Why ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is such a big deal for Asian Americans

We talk to three of the cast members who came to Atlanta to promote the film

Originally posted Monday, August 13, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

A rom-com movie rarely gets the level of scrutiny and attention that the upcoming film “Crazy Rich Asians” is pulling in.


It's the first major American studio movie set in the present day featuring a largely Asian cast since 1993's "Joy Luck Club." And it features a reported budget of $30 million, a respectable figure for this genre and features a mix of newbies and experienced actors from all over the world such as Michelle Yeoh ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), Constance Wu ("Fresh Off the Boat") and Ken Jeong ("Dr. Ken," "The Hangover").

Based on a best-selling 2013 novel of the same name by Kevin Kwan, the film features New York City Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu (Wu) traveling with her heartthrob of a boyfriend Nick Young (British-Malaysian acting neophyte Henry Golding) to Singapore for a friend's wedding only to discover he is super rich.

Rachel quickly feels like a fish out of water and most of Nick’s family treats her with disdain. Much of the comedy plays off the cultural and class divide between her and his family members.

Warner Bros. Studios is pulling out all the stops marketing the film, screening it in multiple cities and sending its cast members worldwide to promote the film. Sneak previews last Wednesday largely sold out. In a nod to the growing Asian-American community in metro Atlanta,  the studio flew three of the actors to the area earlier this month to promote the movie:  Ronny Chieng ("The Daily Show"), Awkwafina ("Ocean's 8") and Nico Santos ("Superstore").

Credit: Paras Griffin

Credit: Paras Griffin

The Hollywood Reporter, in an extensive cover profile of the film, revealed that Netflix had thrown a crazy amount of money at the producers but they turned it down because they wanted to prove to the world this film could sell tickets in movie theaters.

"We want this movie to be as impactful as possible with a traditional Hollywood release," said Awkwafina, a Queens, N.Y. native who plays Rachel's colorful best friend Goh Peik Lin. "That's a beautiful thing. It's a big movie and you want it to be released in a big way,"

Chieng, who plays Nick’s conceited cousin Eddie, said he admires the decision. “How often does someone make a decision not based on the bottom line?” said Chieng, who grew up in Malaysia and Singapore. “They did this for cultural reasons to promote the idea that Asians can be the leads, so young people can go to the theater and see themselves.”

Santos, a Filipino native who plays Nick’s cousin and fashion designer Oliver, said he hopes if the film sells enough tickets, “it will open the floodgates and hopefully we’ll be able to tell more stories like it and  different stories about other marginalized groups as well.”

While the accents, milieu and characters are distinctly Asian, the story lines regarding family tensions and trying to find acceptance are “universal,” Santos said. “Everyone can relate to the themes.”

Each actor brings a different comedic angle to the film. While Awkwafina’s Peik Lin is ebullient and amusing in her own right, Chieng’s Eddie is an undeniable jerk.

“My character is probably the worst of rich Asians,” Chieng said. “I embody all the pettiness, the jealousy, the materialism.”

Santos’ Oliver is the one of the few empathetic characters toward Rachel among Nick’s largely judgmental family members.

“My character is very much an outsider in his own family,” Santos said. “Oliver is not as wealthy. He’s treated as the errand boy. When he sees Rachel, his heart goes out to her.”

They all said they felt they were doing something special during filming, which took place last year in Malaysia and Singapore.

“I compare it to adult summer camp,” Awkwafina said. “For Asian Americans, going back to Asia is a very personal thing and to experience it with all these talented actors and actresses from different parts of the world was mind opening.”

“We’re usually doing projects where we’re the token Asians or in my case, the token queer,” Santos said.

“It’s like being on a crazy trip with our cousins,” added Awkwafina, who is also known as a rapper.

And not to get too stereotypical, but the actors often spent evenings drinking heavily and singing karaoke. Chieng's frequent go-to choice? Taylor Swift. To prove it, he sang a bit of "Style." (Chieng, by the way, was super excited to be in Atlanta because he loves T.I. and was obsessed with the film "ATL" while a college student in Australia a decade ago. Awkwafina came to Atlanta to shoot the film "Neighbors 2" in 2015 and gave a shout out to South City Kitchen.)

After years of seeing potential Asian roles given to white actors, the cast of “Crazy Rich Asians” is understandably hopeful that this film will help reverse that bias. (There was a minor controversy over the fact Golding was half Asian.)

“As an Asian-American actor,” Awkwafina said, “I never forget what’s happened in my career is the result of actors in the past who struggled and had to take roles that may have made them feel uncomfortable. This movie is a perfect example that we are out here.”

Added Chieng: “You can feel it in the zeitgeist... you can sense there’s a feeling that people want to hear stories that reflect them. People want authenticity. And that means having the people who lived those stories tell those stories.”

Early reviews from critics for "Crazy Rich Asians" have been  positive with a 100 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating and box-office projections pointing to a $20 million-plus domestic opening weekend. In this current day where rom-coms are struggling in theaters in general, that would be considered a hit.

Brian Lowry of CNN calls it "a highly satisfying, decidedly old-fashioned romantic comedy, garnished with soapy elements and enough mouth-watering shots of food to inspire a big meal before or after."

Jeff Yang, a veteran Asian-American entertainment columnist who co hosts a podcast called "They Call Us Bruce," has already seen the film three times and plans to see it two more times.

“I think it’s going to be transformative for Asian Americans in Hollywood,” he said. “If it hits expectations it will unleash a whole pipeline of Asian-American projects, no joke.”

You can hear my entire interview uncut here where they also talked about how their families supported their careers in entertainment, their mutual respect for Michelle Yeoh, Santos doing a great imitation of a classic scene from "Joy Luck Club" and how Ronny Chieng will shamelessly plug anything including socks with his image on them.

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