As my Asian-American friends and the media swoon over the all-Asian cast in Crazy Rich Asians and the win for “diversity,” I find myself wondering if we’re watching the same movie. Sure, it’s a beautiful, fun-to-watch rom com, but the Asian-American community is doing cartwheels because our culture is being acknowledged. Only it isn’t. It features one Asian-American main character, representing one small part of the Asian diaspora in America. All the others are English-speaking Chinese from Singapore. Only about a third of the Asian population in Massachusetts is Chinese. And, no offense to Kevin Kwan, the author whose book the movie is based on, or to my friends, but the movie glosses over the sick obsession with status and materialism that permeates certain sectors of Chinese society in Asia. I should know — I grew up near the beginning of it all in Hong Kong.
In fact, my mom helped foster it in the 1970s and ’80s, as publisher and editor of the magazines Femina and Men. The magazines helped rich and powerful Chinese in Singapore and Hong Kong spend their money on stays at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St. Moritz and the latest from Valentino. Her own life growing up was far more humble; she came to Hong Kong from Shanghai with my grandparents after Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. My mother has often told me that the highlight of her week as a child was her father taking her out for an ice cream cone. He died when she was 15.
I love my mother and appreciate everything she’s done for me. Like other devoted parents in Hong Kong and Singapore — and now China, too — she sent me off to British boarding school (my dad is British) and an American university. But I didn’t want to go back to Asia, and I eventually became an American citizen, in part because I found the collective aspiration to lifestyles of the rich and Asian stifling.
What I see in Crazy Rich Asians is that status-obsessed society. Life might look like a garden paradise to outsiders, but in reality it’s a climate-controlled cage whose occupants are homogenized by their obscenely expensive uniforms. And everyone else wants to climb into the cage.
It’s getting harder than it used to be to make this climb, although you don’t see this in the movie. We hear plenty about how better education, increasingly open markets, technology, and soaring real estate assets in Asia are driving the largest explosion of wealth in human history. But in the more than 40 years since I was born, a chasm of inequality has also opened. Tech billionaires are buying multimillion-dollar apartments in the choicest spots in Hong Kong, while hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers languish in “coffin cubicles” with 50 square feet of living space per person, or the even smaller “cage homes” — apartments divided into enclosures barely large enough for a bed.
The median property in Hong Kong now costs 19.4 times the median income. In London, the number is a mere 8.5 times. Boston’s number is 5.5. (Singapore is a more affordable 4.8, thanks to the government’s Housing & Development Board, whose apartments house about 80 percent of Singapore’s population.)
China overall is approaching US levels of income and wealth inequality. But China is exporting inequality — as the wealthiest mainland Chinese react to China’s unpredictable regulatory system, pollution, and its brutal, systematized academic competition, they’re spending lavishly for property in cities around the world, including Boston, pushing up housing prices.
Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy is selling like crazy in Singapore. Also on the bestseller lists is This is What Inequality Looks Like, by sociologist Teo You Yenn, about her research on Singaporean families making $1,100 or less a month.
Of course we don’t meet any of these families in Crazy Rich Asians. We do, at least, see actual Chinese actors playing Chinese characters, although there has been controversy over the male lead in Crazy Rich Asians, Henry Golding, who like me is “hapa,” half Asian. The last time Hollywood tried to make an Asian breakthrough film, 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha, it cast Chinese actors like Michelle Yeoh (coincidentally also in Crazy Rich Asians) as Japanese characters. That was culturally deaf, given the two countries’ savage history. Far more authentic and engaging, if not so glamorous, are Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet and the Harold & Kumar series.
So yeah, by all means, watch Crazy Rich Asians — it’s a great bit of Chinese pop culture. And then go read up on coffin cubicles.Sarah Lai Stirland is a writer in the San Francisco area. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday.Sign up here.