The Tuesday night (7 August 2018) red carpet premiere of “Crazy Rich Asians” shut down a small stretch of Hollywood Boulevard.The vibe of the crowd wasn’t angry, or snarky but joyous and celebratory. There was some irony in celebrating a movie about Chinese Singaporeans at the TCL Chinese Theatre.
Sid Grauman followed up his successful Egyptian Theatre down the street with this 1926 Chinese inspired theater. The Chinese Exclusion Act had already made clear that the ordinary Chinese person was not welcome in the United States and California had been anti-Chinese and anti-Asian long before that. Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), who inspired the main character of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” was known for his anti-Asian views and yet a few decades after his death, his San Francisco Examiner was for a while owned by the Fang family (before it was passed to Clarity Media and then San Francisco Newspaper Company LLC).
Grauman’s Chinese Theater was briefly Chinese Mann before it became the Telephone Communication Limited Corporation, TCL, Chinese in 2013. TLC is a Chinese multinational electronics company with headquarters in Guangdong Province. That purchase wasn’t accompanied by the same kind of fear that produced the Japan-bashing of the 1980s. Not even with the purchase of the Los Angeles Times by the ethnic Chinese but South African-born surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong this year stoked much yellow perilism. Soon-Shiong is the executive director of the Wireless Health Institute at UCLA as well as an adjunct professor of surgery there (since 1983).
Back at the Chinese-owned historic Chinese Theatre, two massive stone lions statues guarded both sides of the main entrance as that night’s royalty, guests and lucky ticket holders entered. Above the door is a Chinese dragon. Dragons decorate the red interior and ornate ceilings.
The stars of “Crazy Rich Asians” were glamorously dressed and graciously posed for selfies with the fans in the lobby because they understand this is a community effort: Asian Americans taking on Hollywood and whitewashing in the city where the largest mass lynching in American history took place (Chinese massacre of 1871).
When director Jon M. Chu came out with author Kevin Kwan to intro the film, the tone was one of a shared journey but we’re only half-way there. Actors and audience were forming a conspiratorial allegiance against the TV and movie establishment and extending gratefulness to the CRA production companies and to the distributor, Warner Bros. At the end of the movie, after walking past the stone lions, there were elegant faux Louis XIV seating set against backgrounds advertising CRA and attendees could take selfies AND talk to the professional camera people about their reactions to the movie. The plaza of cement signatures, handprints and footprints of Hollywood’s favorite stars in front of the theater had become a social media making hub.
In July, while waiting for a non-related press conference in San Diego to begin, an older Asian American journalist opined that topic of CRA seemed frivolous. Compared to Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” that’s true, and there’s no fighting or superhero mythology behind “Crazy Rich Asians.” The book is a gossipy rom-com stew spiced with food and fashion, but even Asians and ethnic Asians deserve to slip into other cinematic genres; for Asians it’s been a long bitter drought.
Twenty-five years ago Amy Tan’s book, “The Joy Luck Club” was produced by Hollywood Pictures and distributed by Buena Vista. That English-Mandarin language film was a success but it was not enough to convince other studios to invest in stories and give Asian Americans, particularly Asian American men leading roles.
This might be 2018, but Asian American men are overlooked for roles even in regions where they should be the logical choice: a state where Asians make up 58 percent of the population and has had and currently has an ethnic Asian governor (“Hawaii Five-0” and the reboot of “Magnum P.I.”) or in real-life stories (“21”) or in super hero stories based in Asia and the Pacific (“Doctor Strange” and “The Last Airbender”). Too often, Asian American actors are relegated to the sidekick: Think of the San Francisco-born Bruce Lee as Kato in “The Green Hornet” in 1967 and UK-born Benedict Wong in “Doctor Strange” in 2016.
CRA doesn’t exoticize the women like “Memoirs of a Geisha,” so heterosexual men with yellow fever might be disappointed, but there are a few shirtless scenes where the beauty of the Asian male body is celebrated. There is also a moment early in “Crazy Rich Asians” that seems to be a raspberry at “21” and another parallel scene toward the end that seems to be a respectful nod to “The Joy Luck Club.”
There’s been some criticism that Eurasians were prominently cast. Sonoya Mizuno is Japanese, British and Argentinian. Lead actor Golding is Malaysian Iban and English. Gemma Chan is Chinese-Scottish. That didn’t seem to be a big issue with the audience and all three could pass although this isn’t a story about passing.
And while some might conclude these Asians are trying to be Caucasian with their lust for European designer goods, consider that China wasn’t just suddenly discovered by Europe in modern times. The movie quotes Marco Polo (also used in the novel):”I did not tell half of what I saw, for no one would have believed me.” (And the movie is actually toned down from the book in many ways.)
The fusion between China and Europe, East and West began long ago. That’s worth remembering when Rachel enters the home of her college best friend, Goh Peik Lin (Kawkwafina), presented as a crass re-creation of the Chateau de Versailles. In 2014, the French had an exhibition about “La Chine à Versailles: Art et diplomatie au XVIIIe siècle retrace l’histoire des échanges politiques, scientifiques et artistiques entre la France et la Chine au siècle des Lumières” or “China at Versailles: Art and Diplomacy in the 18th Century.” (I didn’t get to see that exhibit because I’m not crazy rich.) When the King of Siam’s ambassadors brought gifts from East Asia during the reign of Louis XIV, that started a fad for Chinese art. The collective influence in imitations, adaptation of Asian things for the French and depictions of China would become known as “la chinoiserie.” China or at least chinoiserie was part of the Rococo stylings in France.
France, as well as other parts of Europe and eventually the U.S., would also have a period of Japonisme. While the US was embroiled in a Civil War (where Asians including Chinese and Japanese and others served), Europe became enchanted by all things Japanese. Artists like Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustave Klimt, and even Americans like James McNeill Whistler and Frank Lloyd Wright were influenced by Japanese art and you can see Japonisme in the art movements of Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts and Art Deco.
Educated Asians and Asian Americans know this. They also may or may not know that Asians have been in the Americas for centuries, from before the U.S. was a nation. Asian Americans have actively fought for their Civil Rights, but you rarely hear about that. Those are stories yet to be told. “Crazy Rich Asians” on the surface is a lightweight rom-com that might leave foodies salivating but the movie has become a movement. After all, Asian cuisines have become an accepted part of the American lifestyle–and profitable, too (Aloha Poke); but when will ethnic Asians–male and female, find acceptance on the big screen and beyond in America?
I suspect that many in that night’s audience had a feeling of recognition during the scene of the hotel snub with the sweet revenge only being a fantasy. Yet I suppose there’s some sweet revenge having the premiere of a movie about powerful Asians with an all Asian cast at the now Chinese-owned Chinese Theatre. Sometimes success is the best revenge.