Emil Guillermo: Crazy poor Asian on “Crazy Rich Asians”

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One of the biggest laughs I got on Friday was when I welcomed people to my one-man show, “Amok Monologues: All Pucked up-NPR, Harvard and more,” and referred to it as “Crazy Poor Asian.”

“Crazy Poor Asian!”

Unfortunately, many in the mostly Asian American crowd could relate. And that’s what we should remember after a glorious weekend at the movies.

Don’t get me wrong.

We were all rooting for “Crazy Rich Asians” to make its mark in its long opening week. I even shunned any freebie screenings so I could give it the old-school box office boost.

Glad to contribute my hard-earned cash as a small fraction of the movie’s box-office topping $32 million gross.

CRA has done something that few movies have done in recent memory.

It proved that Asian Americans are commercially viable.

Not that The Rock (Samoan), or any number of Asian and Asian American stars couldn’t have done that (if only they had the opportunity—thinking of you, Ming Na Wen).

But this was one big “in-your-face” moment.

We looked at the screen and saw ourselves.

And Hollywood execs realized there’s no need to have any racist fear that audiences wouldn’t be able to relate to Asian Americans as 30-foot icons on a silver screen.

We’re human too.

We fall in love. Have insecurities. Fall out of love. Fall back in love. Get married!

And CRA did it, as good Asian Americans might do, by using that simple good, old-fashioned principle in math: SUBSTITUTION.

That’s all it took to show the suits what they’ve been missing all these years.

Take the tried and true rom-com formula and substitute Constance Chu for any white Jennifer Anniston/Drew Barrymore clone (they’re at all the auditions); Stick in Henry Golding as the Asian stand-in for the Ryan Gosling/Channing Tatum stud. Add a Filipino (Nico Santos) in the tried and true gay fixer/planner role that has become the semi-official Gaysian seat at moviedom’s table. And for more character and spice, throw in veteran scene stealer Ken Jeong as a global Asian, who scored a big laugh when he said as an aside, “I went to Cal State Fullerton.”

And, of course, for good measure, throw in the unforgettable Awkwafina.

Add it all up and voila!

We’ve achieved the goal of exposing the shallowness of Hollywood commercialism. We’ve matched it at its own game.

The high bar was really a low bar that had been out of reach.

That’s worth a bow? OK, now what?

Are we going to see real Asian Americans cast in white roles?

Are we going to see real Asian American stories?

Maybe, maybe not. But CRA’s success may mean something else outside the movies that we didn’t expect.

**So let’s not get too soup-slurpy over all this just yet.

Yes, I loved seeing the fantasy come alive of the all-Asian cast up on the big screen.

But the film was nothing like the Wayne Wang films of the past. Wang’s had some clunkers such as directing Jennifer Lopez in “Maid in Manhattan,” but his best–such as “Chan Is Missing” and “Eat a Bowl of Tea”–were authentic, tough films compared to CRA.

Let’s realize that “Crazy Rich Asians” is fighting a different battle. It wants to be the homogenized Hollywood Asian, the ultimate revenge for Paul Muni playing a Chinese man in 1937 in Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth,” and all those whites playing Asian parts in movies since then.

For good measure, CRA is loaded with Asian eye-candy galore.

Maybe Constance Wu in a red dress. (Another good line. “Red’s a lucky color, if you’re an envelope.”

There’s something for everyone. The Asian guys all have their shirts off and acceptable two-packs. And did I mention, Constance Wu is always watchable.

And if food is your drool, there’s lots of dumpling pinching.

The film knows there’s a problem with class differences among Asians, and touches on it briefly. Wu’s character Rachel makes this like an Asian American fairy tale.

But there’s no condemnation of the rich. We all aspire, right? (A little bit?) And besides, the rich are human too. CRA makes weddings the ultimate in global mergers and acquisitions of the heart.

The film doesn’t really take sides. It likes money. Wu’s character, the econ professor in game theory raised by a single mom, marries the rich scion. And everyone is happy. (Come on, that’s not really worthy of a spoiler alert?)

Fine for the movie, but it does expose the real class inequities between all Asian Americans from top to bottom.

In real life, the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity reported last year that more than a quarter of Asian Americans live in poverty in New York City.

The film also opens up the subtle issue of the modern Asian immigrant, FOB vs the Americanized or Native Born Americans.

I call it the FOB vs. the NBA.

It used to be that FOB, or “fresh off the boat,” was a pejorative. But not when the FOB flies in from Asia in luxury first class.

CRA teaches us that now when we talk about Asian Americans being non-monolithic, we’d better think about both class and ethnicity.

We haven’t really dealt with either as a community. Some of us are still looking at the Civil Rights agenda that was born in 1965. But many of the new Asians don’t even know what Martin Luther King, Jr. was fighting for.

As an example, all the talk about Asian Americans fighting Harvard for admission.

Most of the aggrieved are from rich Asian families who’ve immigrated within the last 10-20 years.

They see their smarts as their privilege. They saw it work in Asia, where the highest score wins.

But it’s more complicated in a less homogenous, more diverse America.

So cheer CRA all you want. Just beware how it feeds a sense of AP, Asian Privilege.

It’s a modern, global thing. Asians straddling the Pacific. Consider it the 21st Century Model Minority idea with its shirt off and six pack abs. Or with blue eyed contact lenses and skin whitener.

The regular Asians like Constance Wu’s Rachel?

No, it’s Henry Golding’s Nick, the Asian hybrid.

It’s the new stereotype to deal with.

And “Crazy Rich Asians” marks its arrival on the big screen.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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