The Crazy Appeal of a Foreign Story

When Singaporean-born Kevin Kwan wrote Crazy Rich Asians, he wrote it primarily for himself and his friends, never imagining it would appeal to a wider audience. His mother’s friends told her, “Nobody reads Kevin’s books in Singapore.” Indeed, the first Asian-Americans to read his book were cautious and suspicious.

And yet, Crazy Rich Asians has become a hit amongst US book clubs with Caucasian-Americans comprising 80 per cent of its fan base. The book has spent over 17 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list alongside other heavyweights like The Handmaid’s Tale. And since its mid-August release, the movie has smashed box office estimates. It carries the hopes of Asians in the West for broader representation in Hollywood beyond the usual stereotypes. The movie’s success has led Kwan, also the film’s executive producer, to be named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2018.

What universal themes in this story are so compelling that Crazy Rich Asians is the first non-period Hollywood movie in 26 years (since the Joy Luck Club) to feature an all-Asian cast? What is it about a story set in a “foreign” sub-culture that has such mass appeal? And what parallels might this crazy world have with the counter-cultural kingdom of God?

Entering a crazy kingdom

Rachel, an Asian-American girl, travels with her Singaporean boyfriend to his home country for a wedding. Through her, we discover Singapore and the crazy world of its upper-crust—the “royalty of Asia”. With its displays of mind-boggling wealth and its dazzling images of Singapore and South-East Asia, Crazy Rich Asians presents a new and compelling vision of a world that’s foreign to most Western audiences (Kwan even had to explain to an American that Malaysia is not close to China).

Jesus introduces us to the kingdom of God – a crazy world that belongs to the poor, where people love their enemies, where the dirtiest sinners get to touch royalty, where 5,000 people can be fed with just five loaves and two fish, and where sins can be forgiven

For Christians, Jesus introduces us to the kingdom of God. This kingdom is a crazy world that belongs to the poor (Lk 6:20), where people love their enemies (Lk 6:27), where the dirtiest sinners get to touch royalty (Lk 7:36–50), where 5,000 people can be fed with just five loaves and two fish (Lk 9:10–17), and where sins can be forgiven (Lk 7:48–50). Like Rachel, we can be in awe and perplexed at such a crazy world. Is this a world into which we can fit in our current state?

Adopted into the family

As Nick and Rachel head to Singapore, she discovers that she is attending Asia’s wedding of the decade—in which her unassuming boyfriend, the “Prince William of Asia” will be the best man. Dating Asia’s most eligible bachelor, Rachel becomes the object of disdain by all single women as well as Nick’s “royal family”. Peik Lin, Rachel’s university friend (who is lower on the wealth hierarchy) helps her dress the part and try on an array of gorgeous outfits. But no matter what Rachel does, she struggles to gain the acceptance of Eleanor, her potential mother-in-law.

We too are reminded of how difficult it is to be accepted by another family. Why on earth does Jesus choose us? We are not even remotely fit for his world. Nick must weigh up his position as the favoured heir and decide whether he can give up his family for love. Likewise, Jesus sets aside his heavenly riches and becomes poor so that we might become rich (2 Cor 8:9). He takes away our filthy garments and clothes us in his blood and righteousness (Isa 61:10; Eph 4:24; Rev 7:14). Because of Jesus, no matter what we do, Christians are accepted and can never lose our place in the family.

Culture clash

One of the most interesting parts of the movie is the relationship between Rachel and Eleanor. They represent the tension between traditionalists and progressives, old and young, but especially, Asian and Western cultures. As an individual, Rachel pursues her own career, loves and dreams—a far cry from Eleanor, a fierce and loving mother who has made enormous sacrifices for her family.

For many people in ethnic churches, this struggle is familiar. First-generation Asian values of family, tradition and labouring for the sake of the group often clash with second-generation Western ideals of independence, innovation and pursuing our individual calling. We can learn something from this film about sacrifice, to gain what is ultimately more important than our cultural preferences. Asian or not, this movie speaks to anyone who seeks to relate and work well with people profoundly different to us in church and society.

(In)accurate representation?

Nevertheless, the movie has some flaws. Its biggest controversy has been the decision to cast Henry Golding (who is Eurasian) in the lead role. The book originally depicts Nick with “chiselled Cantonese pop-idol features”. Jon M. Chu and Kwan auditioned many eligible actors yet desperately struggled to find a good looking Asian male—who wasn’t in Harvard, Silicon Valley, or a lawyer—who embodied a character with a flawless English accent, hailed from an Asian background and could also hold the hopes of Asian representation in Hollywood. Some of the backlash has been unfair, as the newcomer hails from Sarawak, Malaysia and has spent the last decade in South-East Asia. Still, there are questions over the Singaporean characters being played by non-South-East Asians and the lack of non-Chinese Singaporeans. Accurate representation remains debatable and elusive.

Our story faces a similar dilemma. Who could be the Messiah, the one who could represent accurately both man as well as God? Who could hold the hopes of history? The Old Testament shows a whole range of eligible characters for the role. We can have a renewed sense of appreciation for the divine genius of who Jesus is—fully man and fully God—who was somehow able to fulfil every expectation: being descended from David (2 Sam 7:12–16) and the house of Judah, brought out of Egypt (Hos 11:1), and born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2). He is the Passover lamb, Prince of Peace and God himself. Talk about big shoes to fill.

In an increasingly post-Christian West, the message of the gospel is becoming more foreign and unappealing than ever before. Christians now get the minority experience: we often face stereotypes as the naïve Ned Flanders or angry bigot. There is awkwardness or hostility as we are misrepresented in the media. People do not give us space to share God’s story. Yet there is hope when a story situated in a foreign sub-culture—which should not appeal to anyone—becomes an exciting game-changer. Fans are already clawing for adaptations of the other two books in the trilogy. As we share the gospel story, let’s be confident in the message of an unassuming carpenter who turns out to be royalty—a king who welcomes us into his crazy kingdom and accepts us into his family. As we anticipate this wedding of the ages, we can be confident in its universal appeal and power to change the world.


Images © Warner Brothers

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