Crazy Rich Asians, Racism and Classism

Arshad Shaharudin
8 min readMar 21, 2021

Crazy Rich Asians was dubbed as the glass-ceiling breaker in Hollywood and shedding the light of optimism into the Asian-American community. After a draught of proper Asian community representation in Hollywood, they tried to satisfy the hunger for a win on diversity for the liberal movement and obviously attract many attentions from the public and the critics.

The plot of the background is heavily emphasising on social stratification, classism and also a tad of racism, which later we’ll dismantle in the writing. We’ll be discussing how the main character, an Asian-American girl, Rachel Chu is being acculturated in her own culture and how she is struggling into being accepted by her possible in-law family.

Owing to his Singaporean descent, the writer of this novel adapted movie, Kevin Kwan used his background to satirically sets the novel in the Singapore land with the tale of the rich. The movie comes to the headline and attracts many attentions as it is the first Asian based cast in 25 years in Hollywood after The Joy Luck Club. With the attention it is getting, the film also garnered scrutiny as it stakes the claims in representing Asians to the film scene.

The movie takes on a more satirical note compared to The Joy Luck Club. With the movie only revolving around the upper 1% echelon of the Singaporean, the movie received a lot of criticism for not being able to capture the country’s actual diversity, in terms of social classes, neither the race, considering that Singapore is famous for being a multicultural country.

The movie starts with a clear distinction of social hierarchy remark. In London back in 1995, when Eleanor Young, little Nick and her family arrived at a private hotel, Calthorpe, she received racist remarks when she tried to get into her room she booked earlier. She was denied her booking because she is Asian. The hotel manager character, Reginald Ormsby, in his dialogue said: “I am sure you and your lovely family can find other accommodation. May I suggest you explore Chinatown?”

The ‘suggestion’ was clearly condescending with his dialogue suggesting that Asians only belong to Chinatown, and these private hotels are out of their league. Dissatisfied, Ms Young with her fortune bought over the hotel at the immediate second and left the manager with his staffs dumbfounded.

This established a kind of casual racism in the guise of comedy, even to the richest people of colour. Race-based racist jokes always see comedy as a “licensed zone” that disconnects from the serious and ultimately protects and defends viewer from acknowledging their incipient racism (Hall, 1990).

This scene of the movie also shows how power distance can immediately be changed with the presence of wealth. With the possession of wealth or political influence, high power distance can easily be created (Hofstede, 2011). Lies on the concept of social hierarchy with the presence of wealth, the plot of Crazy Rich Asians was developed.

The first scene showing how Eleanor was mistreated because of her Asian ethnicity reflecting the bitter truth of mistreatment that Asians received in Western countries. This may be the first time Eleanor was offended by such kind of discrimination. Growing up in Singapore, where the 76% majority is Chinese just like herself (Appiah, 2018) and born in a wealthy family, she is unlikely to have faced any type of discrimination. Until that moment, which was also rebutted by her in a very classy way.

Unlike Nick and his family, Rachel was born as a common American-born-Chinese girl. Her mother is a single immigrant mother and her father passed away even before she was born. Rachel falls under the model minority stereotype with her career as an economics professor at New York University (NYU).

“I am so Chinese, I am an economics professor with lactose intolerance”

Rachel is the embodiment of a stereotype Asian-American. There are cultural expectations that Asian-American is a group of people that are smart, hard-working, submissive, obedient and living in the “American dream” (Cornell, 2004).

When Rachel arrived in Singapore, she got into a little reunion with her college roomies, Peik-Lin, who also came from a wealthy family. However, Peik-Lin’s wealth is nothing to be compared to Nick’s family wealth, to which Rachel was not aware of, despite has been sleeping with Nick for several years.

“There is new money all over Asia…But the Young family, they are old-money rich. They had money when they left China in the 1800’s… and they came to Singapore and they built all of these. Now, they are the landlords of the most expensive city in the world”

Old money is the wealth that has been passed down for a few generations while new money also known as nouveau riche is to describe the wealth that is collected or acquired within their own generation. Old money has maintained and acquiring their wealth from generations to generations (Linning, 2017), they are usually the members of aristocracy, lords and dukes.

The novel’s writer himself comes from an old-money family with both his great-grandparents are established people on the small island of Singapore. And according to Kwan, the characters in the movie was inspired by real people (Haynes, 2018).

It is not shocking to bring out this fact, to a certain matter for sure, Singaporean society contains a lot of wealthy people within their society with according to WealthInsight, one in 34 in Singapore are millionaires (Verdict, 2018).

Considering that Singapore is a small island that scarce with land, the number of their global wealth holders is comparatively high (Seah, 2018). This can clearly be seen in Crazy Rich Asians that also these rich people are keeping their circle close; and only mingling with people that are of their worth.

Her first meeting with Nick’s mother, Eleanor, was jaggy. His mother did not favour Rachel too much because she said Rachel is too American as well as it is suggested that Rachel’s family background is not up to par. Rachel’s father passed away even before she was born, and her mother did not speak much English when she first migrated to America. Rachel did not expect that meeting Nick’s family would be so harsh on her, while the rest of the family who knew Rachel is not coming from a prestigious family know the danger of Nick bringing in.

