I’ve always been fascinated with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. In fact, when I was a kid, my dream was to move to Los Angeles and become a movie star. Unfortunately, I was susceptible to stage fright, I was too ugly, and I had bad teeth—so I became a dentist instead. I guess things worked out OK, but I always wondered how different my life would have been as an Asian Tom Cruise.
So, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood movie to feature an all Asian cast, writer, and director since the Joy Luck Club debuted a quarter of a century earlier. It’s a romantic comedy about an ordinary Asian-American woman (Constance Wu) who gets thrust into the glamorous world of the super-rich Chinese when she travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s (Henry Golding) family.
Normally, I prefer action movies to chick flicks on the big screen, but given my Asian heritage, I felt this groundbreaking film would be worth a couple of matinee priced tickets and an overpriced bucket of buttered popcorn. Besides, the film had gotten positive reviews by fans and critics alike, so I was looking forward to the experience.
What happened next is kind of difficult to explain. As I approached the box office, I suddenly became acutely aware of me being Asian. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve felt that way. As a first generation Chinese, I moved to the U.S. when I was four years old and have always accepted the fact that I was different than everyone else. There weren’t many Asians (we were called Orientals) living in Lexington, Kentucky back in the sixties, so I was subject to all the slurs, prejudices, and insults hurled my way by adults who knew better and nasty kids who didn’t.
“John Huang went to Hong Kong to play ping pong with King Kong’s ding dong,” they would chant as they slanted their eyes and bucked their teeth out. “We’re going to get you for Pearl Harbor, Chink!” they shouted at me. They didn’t care if I was Chinese, Japanese, or Siamese—to them I was a nerdy foreigner with thick glasses, good math skills, and small hands.
OK, I’ll admit I’m still somewhat scarred by it all, but you really couldn’t blame anybody for all the negative stereotypes—propagated pervasively through the Hollywood film industry. For years, roles for Asians consisted of bit parts playing enemy soldiers in battle scenes or comic sidekicks in a kung fu movie. Caricatures like Long Duk Dong became more of the norm. Rarely did we see an Asian man in a leading role outside of a Harold and Kumar series or a Jackie Chan sequel. Just as the yellow-face portrayal by a squinting David Carradine in the hit 1970s TV series Kung Fu seemed grossly off kilter, the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the beloved manga and anime character Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell set off a backlash of furor within the Asian movie-going community. After all, couldn’t they have just gotten an Asian actress to play the part?
Anyway, as I purchase my tickets and walk into the multiplex, I feel strangely out of place. It’s 2018, and Asians are now everywhere in central Kentucky, but for this particular showing, my wife and I are the only Asians in the theater. As we round the corner and stare up at the multiple rows of stadium seating, I feel as if all eyes are on us, as if WE’RE the show. I’m sure it was my imagination, but I even thought I heard some snickering as we took our seats. Great–I’m suffering from a cultural identity crisis in late-middle age even before the previews come on the screen.
When the opening credits finally begin to roll, I settle a bit more into a comfort zone. The movie itself reminds me of a marriage between The Hangover, Part 2 and the original Meet the Parents, only with Asians playing all the parts. It’s clever, well written and directed, and the shots of Singapore are Travel Channel worthy. The plot picks up quickly once you quit thinking about Wu as the mom in the TV sitcom Fresh off the Boat. The characters are unique, mostly likeable and believable—even with their scholarly British accents—with Ken Jeong and Akwafina stealing a couple of laugh-out-loud scenes with their endearing facial expressions and crazy antics.
For me, though, the way director Jon M. Chu addresses the age old theme of love, money, and family is what makes Crazy Rich Asians a must see movie in my book. Those themes are universal in any culture, but an understanding of underlying Asian traditions and familial piety added exponentially to my enjoyment. I won’t spoil it for you, but I didn’t really like the ending. Otherwise, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. You don’t have to be crazy, rich, and Asian to enjoy the movie—but being at least one out of the three probably helps.
John Huang, a retired orthodontist, is a wannabe movie star. He currently is a columnist for Nolan Media Group, Bluegrass Sports Nation, and Sports View America. Follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.