Crazy Rich Asians: Mixed Messages about Asian

Eric Hall ‘18
Editor Emeritus, Sr.

Barely ten minutes into watching Crazy Rich Asians, I caught myself tearing up. In the film’s prologue, a racist hotel manager dismisses Eleanor Sung-Young (played by the peerless Michelle Yeoh) and her bedraggled family. “Perhaps some place in Chinatown?” he suggests. Sung-Young’s wrath is swift and satisfying—she buys the luxury hotel outright and shows him the door.  Sitting next to my own Chinese mom in the theatre, I thought back to the times an airline employee or a repairman had dismissed her, and how she had fiercely made them regret it. Crazy Rich Asians is a breakthrough. I loved it for so many reasons. Its depiction of pride and expectation in Asian mother–son relationships felt familiar. The disapproving but envious treatment of ABCs (American-Born Chinese) was gut-wrenchingly accurate. Setting aside the “Crazy Rich” part, so many of the film’s most powerful moments could have happened in my own life. I never imagined scenes like these would play at my local Regal Cineplex. Asian journalists have praised the film’s victories—and fairly so: representation matters. But if Hollywood is going to make more movies with all-Asian cast (and I sincerely hope they do), we need to talk about this one’s shortcomings. As a mixed-race, half-white, half-Chinese male, I think casting Henry Golding in this role was a mistake.

Western culture has long emasculated Asian men. In movies and TV, they are depicted as awkward, and devoid of any sex appeal. Think of how rarely you see a movie that features an Asian guy who isn’t a martial arts master, a nerd, or the butt of a penis joke. My heroes growing up were Harrison Ford, Pierce Brosnan, Sam Neill, men who saved the day and got the girl but looked nothing like me (and even less like my Asian relatives). They starred in movies in which Asian men played the conniving villain, or the ethically bankrupt geneticist.  These depictions of desirable White men juxtaposed with undesirable Asian men seep into real life. They erode the confidence of Asian young men. They implant the idea that Whiteness—and only Whiteness—is masculine. As a teenager, I was certain my lot was to be brainy and behind the scenes. Talking to girls was unthinkable because I believed I was deeply undateable. That view is apparently widespread. In his book Dataclysm: Love, Sex, Race, and Identity, founder of OKCupid Christian Rudder compiled data from three popular dating sites. In the tens of thousands of anonymous responses, he found that women were 26 to 35 percent less likely to rate Asian males attractive. Asian females, by comparison, were actually more likely to be rated attractive than average. As Eddie Huang, writer of the ABC series Fresh Off the Boat, has written, “Asian men are told that they simply don't possess the ingredients to be considered masculine or attractive.” While these depictions have subsided in recent years, no Asian has yet ascended to leading man status. Those roles remain reserved for the chiseled White men I grew up watching. Where is our Asian Hugh Grant or Idris Elba? Where are the Asian actors notable not for their coding skills or karate chops but their sex appeal?

Here was the promise of Crazy Rich Asians: a movie with an Asian man worthy of desire. Finally, an idol to show young men with Asian heritage that they too deserve romance. Instead, we got Henry Golding; a message diluted by one-part Whiteness. To be sure, Golding was born in Malaysia to a Malaysian mother. He is a fine actor and excelled in the role. He was funny and charming, and looked great shirtless—prerequisites for any rom-com heartthrob. As a fellow Hapa male, of course I look forward to seeing him in more roles that might have gone to all White actors. More importantly, he depicted Asian-ness accurately. He spoke the language and smoothly respected his elders in a way that reflected his genuinely Asian upbringing. But my complaint isn’t with Golding’s cultural representation. My complaint is far more superficial. Cultural representation matters, yes. But so does physical representation. When minorities talk about representation in film or the White House or the Supreme Court, part of what we’re looking for is role models who look like us. Looks matter, especially in the romantic comedy genre where the themes only reach skin deep.

