The Asian Americans that I know are hopeful that Crazy Rich Asians, Hollywood’s first major romantic comedy about Asians with an Asian American director (Jon Chu) and a near-all-Asian cast, will open doors for better representation of Asians in media.
I know this is a film, and it doesn’t seem like it has much to do with technology or games, the usual subjects for this column. Based on a 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan, the movie is about a New York University economics professor who goes to a wedding with her boyfriend and discovers that he comes from one of the richest families in Singapore. The resulting culture clash is hilarious and insightful, as it shows the differences among Asians and Asian Americans, as well as class differences among the old money people — and the things that unite us as well.
But indulge me for a minute, as I know Asian Americans in tech and games who are claiming this movie as their own. It has a lot to do with the validation that comes when you see yourself in media. The film reminded me of the video game Prey, which stars the fictional characters Morgan Yu and his brother Alex Yu. They are perhaps the only leading Asian American male characters in a predominantly Western video game that became a major release.
I saw Crazy Rich Asians at a premier, and I truly hope it succeeds at the box office. It’s a $30 million film being released across theaters in the U.S., distributed by Warner Bros. Box Office Mojo predicts it could garner $35 million at the box office on its opening weekend, a higher forecast than previously expected in part because of enthusiastic early reviews. It’s a rare mainstreaming of a relatively small group of people.
I went to a screening in San Francisco that was sponsored by Steven Chiang, Sandy Chiang, Wes Chan, Michael Tchao, Albert Chen, Patrick Lee, and Moshen Chan. Let’s call them Crazy Semi-Rich Asians (and I’ll exclude myself from this group). Chiang is the executive vice president of worldwide production and studios at Warner’s game division, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. He was careful to say that he co-sponsored the premier on his own, and it wasn’t the game studio (whose parent company made the movie) promoting the film.
“This is the first Hollywood movie in 25 years (since the Joy Luck Club in 1993) that features an Asian American cast, and we want to make sure there are more,” Chiang said.
Chiang was part of a group that sponsored screenings to help raise awareness for the film. For me, the crowd was a who’s who of Silicon Valley and game industry Asian Americans, including Michael Chang of NCSoft, Steven Fan of Tencent, Ben Liu of Pocket Gems, Bernard Kim of Zynga, and Jamil Moledina of Google. Charles and Lillian Huang were there, and they are sponsoring a screening of their own. So did Kevin Chou, former CEO of Kabam and current head of Gen.G esports.
“For me it is great to see Asians in romantic storylines. Asians are often portrayed as smart and ambitious in popular culture but not romantic,” said Charles Huang, cofounder of Guitar Hero maker Red Octane, in an email. “We have great love stories just like everyone else. Crazy Rich Asians is likely the best date movie of this summer for all audiences. The locales are stunning and beautifully shot. The comedy, e.g. Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, and many others, are my favorite parts of the movie. You and your date will have a great time. I always thought Bruce Lee single-handedly made Asian men tough in the eyes of Western culture. Perhaps Crazy Rich Asians will show that Asians are romantic people too.”
For me, it reminded me why representation is important. It’s the way you feel when any character in a game or other form of entertainment reflects some part of you. For Asian Americans, it helps us deal with the fact that we’re largely invisible. Can you imagine growing up in a world where no one in the mass market entertainment media looks anything remotely like you do?
This year, African Americans are celebrating commercially successful films such as Black Panther, Girls Trip, and BlacKkKlansman. I am hoping that this trend toward diversity and inclusiveness continues across media and that it will extend to games too.
This movement reminds me of my time decades ago in the Asian American Journalists Association, when we shined the light on how Hollywood strategists seemed to greenlight Asian women in media roles because they were perceived in the West as sexy. Asian males, on the other hand, were vilified as creeps, geeks, shy, or worse. Hence, it was rare to find any Asian male TV broadcasters in the U.S.
Besides Prey, the list of video games with Asian leads isn’t long. Sleeping Dogs, (the upcoming) Ghost of Tsushima, Jade Empire, Heavenly Sword, Yakuza, Shenmue, Final Fantasy and a number of others stand out as games with strong Asian characters. But they’re mostly set in Asia, where you’d expect the cast to feature Asians. Games that were more inclusive in conception include Prey, which didn’t have an obvious need to cast an Asian lead, and Mirror’s Edge, which featured the Asian female Faith in a Western sci-fi setting.
I’m not just saying that Asian Americans deserve to ride the Hollywood gravy train too or that we should remember the world has a lot of Asian one percenters who deserve more attention. It’s about identity, representation, and validation that comes when you see yourself, and others can see you, in mass culture.
Bernard Kim, also speaking for himself and not as an executive for social game maker Zynga, said he found the movie fun, and he immediately texted his wife that she needed to see it.
“I obviously loved that it was an all Asian cast, but also that the characters were strong and principled,” Kim said in an email. “I don’t know if it was realistic as I’m not a crazy rich Asian. But I felt like I could relate to the characters. I thought the themes of family first, loyalty, and staying true to tradition were themes that are very real.”
Kim remembered painful stereotypes of Asian males, such as in the movie Sixteen Candles, which featured a character named Long Duk Dong as a typical nerd.
“We have come a long way and I hope the film is a commercial success — I know for me and many others it’s already a spiritual success,” Kim said. “The themes are universal and, if anything, this movie checks all the right boxes for great entertainment: laughs, romance, over-the-top characters, shiny and expensive toys, and heart.”
Of course, it’s going to take a lot more than Asian American fans to make the movie a success. After all, Asians are 5.6 percent of the population in the U.S. But making a film that appeals to everyone seems like the right path to success.
“I think all people, Asian or not, can identify with the movie’s themes of family, loyalty and desire to stay true to tradition while also charting your own path,” Kim said. “It showed the Asian community in a full spectrum of personalities, which is incredibly important. For once, the characters in a movie were not token additions to the story and didn’t feed into stereotypes that we’ve seen played out in the past like the class nerd or anti-social introvert.”
This film faces a lot of pressure to succeed. If it does, then the bean counters will see that they can profit from being inclusive, and that will lead to more media like it. And at some point, we may not even think twice about seeing Asian or Asian American leads in Western media.