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Crazy rich, crazy poor

/ 05:05 AM September 03, 2018

The crazy rich Asians of Greenhills have gathered to watch their namesake film,” a friend of mine posted on Facebook last week. “Guess it feels like a vanity project of sorts. No surprise there!”

Another friend—rich but not quite crazy rich—talked about how the film was better than the book. I assumed that it must be so, because Kevin Kwan’s “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy is a constant bombardment of brand names and exotic locations, which made it jarring in places. “Yes,” said my friend, “but it’s all brand names that you don’t even know about. That’s how crazy rich these people are, and the author doesn’t care if you don’t get the brand names—that’s the point.”

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“Crazy Rich Asians,” like any film springing out of a demographic in dire need of representation, has been the recipient of praise and criticism in almost equal measure.

Criticism because, unsurprisingly, it can’t be all things to all people: A film about a boy bringing home a girl to face his rich, disapproving family is hardly the defining, all-encompassing epic that can bring all aspects of each rich Asian subculture to the fore. You can hardly expect the diversity of the entire continent to be represented. Criticism because of the exaggerated, almost cartoonish depictions of the Asian rich, and how this can distort views of Singapore—a real place, as a friend of mine also pointed out, with all the real complexities of its culture and its people, unlike Wakanda of “Black Panther” fame.

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Still, there’s also praise, because it is about time that Hollywood came out with a rom-com where the only Asians aren’t sidekicks or background characters to the white leads. Praise because it’s a warm and funny comedy, with nuances touching Asian hearts that could be lost on other
audiences. Praise because it speaks to those who straddle two cultures as Asian-Americans do, who are never quite white, yet never quite fully Asian.

Praise because the book and film reject and embrace stereotypes: It’s true that our cultures hold familial ties dearly, but we aren’t all stiff, socially awkward types who are good at math. Asians can be intelligent or silly, charismatic or irritating, portly or svelte, materialistic or spiritual, and a full range of other things in between. It’s almost like Asians are human.

The one thing, it seems, that Asians can’t be is poor. The escapist joy of “Crazy Rich Asians” lies in its extremes. It glorifies stratospheric spending. It isn’t exactly neutral about portraying “rich” as a positive quality: The male lead is handsome and kind, but we all know it’s his family money and privileged, educated background that make snagging him more of a “jackpot.” The rich antagonists, on the other hand, aren’t antagonists because they’re rich, but more because they’re vindictive or petty.

If we’re looking for representation of the Asian poor, Kevin Kwan’s series is not quite the place to look, but then we’ve had plenty of gritty Third World dramas offering us a look at the seedy underbelly of, say, modern Metro Manila, so why look for it in a romantic comedy?

Having said that, once the joy of seeing “brown” and “yellow” onscreen fades, “Crazy Rich Asians” really is a world away from the realities that haunt the “crazy poor” Asians. Oxfam claimed earlier this year, to much controversy, that all the wealth in the world continues to be owned by a small minority, and that 82 percent of the money generated last year went to the richest 1 percent of the world population.

Looking at Kris Aquino’s Michael Cinco gown and her serene beauty, one may be filled with Filipino pride that one of us is on the red carpet, but we have to ask ourselves—what for? Is it Filipino pride that some of us have risen up from stereotypical Filipino poverty to be counted among the wealthy and tasteful?

We glorify the rich as having lives entirely unlike ours, and are titillated by stories of ridiculous spending among the Asian superrich (KC Concepcion’s $410,000-dollar watch comes to mind). But, at the same time, these can be a sharp reminder that we are living in a region that houses the most millionaires and billionaires in the world, but also houses two-thirds of the world’s poor.

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How is it that a few should have so much while so many should go without? It’s not a question that “Crazy Rich Asians” was ever designed to answer, but it’s a shame if we just stop asking it, and accept—even rejoice in!—the brazen, systemic inequality that makes the “crazy rich” what they are.

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