Crazy Rich Asians: Food, Family, and the Redemption We Didn’t Know We Needed

“Linda Evangelista! Tom Cruise! Julia Roberts! And um…Lucy Liu!” I will never forget the moment I walked into my grade seven class photo as the photographer searched for an appropriate Asian celebrity to pin to me while ushering me into the second row beside my other classmates who were innocently laughing at his over-the-top humour. I look nothing like Lucy Liu. Nor do most of the North American Asian women I know. And yet, I can almost guarantee that at some point during each of our lives, someone has confidently mentioned that we look just like her.

It has become quite apparent since the box office release of Crazy Rich Asians (based on the book by Kevin Kwan) last week that the lack, and now long-last redemption, of Asian representation in Hollywood is something that has really hit home for many. According to a 2017 study, only 30% of speaking roles in films were given to people of colour, and Asians were only given 5.7% of them. Lest we forget that Lucy Liu’s breakout role in Charlie’s Angels featured John Cleese (arguably one of the whitest men in the world) as her character’s father? Crazy Rich Asians is the first time in 25 years that a primarily-Asian cast has graced the big screen. But more importantly, it’s a blockbuster film that allowed its Asian characters to be exotic, but not exoticized. It’s also the first time we’ve been allowed to laugh with, rather than laugh at them.

Several beautiful food-filled scenes are woven throughout the film, each with their own storytelling purpose. Taken together, it becomes obvious why this otherwise fun romantic comedy was so powerful for so many. 

A Bite of that New York Dessert

Pictured sitting comfortably side-by-side at the bar in a trendy New York restaurant, our protagonist Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is trying to enjoy her dessert while her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) playfully digs his fork into the tiny leaf and cream topped cake, essentially devouring the dessert in its entirety. She jokes that he should have ordered one himself, and then proceeds to do so on his behalf.

I didn’t think much of this scene at first until I watched the rest of the movie and realized how much it grounded Rachel’s sense of normalcy, as it does mine. The number of little overpriced desserts I have eaten in Toronto, Vancouver, and New York over the years is astounding (and I’m sure the cupcakes in the corner were no accident).

Whether you’re Japanese, Korean or Chinese, most North Americans of East Asian descent were raised with a Confucian idea that holding your head down and assuming that someone else knows better than you was virtuous. While this idea stemmed from deference to our elders and older siblings, it translated into feelings of inadequacy and shame in the immigration context.

So, we had to make a choice: assimilate into the dominant culture, or be considered a second-class immigrant forever. Many of us chose the former. Over the years, we collectively allowed mainstream society to speak for us, and we eventually learned to think in English, let Jennifer Aniston represent us in television and movies, and convince ourselves that cupcakes were the highest form of baked good.

The melancholy finally comes when you grow up to realize you are never going to be fully accepted by either society. Even when you defy all odds and become a Bay or Wall Street Lawyer, you struggle on a daily basis to convince your clients that you can understand their needs or that you can be “aggressive enough” in the courtroom. Meanwhile, family members continue to mock your North American pronunciation of Chinese words and your unfamiliarity with the proper way to burn incense for your ancestors every time you return home to Taiwan.

Airplane Food and Chicken Nuggets

One of the earliest scenes in the movie where Rachel realizes the extent of Nick’s wealth is when she proudly shows up at the airport with a Ziploc’d and Tuppeware’d package of airplane food that her mother had lovingly prepared for them, only to realize they were being escorted into First Class. This sequence is particularly meaningful for two reasons.

The first is that it reminds us all of the moment, or countless moments, each of us has been mocked at school for some food that our parents prepared for us because it was “weird” or “smelly”. Other parents had no issue demanding that their children ate what they wanted. I remember a girl in elementary school with mild food intolerances. For years, her mom paraded around dry rice bread, low-lactose cheese, and weird health foods unfamiliar to the rest of us in the 90’s and even went as far as forcing my Brownie leaders to make identical versions of everything on the camp menu with her ingredients. And yet, I was somehow uncomfortable eating the fragrant fried rice and bone-in chicken that my mom had woken up at 6:30 AM to make for me and my sister because the flavours were too, well, flavourful.

The second is that it represents the wealth conflict between Asian people that no one really knows how to talk about. When Rachel stows her food away in this scene, it is not out of shame of being Asian, but out of embarrassment of holding something so humble in such a luxurious setting (and by the way, while Pacific Asean Airlines is not real, Singapore Airlines was recently named the world’s best). 

Nick is from old money, but it’s clear that the Nouveau Riche (or in Chinese, 富二代 (Fu Er Dai) or literally “Rich Second Generation”) have changed the way North Americans perceive Asian people today. All of a sudden, the first wave of Chinese immigrants who saved all their yogurt containers to store bits of leftover food find themselves confronting a new wave of Chinese immigrants who would rather die than doggy bag their dinner at a restaurant. Rachel’s friend’s dad Goh Wye Mun (Ken Jeong) reminds us in another scene (through telling his young twin daughters that they need to eat their chicken nuggets because there are “starving children in America”) that it wasn’t long ago that we were talking about “starving children in China” as a reminder of how much privilege we had.

