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Popcorn With Power: Race, Representation And Crazy Rich Asians

The only thing that could have been better was watching the actual movie.

Bwoggers and Nick Young stans Elle Ferguson and Isabel Seplúveda attended the panel discussion “Crazy Rich Asians: Race, Representation, and Resistance?” The first event in the Transnational Asian-American Speaker Series, five super-star panelists discussed the positive and negative implications of the blockbuster rom-com and other popular Asian-American in American mainstream media.

For anyone living under a rock in 2018 (we don’t blame you), Crazy Rich Asians is a rom-com that premiered in the summer and was the first Hollywood film in over twenty years to star an all-Asian cast. It grossed like a billion dollars, and everyone should see it. It also sparked a conversation over the representation of Asian and Asian Americans in this cultural moment, along with Netflix’s adaptation of Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and sit-com Fresh Off the Boat entering its 5th season.

The panelists included Jeff Yang, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, David Hwang, Monique Truong, and James Schamus. The moderator was Denise Cruz, an associate professor of English at Columbia, who gave a brief introduction to the film be turning it over to the panelists to give their opening remarks.

Myuon-Ok Lee was the first to introduce herself. She commented on the considerable “cultural energy” among her fellow panelists and started her introduction by going back in time to the start of her career. In 1991, she and other Asian writers, “mostly medical schools drop-outs”, met together and found “a certain comfort in being together.” This inspired her to establish the Asian American Writers Workshop, a national not-for-profit arts organization devoted to the creating, publishing, developing and disseminating of creative writing by Asian Americans” according to the website. She spoke of the need to create spaces that aren’t exclusive only to Asian American, but where they feel comfortable expressing themselves creatively and highlighted the structural racism that can keep people from accessing creative fields.

Schamus, a filmmaker and professor in Columbia’s School of the Arts, came next, launching into a three-pronged introduction. Sensitive of his place as the only white man at the table, he noted that he would be steering clear of “ideology critique,” which often requires viewing media as a tool of oppression. He then went into an incredibly detailed description of a nightmare he’d had the previous night, about going to a theater to watch Crazy Rich Asians and instead viewing a spin-off by the name of “Crazy Rich Jews,” full of anti-Semitic stereotypes. His third point touched upon the absence of a paternal figure in Crazy Rich Asians, which strengthened the “insistence on the power of the matriarchal household.”

Truong, a novelist, noted “it [was] entirely unfair” for her to have to follow Schamus’s humorous stories and insightful analyses, but she offered plenty of insight herself. Truong celebrated the film as a watershed moment in American media but also criticized it for its narrow depiction of Singapore, which made it appear as the “Wakanda” of the Asian continent (one of many invocations of Black Panther that night). She also asserted her feelings that the movie was taken too seriously by some, saying she saw the movie as a “bowl of popcorn” while the media’s reaction made it seem like “like a beef dinner.” “It’s okay for it to be popcorn,” Truong noted at the end of her introduction.

Yang opened his remarks by commenting that he is not a creator of cultural material, but a highlighter of it. He added “my primary cultural product is genetic,” referring to his son Hudson Yang, one of the child actors in Fresh Off the Boat. Yang went on to say that the lack of Asian American representation in the media has never been a problem of talent or actor availability, but a lack of opportunity given by the homogeneous American media.

The last to speak was David Hwang, a playwright and screenwriter of several well-known works such as Yellow Face, The Affair, and M. Butterfly. Hwang admitted in his young age he made an intentional effort to not view media with Asian actors as he feared they would become “the butt of jokes.” This propelled him in his adult years to “access the levers of media that hurt [him] as a kid.” Hwang insightfully noted the nuanced and complex nature of watershed films such as Crazy Rich Asians because “our generation’s breakthroughs become the next generation’s stereotypes,” using the example of Bruce Lee ’s fame, leading to the stereotype of the Asian kung-fu master.

Cruz, noting the eager crowd, moved directly into the Q&A, which was fascinating but left us feeling as if quite a bit had been unsaid. The first question addressed the issue of a lack of Asian American representation in writers’ rooms around the country. Truong, Hwang, and Yang all noted the need for parents in the community to view creative labor as a viable career path, while Myoung-ok Lee also mentioned the community’s need to hold open space for one another, which white communities don’t have to worry about.

The most prominent thread through the Q&A was the film’s glossing over of the hard racial and socio-economic realities in Singapore, where the film is set. Panelists offered varying explanations, with Trong highlighting the fantastic nature of rom-coms and encouraging others to create their own media. Shamus mentioned how the brief depiction of darker-skinned Asians in the film actually depicts the reality of the racial situation in the country and interrogated what that meant. In general, it felt at times that the audience members were forcing panelists to repeat themselves on this topic instead of digging into interesting threads of discussion. (Also, we’re literally begging you, when you’re at a public lecture, please keep your questions under 30 seconds. It’s better for all of us.)

Other highlights include the frequent exploration of the influence of Black communities and artists on the Asian American cultural production and the relationship between Asian Americans and other communities of color more generally. This came to a head with (an honestly pretty confusing question) about a gap between Asian representation and affirmative action. After the question finished, a man in the front of the room yelled, “You don’t know history!” interrupting the panel, but the tension passed quickly.

What stuck with us most as we left the lecture was the point raised time and time again, best summed up by a phrase invoked by Hwang: “a paucity of images.” Crazy Rich Asians, while a fantastic movie, cannot tell the story of every Asian or even every Asian American. But because it is the first big-budget American movie in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast, many people are trying to make it become that universal story. That is a weight no single film should have to bear, and as this panel made clear, the only way to alleviate this burden is more representation. If these panelists are leading the way, we’re excited to see what else this moment has in store.

go see this movie via Barnard History

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