City-as-film character is an oft-used device: Think of how New York shapes Manhattan or the way Paris’s Montmartre neighborhood serves as a companion to the lonely heroine in Amélie. But when Hollywood invokes non-Western metropolises for this purpose, the portrayals can be shallow—though this may not register with or feel significant to Western audiences.
The 2003 film Lost in Translation, for instance—the story of two forlorn Americans befriending each other in a bewildering Tokyo—was roundly adored in the United States, earning an Academy Award and three Golden Globes, but in Tokyo it played in only one theater. Japanese viewers and critics (as well as Asian-Americans) found its depictions of Japanese people (short, eccentric, unable to pronounce English correctly) and urban life (alienating, hypersexualized, and either ultramodern or nostalgically traditional) discriminatory and insulting.
The latest case of city-as-character: Singapore in the new rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians, based on the 2013 novel by Singaporean-American Kevin Kwan. The Southeast Asian city-state’s lush green spaces and modern architecture serve as an apt co-star to the equally beautiful and polished 1 percent at the center of the plot, which concerns a Chinese-American woman who travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s insanely rich and snobbish family for the first time.
While the depiction of the city and its inhabitants may not cause the same kind of offense as Lost in Translation, does this Hollywood portrayal do Singapore justice?
As someone who lived in the city-state from 2011 to 2013, I took great pleasure in recognizing beloved spaces I once frequented: acacia tree-lined highways, inexpensive open-air food and drink complexes called hawker centers, streets lined with shophouses. But I was struck that I didn’t see what I most associate with Singapore: public housing, public transportation, and a diverse ethnic and religious population.
American audiences and critics have given Crazy Rich Asians rave reviews: Brian Truitt of USA Today heralded it as a “shining, redefining example of what the romantic-comedy genre can do best,” and others have called it “deliriously glossy” and “hugely enjoyable.” Many have also pointed to its groundbreaking all-Asian cast who don’t look or act like the usual Asian tropes of American cinema. Washington Post reporter Allyson Chiu, who is Chinese American, wrote of the thrill of seeing the film’s trailer: “It’s an entire movie about Asians without martial arts or stereotypical nerds…a film with Asian characters who are more like me.”
Some Singaporeans have responded less enthusiastically, offering critiques that I tend to agree with: Journalist Kristen Han noted that the film’s depiction of Singapore is as realistic as Gossip Girl is of America, and pointed to its lack of ethnic minorities (except in a few appearances as servants), though 15 percent of the country’s citizens are Malay and 6.6 percent are Indian. “The film’s producers are well-versed in American racial politics and white dominance but don’t seem to have realized that, in the Singaporean context of power and privilege, Chinese Singaporeans—especially the superrich ones—are the ‘white people’ here,” she wrote in Foreign Policy.
And while CNN reported that a Singaporean audience appeared to enjoy the movie at a showing this week, comments from the viewers were mixed: “The movie did not depict our culture in all its depth,” said one. “Not everyone is rich here, a lot of people live normal lives,” said another.
When it comes to knowledge of Singapore, Westerners are often working from a blank slate. The city-state is sometimes confused with being part of China—a notion the film strengthens with an opening quote by Napoleon: “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.”
I’ve noticed that Americans generally know two things about Singapore if they know anything (and I admit to knowing very little myself before moving there): that it has immense wealth and that it has strict laws, such as high fines for selling gum or spitting. Crazy Rich Asians reinforces the wealth cliché, and the portrayal of Singaporean urban space affirms this one-dimensional view of the city and its people.
Though an early scene is at a hawker center, the rest of the film is full of the shiny parts of the city-state, parts practically made for a movie about the superrich: the luxury casino and hotel Marina Bay Sands, the fantastical Gardens by the Bay, the Disney-like Sentosa Island, and the gleaming colonial Raffles Hotel, to name a few.
More than 80 percent of Singaporeans live in public housing blocks called HDBs, but we never see one. We don’t catch a glimpse of bustling areas like Little India, where the country’s foreign workers spend time on their day off. And we don’t witness how most of the population gets around. As only approximately 15 percent of Singaporeans can afford a car, buses and subway lines are ubiquitous.
One might argue that because the film is about Singapore’s 1 percent, it’s logical to only show elite spaces. But the result is a sense of place so wealthy and ethnically Chinese it feels hermetically sealed from anything—or anyone—else.
Such portrayals are significant because the West has “othered” the East for centuries, representing it and speaking on its behalf from a standpoint of Western authority and supremacy. Nowhere is this more true than in Hollywood.
Crazy Rich Asians appears to do the opposite by putting Asians at the center of a story of success and romance, giving them the roles that would usually be played by white people—and this is what has understandably pleased and excited Asian-Americans. Yet, as Mark Tseng-Putterman writes in the Atlantic, the story is one of white norms, when “representation means literally swapping Asian faces onto white bodies.” And those Asian faces are of a certain kind: ethnic Chinese, Christian, and educated in the West. What is sacrificed is the fuller character of Singapore, one with brown South and Southeast Asians as well as city spaces that aren’t quite so deluxe and perfect. And so the West again speaks for the East.
The film’s director, John Chu, responded to criticisms in a press conference by pointing out that no movie can do everything or please everyone. “We decided very early on that this is not the movie to solve all representation issues,” he said. “This is a very specific movie, we have a very specific world, very specific characters.”
Singaporean writer Pooja Nansi responded on the China-focused website Inkstone: “You can’t have your dim sum and eat it too,” she wrote. “You can’t position yourself as a vehicle for representation and then wash your hands of that role when questioned about those you are eclipsing.”