Whether it is being too frugal or too lavish, neither group seems to get the respect they desire from mainstream society. Sadly, they are often each other’s harshest critics. It is a sensitive conflict we are all trying to navigate.

Singapore’s Tantalizing Street Food

During their first night in Singapore, Rachel, Nick, and Nick’s soon-to-be-married friends grab dinner at Newton Food Centre, an open-air hawker market full of food vendors. You almost forget about their wealth and pedigree as the friends run around grabbing plastic plates and bowls of hokkien mee (egg and rice noodles with egg, pork, and shrimp), laksa (a rich curry noodle soup), fresh seafood, chicken rice, and fishball soup, all to be washed down with refreshing pints of cold beer.

Hawker centers are an integral part of Singapore and Malaysia’s food scene, and are universally loved and recognized by locals as a source of amazing, affordable food. In fact, food stand Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle here is famously known for featuring the world’s cheapest Michelin-star meal. As Nick says to Rachel in the movie, some of these people have been working at these food stalls for decades with the goal of perfecting one single food item. You can only imagine how crispy and fluffy that roti would be. 

As far as this scene goes, I think many of us were just happy to see a portrayal of local people (and attractive, wealthy ones at that) full-heartedly enjoying their own food, and not in a “let’s try something crazy” way that so many North American travel shows have portrayed over the years. This is the kind of food that we all crave and salivate over, but it’s also food that is accessible to all. 

Keeping up with the Youngs

In North America, Chinese food has almost become synonymous with “cheap eats”, and the rom com genre certainly hasn’t helped with this association. Nearly everyone who gets fired from a job or gets dumped is portrayed surrounded by empty Chinese takeout containers, with the implication that they’ve just gorged themselves silly on oily chow mein and spring rolls. 

The lavish cocktail party Nick’s mother Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) throws at Nick’s grandmother’s house stands in stark contrast. From intricately carved watermelon, freshly-made ondeh-ondeh gently tossed with shredded coconut, whole fish, hand-pulled noodles to delicate steamed dumplings–this is not your average party. It is in scenes like this that invite you to reflect on how many times your own celebrations have centred instead around French and Italian preparations of a boneless chicken breast, a hunk of steak, and little rectangles of fish with a side of green beans and potatoes. 

I love eating French and Italian food, but those who have been treated to a proper formal meal in China, Taiwan, Singapore or Malaysia know the difference is like going from Black and White to Technicolour. Anyone who has ever felt awkward after suggesting Chinese food and being told by someone else that they would prefer “something nicer” would feel great redemption after seeing the food in this scene. It takes a lot of experience, dedication and effort to orchestrate a meal such as this, and this meal deserves culinary respect of the highest order.

The Art of the Dumpling

Finally, we get to the dumpling scene. Sitting among Nick’s family members at their Ah Ma’s house wrapping dumplings, Rachel innocently observes how much she enjoys the intimate and casual family gathering. Eleanor quickly swoops in to correct her naïveté.

The Youngs could have easily asked their hired help to make all the dumplings (as was made clear by the previous cocktail party scene), but wrapping dumplings together as a family is symbolic of a time-honoured history and tradition. Grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles all teach their children how to make these dumplings, and are expected to pass these traditions on. “Otherwise, they’ll disappear,” Eleanor says with a piercing look at Rachel, capturing all the feelings of disdain she has for the passion-driven, poor, uncultured girl sitting beside her precious son. This scene is brought full circle with the arrival of Nick’s Ah Ma, who is even quicker to point out how shoddy Eleanor’s dumpling folds are. The relentlessness of Asian mothers is something more than a few of us can relate to.

Asian friends and family know that their hosts are not unprepared or lazy when they ask their guests to help with wrapping the dumplings at their Chinese New Year celebration. Traditional dishes are one of the major and sometimes only ways that many immigrant families stay connected with their heritage.  It’s also one of the reasons food has been featured so heavily in this film, and why, despite knowing that we’ll be told we’ve gained weight and could be wearing a more flattering dress, so many of us are calling our mothers after the movie asking if we can go home to make dumplings together.

Director Jon M. Chu has said on several occasions that Crazy Rich Asians is not just a movie, but a movement. People have been overwhelmingly touched to see someone like Rachel Chu represent them on the big screen, but also portrayals of pan-Asian people from all socio-economic backgrounds–some who are rude and tacky, and others who are elegant and beautiful beyond words. The movie never criticizes, and the satire is clean and well-informed. However, the best thing about this movie is that it’s okay not to “get it”. You may not understand the play in the mah jong scene, and you may not understand why featuring fob marks is such a big deal. You may not be able to tell the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese, or why the use of the word “lah” is so significant. However, if you like food, romance, comedy, and a good “Chu” pun or two, you’re going to love this movie. It is going down as one of my favourites of all time.

I’ll leave you with this:

[small]Please note: First photo credit Penguin Random House // Remaining photo credits Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.[/small]

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