With box office hit and the critically well-received 2018 romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, Hollywood has come a long way since Asian and Asian American stereotype characters like Long Duk Dong in 1984’s Sixteen Candles, or, even worse, dated, racist portrayals like that of Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Prior to Crazy Rich Asians, it had been 25 years since the world saw a predominantly Asian cast in a big-budget Hollywood — with 1993’s The Joy Luck Club — that isn’t about martial arts, nerds, or a period piece with subtitles. Rather, Crazy Rich Asians is a moving, funny, beautifully shot romantic comedy showcasing a modern Asian diaspora who speak English as their primary language.
According to the most recent report by the United Nations, Asians represent close to 60% of the world’s population, while a separate report conducted by USC Annenberg in 2017 revealed that out of 1,100 popular films, 70.7% of the characters were Caucasian and only 6.3% were of Asian descent.
With this significant imbalance, movie audiences have had very limited exposure on the big screen to the diversity they most likely see in everyday life, as well as alienating Asian viewers and doing nothing for preconceived, problematic notions of Asians as the funny sidekick, the kung-fu master, the chopstick-yielding exchange student, and every other broad stereotype that has played out in film.
Beyond the predictable and limited examples of Asians depicted in mainstream film, Hollywood also ostracized Asian actors through its tendency to whitewash films by casting Caucasian actors in Asian roles — something that Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians, the novel that was adapted into the 2018 film — was no stranger to.
When talking to The Guardian about the buzz circling around his book and being approached for movie deals, Kwan mentioned a particular, prominent producer who told him he’d be interested if they changed the protagonist, Rachel Chu (played by Fresh off the Boat’s Constance Wu) into a white character. “I think it was a request born out of sheer ignorance about the project, and it was a very … kneejerk reaction that was indicative of how Hollywood saw its industry, how they felt movies needed to be made, and how they felt a movie with all Asians would just never work,” he said.
Sticking to his guns, Kwan eventually teamed with Chinese American director Jon M. Chu, who shared his belief in the importance and necessity of Asian representation in the film adaptation. Chu was originally offered a healthy sum of money from Netflix (exceeding that of Warner Brothers’ which went on to produce the film) but turned it down. Justifying the decision to do so, he told NBC Nightly News, “we knew the importance of the project was to get it on the big screen — there’s a sign there that says ‘we are worth that energy, we are worth your time’ — for a big Hollywood studio to send that message, we knew was an important message to send the world.”
For many, that message was heard. Beyond the actors in Crazy Rich Asians being diverse in more ways than one, they also portray a deep humanity of the characters through their individual hopes, dreams, relationship problems, and longing for love and acceptance, creating a more fleshed out and truer representation of Asians in the real world.
Continuing to break box office records with a global total of $236 million, Crazy Rich Asians is now the highest-grossing romantic comedy in the last decade. The message Chu refers to has been received with open arms; and with that, comes open doors, open minds, and hopefully, many more diverse and stereotype-free films from the entertainment industry.