Kiwi-Filipino reflects on ‘Asian purity’ in Crazy Rich Asians

Watching Crazy Rich Asians gave Auckland lawyer Dewy Sacayan the opportunity to look into her own culture and reflect on her identity as a ‘banana’ through the big screen.

OPINION: For weeks, the big elephant in the room at my house was when we would see Crazy Rich Asians.

I had real reservations prior to watching the movie. Was it worth the hype? Did Kris Aquino, aka the ‘Queen of All Media’ in the Philippines, really play a cameo? Would Crazy Rich Asians give Asians the same feeling as what Black Panther gave African-Americans and Africans?

Also, the Cinderella story is a tried-and-tested plot. I didn’t want to catch a film with a predictable ending. And seeing a movie that celebrates the 1 percent always makes me cringe because I know Asia is also home to some of the world’s poorest.

But upon reflection, I realised this would be my only chance as a Kiwi-Filipino to support an all-Asian cast in a Hollywood film. The last time a virtually all-Asian cast graced the big screen was 13 years ago with Memoirs of a Geisha.

So were my initial reservations warranted? These are my takeaways from the movie (caution: spoilers ahead).

A stronger identity, or a diluted one?

“You are like a banana. White inside and yellow outside.”

I moved to New Zealand with my mum and sisters in 2007 to study. I’m fortunate and privileged to have parents who gave me full rein to explore what I was good at and were able to support me through it.

Studying abroad has opened many doors for me, but has also come with its ramifications.

People who have lived in Asia all their lives view themselves as ‘real Asians’, and those who have migrated can get flak for not being Asian enough. The conflict over Asian ‘purity’ can be seen in the exchange between Rachel Chu and her boyfriend’s mother Eleanor Young, when Rachel talks about her passion for her job as an economics professor. Eleanor is quick to dismiss pursuing an individual’s passions as a Western ideal, emphasising the point that Asians work for the collective good of the family.

Choosing between the individual versus collective mindset has always been a real struggle for a Kiwi-Filipino (aka ‘banana’) like me. At home, my family’s two-hour-long dinners would be filled with teachings, or pangaral, of the importance of education and getting a professional title, so that you can raise not just your own status but your family’s too.

When there are big decisions to be made, be it choosing a degree or a spouse, two questions invariably come up for Asians: Do I follow my passion or do what can bring honour to my family? Is there a win-win option where I can satisfy both?

I experienced this inner conflict when deciding between becoming an environmental activist or a lawyer. (I became both.)

Seeing the dichotomy in the mindsets of migrants and “real Asians” in the film gave me the feeling that I was authentically represented.

Dewy Sacayan on her graduation day

Dewy Sacayan graduated from the University of Auckland with a conjoint arts and law degree. (Photo: Dewy Sacayan)

The haves vs have nots

“Finish everything on your plate. Don’t you know there are kids starving in America?”

From private parties in cargo ships, gold embellishments in houses and a bougie paddy field-inspired wedding venue, Crazy Rich Asians lives up to its name.

As a young Kiwi-Filipino living with the modern struggles of the unreachable property ladder, I realised through this film that being hardworking is not enough to determine your success. You need to be in the right social circles and have gone to the best schools – but it’s hard to even get there if you’re not from a position of privilege. This is why the rich become richer while the poor remain poor.

So how can a person who’s not from a well-to-do background climb up the ladder?

For many Asian parents, education is non-negotiable. This is because preparation for the future is always today’s priority. My parents forged their own rags-to-riches story – paying their own way through study and creating their fortune through construction. My family has sacrificed so much to get us to where we are today, including living apart for more than a decade. I grew up wanting to do well in school, not because I was pressured to, but because I owed my parents that much for all the sacrifices they have made.

Being entrepreneurial is also an important step to accumulating wealth. My papa once told me if you were born poor, it is not your fault, but if you die poor, it is your fault. I take this advice with a grain of salt as the reality is more complex than that sounds, but it reveals how Asians view wealth: It’s not about being the best in the rat race. It’s about scrapping the rat race and starting your own story.

Looking into a mirror 

Overall, I am pleased I went to see the film. Watching Crazy Rich Asians gave me the opportunity to look into my own culture through the big screen. 

The film allowed me to laugh at the stereotypes I live with on a daily basis, marvel at Singapore’s beautiful cityscapes, and visualise what Asians can produce to a large audience. It also showcases the resilient Asian spirit that has helped us live through turmoils, disasters and the pressures of assimilation wherever we go.

I hope that through this film, more New Zealanders will have a greater understanding of the nuances of the Asian mindset especially when it comes to family, education and traditions.

I am also hopeful that Crazy Rich Asians will spark a change in film-making where Asians can take on prominent roles rather than the token nerd or martial arts fighter. There is a section in the Asian population that is hungry for representation and to put our talents on display.

So, did Crazy Rich Asians manage to overcome my initial reservations? It surpassed it.

Dewy Sacayan is a litigation solicitor by day and an environmental activist by night. Her background in climate change negotiations, policy research and renewable energy has brought her around the globe, working for organisations such as the United Nations and Tesla. She is currently volunteering as the Business Sector Engagement Lead for the Zero Carbon Act campaign.

– Asia Media Centre

Check out other stories about

Culture and society,  Asian diaspora,  Film and TV