After I wiped away the tears brought forth by the emotional ending of Crazy Rich Asians, I logged onto the Chinese website Douban to see if there were some things written about the movie by users who either saw the movie abroad, pirated it, or were hyped about its presumed Chinese release. What I found was initially a gut-punch, but when I thought it over, it not only made perfect sense, but fits right into the diaspora vs. motherland tension central to the plot of Crazy Rich Asians.
A little bit of background context: Douban is China’s third most popular social media platform, where millions of topics are discussed on various forums. It is also the closest thing to a Chinese Rotten Tomatoes, for it hosts the largest aggregate of Chinese language movie reviews by users, and has been known to significantly impact box-office performances both positively and negatively. Any foreign studio that knows anything about the Chinese movie market would check Douban for their film’s star rating (out of 10), and trending reviews.
Currently, there are 2,942 short reviews and 74 full-length reviews for Crazy Rich Asians on Douban, and it rates 6.9/10 based on 6,180 votes.
In other words, the movie that smashed box-office records in America got an Asian F in China.
The reason behind this is Chinese people’s strongly influenced by misconceptions and misgivings about the Asian diaspora.
So, what does diaspora mean to native Chinese people?
Not a whole lot, is the short answer.
This is surprising because Chinese immigration to the West has been happening for hundreds of years, and it is still considered a hopeful path to wealth and success. English language and test-prep are both billion-dollar industries in China, and many parents begin grooming their children for moving abroad almost since birth. Many strongly desire to join the diaspora, but they don’t have a thorough understanding of implications on identity fragmentation and hybridization.
Even my own parents, who have lived in the US for 30 years, have trouble accepting that identity is complicated and fluid, and that they have raised a Chinese-American daughter. They have expressed regret in failing to protect my pure Chinese identity from being tainted by American culture. I may spend the rest of my life convincing them that I am not damaged.
To the majority of Chinese people, their understanding of Chinese identity is largely anchored by the homogenous features of the Chinese people (skin in shades of yellow, black hair, brown eyes). Essentially, if you look 100% Chinese, you should be 100% Chinese. A mixed-blood person with foreign features is permitted to speak broken Chinese or be oblivious to Chinese conduct, but a Chinese-American who struggles with her tones and hugs people when she’s not supposed to (like Rachel Chu in Crazy Rich Asians), is basically a race traitor.
Some quotes from top-voted reviews:
“When [Rachel] is described to be ‘yellow on the outside and white on the inside’, this is an attempt for Asian-Americans to elevate themselves above us plain Asians. When you tell the world your heart is white, you’re exposing your inferiority-complex. You shit on your own culture to try to climb higher…this is not the equality and representation we are interested in.”
“This is a run of the mill, ‘sparrow in the phoenix nest’ Cinderella story, and the cast may look Asian, but this is just a white story with yellow skin. The only thing people might take away is that Asians are so materialistic.”
“Dumplings is a northern Chinese tradition, I can’t imagine a Cantonese-speaking southern family actually having this family tradition. This is just done to appease the Western-gaze. Probably because the creators spent too much time at Chinatown to know what is real.”
“Just like Americanized Chinese food, this movie is tailored made for the western palette. Real Chinese people do not appreciate General Tzo’s Chicken.”
It hurts my heart to see Chinese-American identity get dragged across the coal as a pitiful ploy to be “whitened”. It’s not unlike Eleanor Young’s dismissal of Rachel during their now-iconic mahjong game, that Rachel is “foreigner”, someone who “doesn’t understand how to build things to last.” In that scene, Eleanor essentially accused Rachel of turning her back on her Asian heritage by simply being an Asian-American, and implied that being a “real” Asian is a zero sum game.
Without spoiling the movie, it is clear to me that many Chinese viewer took the side of Eleanor Young’s hardline stance in rejecting Crazy Rich Asians as a celebration of Asian representation. To these viewers, the Asian diaspora that were featured prominently in the film are just pretenders, defective versions of the real deal.
While I am dismayed at Crazy Rich Asian’s poor reception with Chinese audiences, I believe these expressions of disdain expose an important opportunity for us to bridge this disconnect between the diaspora and our motherland.
For one, we need a destigmatization campaign to show the folks in Asia that various degrees of assimilation to another culture does not mean we have betrayed our true selves, but rather a cultural melding that yields surprising results, lends us new insight into both cultures we claim as our heritage. Our existence, our perspectives are not some perverted, bastardized, inferior version of the “original”, but something new, different, and 100% authentic in our own right.
Culture is a living breathing thing that is constantly changing, and every human on earth its manifestations.
It is true that a homogenous existence within a conclave is uncomplicated and offers clear guidelines for how to do it “right”, it’s hard to feel lost when you are ushered down well-worn paths of “how to be”. For those of the diaspora, we often struggle to figure out who we are, and how to make sense of the fragments of different influences that make up our identity. Despite the pain of not being a uniform “whole”, our Asianness is no less authentic than Asians of the motherland.
Crazy Rich Asians may have been met with harsh, dismissive attitude from Chinese viewers, but that’s because it’s the first of its kind in such a long time. I fully believe that more movies (and shows) like it will lead the way in healing the divide between Asians and the Asian diaspora.
Frankie Huang was born in Beijing and raised in New Jersey. Currently, she lives in Shanghai where she works as a strategist at an idea studio. Having lived all her life wedged between the proverbial East and West, she is interested in the ways globalization cross-pollinate cultures and lead to different new growths.