I caught a showing of Crazy Rich Asians on my last day in New York, somewhat coincidentally just hours before I was due to fly home to Singapore. I’ve seen quite a bit of commentary in the past week alone on the groundbreaking nature of the film’s all-Asian cast, what its box office success means for representation in mainstream media, etc. etc., so I won’t linger too long on that, other than to say it was doubtless refreshing.
Instead, what surprised me about the film—and my response to it—was how it felt to see the country where I grew up depicted in full, glorious color on the big screen. It’s no secret that I have fairly mixed feelings about Singapore and my childhood there. But those misgivings aside, sitting in that theater and seeing not just people who looked like me, but ones who sounded like me, eating the food I was raised on—food that I’ve always struggled to adequately describe to others—well, let's just say it was quite something indeed.
I first read Kevin Kwan’s trilogy a few years ago now, and at the time I found it mildly amusing and even entertaining enough to recommend to a few friends. I remember taking some small amount of pride in understanding the lingua franca, at least enough to avoid having to refer to the footnotes every time a Singlish reference was made. So, perhaps naively, I expected nothing more from the movie than a similarly mildly entertaining two hours. I guess I wildly underestimated the power of film, and maybe Hollywood in particular, because as I sat watching that movie, seeing all the familiar people and places play out in front of me, and knowing that millions of people around the world would now find them familiar too, I was struck by this oddly intense surge of relief and pride.
Relief because the herculean task of having to describe Singapore to anyone else, or explain once again that no, it is not anywhere in China, was, in the span of a few short hours, made that much easier. Pride because, despite its flaws, Singapore has always had so much to offer—an incredibly diverse population of immigrants from all over Asia and beyond, (resulting in) a uniquely rich culture and cuisine, and a forward-thinkingness that’s led to a modern capital firmly rooted in the present, but that’s also remembered to preserve our roots to the past. I don’t always lay claim to this heritage, especially now that my ties to Singapore are no longer truly legitimate, and in any case considerably weaker than they once were. But today I was unequivocally proud to once have been Singaporean, to point to that giant screen and say “This is where I grew up. This is the food I was raised on. These are the people I was raised around.”
Don’t get me wrong: Crazy Rich Asians is not a perfect representation of Singapore by any stretch of imagination—between the super-rich, largely Chinese protagonists, the time spent lingering on glamorous shots of Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay, and the odd prevalence of British accents, much of what is best about the city is omitted. But I don’t expect a 120-minute-long movie, let alone one based on a book that’s itself a satire, to adequately render all the nuances of a country, even one smaller than most major cities. One movie can’t possibly be everything to everyone, and certainly there’s room for debate on why this was the one movie Hollywood and the world rallied around, but all I mean to say is that it was something special to me today. So, you know, head on to the box office sometime soon, and maybe the next time we see each other we can talk about the work of art that is Changi Airport, or where the best satay in Singapore really is, or even just how weird it is that Araminta has to walk through calf-high water on her way down the aisle. 🙃