(Spoiler alert: This article references specific scenes from “Crazy Rich Asians.”)
When “Crazy Rich Asians” debuted in the States, the resounding consensus among my Asian-American friends was that it made them cry. It’s not really the first reaction you’d expect of a rom-com, especially not one as ostentatiously-themed.
I watched it the day it came out here in Hong Kong and immediately—as if on cue—I got emotional minutes into the movie, when Michelle Yeoh’s character Eleanor angrily marched into that London hotel, straight to the reception desk, and looked the camera in the eye—her hair wet from rain.
She reminded me of my mom. Similarly shaped eyes. That same look of fierce, unwavering pride regardless of the circumstances.
You see, a similar thing happened to my family in the early 2000s when we were in Las Vegas. We had stepped into the Bellagio resort, dazzled by the golden lobby and artsy flower blossoms hanging from the ceiling. My brother and I were engrossed by the sight. My parents were captivated, and even though they couldn’t afford it at that time, they inquired about a room.
We were promptly kicked out — escorted out by hefty guys in suits and told they had run out of rooms. I was too young to remember the exact reasoning; my mom informed me it was because we were Asian. And so we left, hand-in-hand, my dad silently fuming with his head still held up high.
I had never seen such similarities projected so prominently on the silver screen before, and it brought straight chills to my spine.
All throughout the movie, the emotions kept on coming at the most unexpected moments.
Bible studies do indeed double as gossip sessions in my immediate family circles. Hearing one of the aunties talk in Hokkien, albeit briefly, was both jarring and delightful. Hokkien had always felt like my secret language, a dialect spoken among my family members but never to anyone else. To hear it broadcasted so prominently and unabashedly felt odd.
I would always be third place, after her, and after his work.
The theme of filial piety was startlingly relatable, because once upon a time my Chinese ex had told me that his life’s greatest ambition was to buy his mother a house and that I would always be third place, after her, and after his work.
I told him I understood. But like Rachel, the truth was that I was too Americanized to truly accept that reality. And so we eventually broke up.
I silently cheered when I saw a brief scene in Taiwan, a place I consider my second home but is often confused for as Thailand by the general Western public. And the audience here in Hong Kong chuckled when right after, there was a scene set in extravagant Hong Kong.
Other Asian kids will bring up different moments dear to them. The stacking of the mahjong tiles reminds some of the parks of Chengdu, which constantly are flush with mahjong players amidst bamboo groves, or their grandma’s house crowded with relatives stacking up the tiles on weekends.
Rachel Chu’s mother is an amalgamation of a lot of independent Asian mothers we know, and that scene where she rushed in to embrace her broken hearted daughter was one of the top tear-inducing moments.
Of course, you don’t need to be Asian to love or get emotional over “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Of course, you don’t need to be Asian to love or get emotional over “Crazy Rich Asians.” “Crazy Rich Asians” is not a great movie just because there’s an all-Asian cast. It’s a great movie because it’s wonderfully produced. The script is dynamic, the cast has chemistry, the cinematory is engaging, and the music is fresh.
Yet there was a catharsis unique to this movie that I have never felt before. And that came with seeing characters that looked me or someone in my family projected on the big screen.
Sure, some may point out that Hollywood isn’t without Asian movies. Surely I have at least seen “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” and “Memoirs of a Geisha”?
Fair. But “Crazy Rich Asians” is contemporary. It’s in English. It doesn’t fall prey to the usual tropes like kung fu and dragons and silk screens. The characters, from Peik Lin’s Brooklyn sass to Rachel Chu’s girl-next-door vibe, are completely relatable.
The most surreal part of the experience was walking out to the Hong Kong streets after the movie ended. The city was a seamless transition of the movie into real life.
Here in Hong Kong, my friends are all mostly Western-raised and of Chinese descent. Our conversations are laced with tidbits of Cantonese and Mandarin, with the occasional Hokkien slang. We are not crazy rich. But we, in many ways, are like the characters in the film: Western-educated with Chinese heritage, living in Asia with our hearts still tied to the West.
And as Asian kids who have always struggled with the relationship between our ancestral heritage and with our actual Western homes, this was the feel-good indulgent love letter we needed to see.
Because when art imitates life, especially on a massive scale such as this, it makes you feel alive, as if you have been seen.