A week after watching Crazy Rich Asians, I saw BlacKkKlansman. One scene reenacts a striking speech from real-life activist Kwame Ture. He talks about growing up watching TV and rooting against the Black villains—the characters who shared his physical features. He describes his realization that Black men and women have to define for themselves what is beautiful, to “stop running away from being Black.” Those words, although directed at another people with a distinct experience, stirred a buried shame in me. For most of my life—and even in law school—I used my White half to escape my Chinese half. On my dating profile, when I had one, I described myself as only “vaguely Asian.” In college, I developed a canned response for the times someone would make an Asian dick joke and look to see if I was offended. I’d say, “Don’t worry, only my top half is Asian.” In middle school, when I moved to suburban Ohio, I let people believe I was Hawaiian so I wouldn’t be sorted with the Asian kids who played chess and joined math club. In elementary school, I tugged at the corners of my eyelids with everyone else chanting “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!”

I am embarrassed that I acted this way, but—although it is no excuse—the Asian culture I grew up with never tried to correct me. On the contrary, much of Asian culture promotes Whiteness. Many K-Pop stars, for example, are distinctly “Hapa” or mixed race. My own mom had surgery to add folds to her eyelids. I’ve known many full-Asian friends who wear colored contacts to lighten their dark brown eyes, and get perms to tame their stiff black hair.

As much as my Asian family encouraged Whitewashing myself, my White friends let me get away with it. They laughed at my dick-joke rebuttal and peppered me with questions about which of my traits were White. I have memories from every stage of my life when a friend would mention a common stereotype about Asians, then seek to reassure me: “Oh, but I’m sure that doesn’t apply to you because you’re only half.” I dated girls who told me they would never date an Asian guy, but mercifully made an exception for me. It’s as if society carved out an exception for me because I am mixed with White. Again, the data plays this out. In the same analysis that found that Asian men are less likely to be rated attractive, Rudder found that men who check boxes for both Asian and White get a 32–48 percent boost over the average. As Rudder puts it, “When you add White, ratings go up, across the board.”

So what does casting Henry Golding do for the perception that Whiteness equals beauty? Absolutely nothing. If anything, his casting entrenches the status quo. Just as I have done my whole life, casting a mixed-race Asian man as a full Asian character gives the audience an excuse for his attractiveness. It lets them say, “Oh, but he’s just half.” Golding’s Whiteness allows the audience to reconcile its stereotypes about Asian men with what they’re seeing on screen. The implication is that he’s attractive and masculine because he is mixed with Whiteness. The message to young men watching is that a full-Asian male is not plausible—or, perhaps, palatable—as a sexy male lead.

After the movie came out but before I saw it, a family friend whom I consider especially woke commented that I might look good with a hairstyle like Henry Golding’s in the movie. When I finally saw it, I realized I could never have hair like that. I simply didn’t inherit that particular White gene. His hair is wavy and lays neatly on his head. Mine is distinctly Asian, bristly and usually cow-licked. I make a point of putting product in my hair daily to keep it under control. That comment stung where I didn’t have Whiteness to protect me. Here was supposed to be this modern symbol of Asian masculinity, and at least one of his attractive features has nothing to do with his Asian heritage. Which other parts of Henry Golding fit into the same mold that produced Zac Efron? George Clooney? Either Hemsworth?

I’m not the first person to grumble about Henry Golding’s halfness. When Entertainment Weekly asked him to respond, Golding said, “I was chosen because I came as close to the character as possible” Except that’s not true. Nick Young’s father and mother were Chinese, both in the book and the movie.“Where are the boundaries? Where are the lines drawn for saying that you cannot play this character because you’re not fully Asian?” Golding asked. His question was rhetorical but—at least for this movie—the answer is obvious: two Asian parents just like the character was written. If we want to stop running away from being Asian, we need to stop casting actors with distinctly White characteristics. Our eyes are slanted. Our hair is straight. We are Asian and beautiful.