese. My brother and I are both born-and-bred Singaporeans.
I remember that visit as a blur of introductions, a long stream of kind, beaming people related to me in some way or other. Distant aunties and uncles welcomed our visit to the ancestral village with much anticipation.
My Hainanese relations saw the trip as a homecoming, a return to our roots. My father, swept up in the excitement, began talking about buying property on the island.
“Wouldn’t it be nice for you to have somewhere to come home to one day?” he asked.
“But Singapore is my home,” I said. Much as I enjoyed the opportunity to visit Hainan, all the talk about “returning” and “coming home” left me feeling alienated. As we landed back in Singapore’s Changi Airport, I felt relief.
Chinese Singaporeans make up 76.1 percent of the population in Singapore. But English is the language of instruction and business here. Families who can afford it are more likely to send their children abroad to study in Western countries than to China or Taiwan. Chinese Singaporeans born and raised in Singapore for generations tend not to orient ourselves towards China.
More and more, we tend to, as one would say in Singapore, “jiak kentang”—a term referring to a Westernised person: a mix of the Hokkien word “jiak”, which means “to eat”, and the Malay word “kentang”, which means “potato”, the term comes from the stereotype of white people eating potatoes instead of rice.
So it was jarring to see Crazy Rich Asians, a film set in Singapore, begin with this quote from Napoleon Bonaparte:
“China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.”
Why would anyone start a film set in Singapore with a quote about China? What does that sleeping giant have to do with us in the context of this film? It plays straight into a long-standing Singaporean bugbear: that many foreigners believe Singapore is a part of China, or actually somewhere in mainland China.
In Crazy Rich Asians, Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu), a Chinese American economics professor, accompanies her Chinese Singaporean boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) back to his hometown for a wedding. Before her trip, her mother, a first-generation immigrant to the U.S., reminds her that while she might look Chinese and speak Mandarin, she’s “different from them” in heart and mind.
To make matters worse, Rachel discovers upon arrival that Nick is the scion of Singapore’s most prominent “old money” family, and faces off with Nick’s traditional and ever-so-proper mother, Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh).
The film progresses with liberal use of Mandarin songs in the soundtrack, and references to Chinese traditions like a familial dumpling-making session. With the existence of Malay and Indian Singaporeans erased or relegated to service positions—including one very uncomfortable scene in which Rachel and her best friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina with an inexplicable blaccent) are frightened by silent Sikh guards—Crazy Rich Asians transforms Singapore from an island of diverse cultures into a Chinese state.
By the time Crazy Rich Asians gets to that pivotal mahjong scene—in a public mahjong parlour which, in the real Singapore, would be considered a public nuisance—it’s pretty clear that there’s some heavy conflation of “Asia”, “Singapore” and “Chinese” going on.
Singapore isn’t a Chinese country, but that doesn’t matter in this movie, because that’s not what the film’s producers need for Rachel’s Asian American journey to Asia. Through the eyes of Crazy Rich Asians, Singapore isn’t so much a multiracial Southeast Asian city-state as a modern update of 1930s Shanghai, advertised as “the Paris of the East, the New York of the West”.
This isn’t to say that Singaporeans don’t listen to Mandarin songs, eat dumplings or play mahjong. But the Chineseness on display doesn’t ring true, with details that Americans will likely not pick up on, but which strike a false note in the Singaporean context.
The Young family, for example, sit around and make jiaozi, a dumpling from northern China that’s unlikely to be part of the traditions of a long-established Chinese Singaporean family, since most of the Chinese who came to Singapore came from the southeastern coast.
It’s also odd that Nick Young’s grandmother, the elderly matriarch of the family, speaks perfect Mandarin, while the women one generation below her speak Cantonese—in real life, it’s far more likely to be the other way around, especially given the Singapore government’s efforts to restrict the use of dialects and promote Mandarin.
The portrayal of Chineseness in the film is jarringly essentialist, particularly when it presents the conflict between Rachel and Eleanor as a dichotomy between an “American” practice of pursuing individual happiness and the “Asian” value of family before self (rather than, you know, some good ol’ fashioned snobbery and elitism).
Given my experience in Hainan, I could empathise somewhat with Rachel’s sense of displacement. But it was also odd to see her worry about not being Asian enough in Singapore, a country often referred to as “Asia Lite”.
I watched her fret about being seen as a “yellow on the outside, white on the inside” banana with bemusement; the reality is that Chinese Singaporeans are pretty Westernised ourselves, with a growing number struggling with Mandarin as the number of English-speaking households increase.
The Singapore that exists in Crazy Rich Asians looks like a turbo-charged, ultra-rich version of a “homeland” that might live in the Chinese American imagination, an amalgamation of nostalgia and projection. It not only focuses on a narrow set of Asian American experiences (which is far more diverse than just Chinese concerns), but also assumes a binary between the immigrant experience of the Chinese American, and the “native” experience of the Chinese in Asia.
This, unfortunately, overlooks the reality that Chineseness contains multitudes. The details might differ, but Chinese Singaporeanness, like Chinese Americanness, has also been built on a range of immigrant experiences.
This diversity has come with pitfalls: Singaporeans, including (or even especially) Chinese Singaporeans, have displayed xenophobic attitudes toward more recent arrivals from mainland China.
On her trip, Rachel Chu learns the difference between the Asian American and Asian experience. But there isn’t an “Asian experience”, per se. It’s not as simple as East versus West, as the symbolism of the film’s mahjong game suggests. Even within tiny Singapore, we see diverging Chinese experiences every day. If anything, it’s the Chinese Communist Party in the People’s Republic of China that seeks to obscure these differences in their efforts to engender feelings of sympathy or even loyalty to the party through the idea of racial unity.
As we exited the cinema, a Malay Singaporean friend commented, “I knew it was going to be mainly Chinese, but I didn’t think it was going to be this Chinese.”
I agreed. Despite my own Chinese heritage, the Chineseness of Crazy Rich Asians was not one that I recognised within my Singaporean experience.
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