Opinion

Crazy Rich Asians captures the Singapore zeitgeist, but there is more depth to be found

A formulaic rom-com it might be, but Crazy Rich Asians is breakthrough marketing for Singapore as a destination – and now the likes of the Singapore Tourism Board must explain the Lion City to the world in a much more nuanced way – writes Andrew Wong of Blue Totem Communications

Watching Crazy Rich Asians was like watching a Singapore Tourism Board ad of sorts. The lingering shots of the city skyline and multiple appearances of the Merlion made me groan in what was otherwise quite an enjoyable show.

So some fair warning – spoilers ahead.

Let’s start with the good. I’ve read the book and seeing it brought to life was exciting. The movie is a showcase for Singapore on a global stage so quickly after the Trump-Kim summit and hopefully, it reminds people we are not part of China or Malaysia.

Unlike the fictional city of Wakanda created by Marvel, this is a breathing living Asian city. One which is filled with real people (although the diversity is not exactly represented in the film). One which speaks English.

A place with some seriously good eats and party venues not to mention idyllic island retreats a short helicopter ride away (assuming you have the same budget as the minted characters in the film).

As many have argued, the movie is though a good first step for the representation of Asians in Hollywood – coming 25 years after The Joy Luck Club. The latter was about a group of middle-aged women and their daughters, whereas Crazy Rich Asians is about the sometimes ridiculous wealth of the South East Asian Chinese.

And I say Chinese because this movie is a disappointment in how minority races are portrayed. It glaringly omits the sizeable Malay and Indian minorities in Singapore. One of the ‘richest’ characters in the film was Princess Intah – who I thought was part of Thai royalty until I realised it is a Malay name. Played by Filipino actress Kris Aquino, she definitely didn’t look Malay.

And she was the only minority character who was ‘rich’. The only other Indians and Malays featured were  stall owners at the hawker centre, security guards and a fleeting glimpse of an Indian guest at the party.

There were other parts of the movie, which again give a false presentation of Singapore. In the pivotal Mahjong scene, there were two middle-aged ladies who could only speak Hokkien. I don’t think there are any Singaporeans of that age, who don’t have at least conversational English. But I guess all publicity is good publicity right?

Also, most characters spoke with posh English or American accents. No Singaporean speaks like this to their local friends without being labeled fake. The Chinese accent of the lead was horrendous and made me wish it was dubbed.

I do wonder what our friends in China and Taiwan will think when they hear it? But ranting aside, for all the misrepresentations it is a production that puts Singapore on the map.

And over the last decade since the first Formula One came to town, we have been steadily showcasing a side of the country rarely seen in the West. It’s refreshing. For I come from a generation used to hearing that people didn’t know what, or where, Singapore.

Many times while I was a student in Australia, people would have no idea who we were or where. They would think we were part of Malaysia or China.

Many would also often equate Singapore with Michael Fay (an American sentenced to caning in Singapore). It was thought you could go to jail for chewing gum. Hopefully, the fact that males cannot give up their citizenship without completing national service (and will be jailed upon arriving here) doesn’t become part of the negative lexicon about Singapore – as news about Kevin Kwan (author of the Crazy Rich Asians book the film is based on) as a NS defaulter trends on social media.

 

While we do not know how much the Singapore Film Commission and Singapore Tourism Board put into supporting the movie in monetary terms, the investments made have been well worth it.

Barring the embarrassing ‘Singcapore’ issue on the red carpet at the film premiere in Los Angeles, the number of earned media stories generated are invaluable. As were the authentic scenes. I particularly enjoyed the narrative in the pivotal mahjong scene.  

No doubt the movie will spur on tourism to Singapore and South East Asia, and hopefully remind international firms that Singapore is one of the world’s top global cities. Ideally, we will have fewer board members saying ‘what’s Singapore?’ when reviewing a strategic plan to expand to Asia.

Coupled with images of the gorgeous island retreats so close to us, the film does showcase at least a portion of Singapore – and some of its culture – to a global audience. Even if it’s not the whole picture.

Moving forward, I hope that Singapore will continue to be part of the global discourse. The Trump-Kim Summit and Crazy Rich Asians showed the gleaming metropolis of modern Singapore, Check out the awesome video by vlogger Nas Why I Hate Singapore

However, while we continue to showcase the glitter and shine, it would be great if the STB supported other non-conformist events like LGBT festival Pink Dot. It also attracts attention from around the world and offers a truly unique Singapore-grown initiative. We need to celebrate the entire story.   

With the box office success of Crazy Rich Asians (said to be US$45 million in box office receipts already in less than two weeks against a US$30 million production budget), we can expect to see sequels in the cinemas sometime soon.

My only hope is that the directors will be more thoughtful in fixing the problems with the first installment. That is we will get to see more (or even all) sides of Singapore – not only the good, but also the not-so-glam. Stay tuned folks. Whatever happens next, this has been a public relations and marketing victory for the island.

Wong feels the movie is a starting point

Andrew Wong is a director at Blue Totem Communications, an independent public relations agency in Singapore

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