Arts Imitates Lives?

In Singapore, many have discussed that their society is sharply divided by class along with race and religion (Yong, 2017). The notion “Our diversity is our strength” is hard to be achieved collectively (Appiah,2018). Singapore is more than just a multiracial country with a population consisting of 76% Chinese, 15% Malay and 7.5% Indian, it is also consisting of a wide wealth gap resulting it to be divided by the social classes (Appiah, 2018).

The government have put in many efforts with their National Pledge that was certified back in 1965, begins

We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion.

Singapore’s government also have implemented the Ethnic Integration Policy, which a policy enforcing quotas on public-housing blocks (Appiah, 2018). The government does not want single-ethnicity terrorizing the housing department. The housing authority will make sure that the sales of their housing blocks fit the ethnicity ratio (Appiah, 2018).

It can be seen that the government want the nation to be proud of their multiracial and multicultural identity, however, to stabilize all the races’ needs are hard for the government.

The imbalance class distributions in Singapore is one of the main concerns for the country’s policymaker (Ng & Ming, 2018). Many efforts have been focusing on closing the income gap as social inequality is buzzing at national discussions. In 2018, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addresses this issue:

“-if widening income inequalities result in a rigid and stratified social system- our politics will turn vicious, our society will fracture, and our nation will wither” (Ng & Ming, 2018).

The Crazy Rich Asians movie is hinting a subtle move in showing racism. The two hours forty minutes movie is hardly showcasing any people out of Chinese race, only on certain occasions. There is only one prominent character is not fully Chinese: Araminta Lee, who is Chindian (a mix between Chinese and Indian). She and her soon-to-be-husband is the reason why Nick and Rachel visited Singapore to celebrate their wedding.

This whole movie which takes the claim of an all-Asian cast movie is performing poorly in getting their jobs done. Which they should have taken the advantage of their setting in Singapore, the movie failed to capture the diversity of race and classes that are in Singapore.

The absence of non-Chinese community is a reflection of biases that the non-Chinese people in Singapore are facing (Selby, 2018). With only showcasing the 1% Chinese community in the movie, Crazy Rich Asians is showing how the upper echelon is unwilling to accept outsiders like Rachel.

Crazy Rich Asians almost entirely leave out Singaporeans’ other races like Malay and Indian. With only a subtle presence of other races than the character Araminta, who is half-Chinese but were played by East Asian model and actress, Sonoya Mizuno.

Other than that, it was the Sikh guards who guarded the Young’s family household. In the movie, other races are only portrayed as guards, servants or maids in the household (Selby, 2018).

As much as the popular belief that Singapore is just divided by class rather than races or religions, it is hard to neglect that racism against the non-Chinese does still happening. There is still a lot of discrimination and income inequality happening among ethnic groups and races (Lee, 2010).

Despite almost equivalent education level, local Singaporeans Indians and Malays tend to earn less than the Chinese Singaporeans across the industries (Lee, 2010). As the mass of wealth in the country belong to the Chinese community, the government worries if this imbalance issue persists, the racial and class divides will become more deeply entrenched (Selby, 2018).

Crazy Rich Asians is the image that the government is worried about. The excessively wealthy exclusive Chinese with a small circle of their own society just like how it was depicted in the movie with their disapproval of outsiders are the government’s main concern if this scenario is becoming more and more familiar in Singapore (Selby, 2018). The National Pledge, national identity and national ideology of Singapore being the holy grail developed multiracial country is at threat with the idea that the Crazy Rich Asians is depicting.

This creates a huge gap in power distance just like how it was depicted in the movie. Rachel was mistreated because of her status as a ‘commoner’ compared to the crazy rich society. These multimillionaires speak a different language of money that Rachel cannot seems to fit in perfectly. She is standing out in the crowd like a sore thumb becoming the talk of the party.

“You will never be enough”, Eleanor Young to Rachel.

The extent of classic classism existed because the upper hand of the society is claiming themselves as the better circle of the society and start oppressing the people in the lower rank of the hierarchy. No matter how Rachel came in peace and have been a good model for being a good daughter-in-law, she is rejected just because she did not come from the right ‘wealthy’ family. And, there are many other shortcomings of social stratification of Rachel.

Crazy Rich Asians is said so as an empowerment to the Asian community but actually belittling the Asian community. The said Asian representation is just a disguise and a dressing on the outside. The movie is very caucasian. The cliche familial guilt, gossipy society ladies and the bougie dresses; but at least there were good food shots. The movie belongs to capitalism and its new elite. The plummy British accent with the Westernize boarding school backgrounds are all over the movie.

The movie is lacking the true Asian essence. To be uphold as the glass-breaker Asian representation in Hollywood is a punch under the belt for what Asian culture really is.

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Arshad Shaharudin

A Media Studies BA graduate, now pursuing a Development Studies MA. Always read but doesn’t really write, hence, here he is trying.