‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is an ethnic tale with universal appeal

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ has been the rom-com phenomenon of the year. Laura Harding discusses its success with British star Gemma Chan

There is an old Chinese song that plays in the middle of the box-office juggernaut Crazy Rich Asians. It’s a song that Gemma Chan’s mother had not heard since her childhood, when her own mother used to sing it to her.

Watching a film starring her daughter and hearing a song that evoked so many memories about her family made Chan’s mother tear up.

“My mum started crying really early on,” Chan says the next morning. “My gran and granddad have both passed away now and she never expected to hear that song in a Hollywood film.”

Gemma Chan in ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, opening today. Picture: PA /Warner Bros

And that Hollywood film, the first to have a majority Asian-American cast since The Joy Luck Club 25 years earlier, is making serious waves, earning well over $160 million worldwide before it’s even released in Ireland and UK.

“I’ve been hearing the reactions of people who are really moved by it, saying, ‘It’s amazing to see people on screen that look like me, that look like my family’.

“It’s often the case that you don’t realise how much you’ve missed something until you see it and you realise the lack of representation that has gone before.

“When I first watched the film, I was really moved — I didn’t know what I was feeling. I think it was just seeing the food of my parents’ culture, seeing people that look like my gran and granddad on screen.

“The box-office success is the cherry on top but really it’s the personal connection that people have when they see the film that has meant so much.”

The film, an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s book of the same name, tells the story of Chinese-American university professor Rachel, who falls in love with Nick, unaware that he comes from one of the wealthiest families in Singapore.

She only learns the truth when she travels to his home for a friend’s wedding and meets his fiercely disapproving mother.

Chan, who is best known for her role in Channel 4’s Humans, plays Nick’s impossibly glamorous cousin Astrid, whose marriage is falling apart. The film has clearly struck a nerve in the US, where it became the most successful studio rom-com in nine years at the box office.

It is astonishing to the 35-year-old Brit that 25 years have passed since Hollywood made a film with an Asian-American cast.

It’s mad. That’s a whole generation, isn’t it? This film has proven, not for the first time, that diversity does pay off at the box office.

“It feels like that message is finally sinking in to the powers that be in Hollywood. It feels like audiences really want diverse and authentic storytelling and it just goes to show you can be specific in your storytelling but that it can have this broad appeal.”

Chan says the success of the film disproves some of Hollywood’s received wisdoms. “For example, if you have non-white leads that the film won’t sell abroad or that it won’t do well enough at the box office or that the audience will be a niche one.

“We have just shown that it’s nonsense and in fact if your film is good, if your script is great, you don’t even have to have crazy huge stars necessarily. If you tell your story well and you do the work properly, you don’t need to rely on that kind of star casting.”

But it’s notable that while Chan and her co-star Henry Golding are British, they have still found the opportunity for these kind of star-making performances in Hollywood, rather than at home. Chan suggests that Britain’s love of period dramas might be part of the reason that actors from diverse backgrounds don’t get the same opportunities as their white counterparts.

“I think it’s an interesting thing, period dramas,” she muses. “We have an idea that we have got from other films, of what the past was like, which isn’t necessarily accurate.

“The idea of what the demographics of the country were like. Actually people of colour didn’t show up in the UK like 50 years ago, they have been here for a long time, but when your art and your culture and storytelling doesn’t reflect that, then the public get a skewed version of their own history.”

She cites the example of the 140,000 Chinese personnel who were part of the Allied war effort during the First World War. “I studied World War I about three times in school, over and over again we learned it, and I never heard about that — it’s crazy.”

But now she believes the tide is turning. 

“We just need to keep the momentum going forwards.

“I think people are a lot more aware now than they were before and they will call bullshit on stuff that is clearly not right or feels off or inauthentic so I think we just need to keep that conversation going.”

Crazy Rich Asians opens today

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