"If you complain about Hollywood not representing minorities, why don't you write your own story?"
There's a lot to unpack from the criticism surrounding the cast and characters in Crazy Rich Asians, the film adaptation of the 2013 chick-lit novel by Singapore-born Kevin Kwan. In America, The Atlantic claimed that its characters were represented according to white norms, while Refinery29 said that their problem with the film is that it's about Asians in Asia, and not Asian-Americans. It's been called anything from a "triumph for representation" to "the Black Panther for Asians", with every other review or story mentioning how long it's been since Hollywood produced a film featuring an all-Asian lead cast: Joy Luck Club, back in 1993.
In Singapore, support for the film has been mixed. While it's great to see the likes of Henry Golding (that travel host who made it big), Pierre Png (the cutie from your early-2000s dreams), Selena Tan (of Dim Sum Dollies), Tan Kheng Hua (of Phua Chu Kang and many acclaimed theatre productions) and Koh Chieng Mun (yep, Dolly from Under One Roof) on an international stage, the film has drawn criticism ever since its trailer was released four months ago. Sure, Singapore Tourism Board (who supported the film) did a great job in making our country look like a million bucks, but what's with the glaring absence of ethnic minorities? The only non-Chinese characters seen from the trailer were the service crew.
Activists and writers Kirsten Han and Sangeetha Thanapal have been the most vocal about this issue, with the earlier penning a piece for Vox about how Crazy Rich Asians doesn't do a great job representing Singaporeans. "Chu's all-Asian boast is nothing more than a perpetuation of the existing Chinese dominance in mainstream media and pop culture," wrote Han. "Crazy Rich Asians promotes the ongoing erasure and oppression of Singapore minorities on a global screen," said Thanapal. "There needs to be a better understanding amongst Americans of the dynamics of race in other parts of the world, as well as the awareness that what seems like progress to some is actually built on the oppression of others."
For keyboard warriors, it's all systems go as every Lee, Ahmad and Muthu comes out of the woodwork to give their two cents. Some comments reeked of Chinese privilege, while others raised a point that it's not up to Hollywood to define what it meant to be Singaporean. There's also this gem of a suggestion: "If you complain about Hollywood not representing minorities, why don't you write your own story?"
Fair enough. If it were up to us — this 23.8% of Singapore — what would we write? What do we want to see? I reached out to creatives from Singapore's ethnic minority groups to suss out the stories they want to tell.
Sukki Singapora, burlesque artist
"My narrative would be very much be that of a mixed-race Singaporean growing up and juggling her identity as a child whose father always told her it was the "best of both worlds," but whose real life experiences made her feel like she was only "half" of both cultures, and never a full human. What makes us Asian? What makes us Singaporean? Why do we feel the need to label ourselves into categories of race rather than seeing ourselves as one unified individual?
It would also include a story of struggle. A struggle to express ourselves freely and speak our minds; and a struggle against a sometimes insulated or overprotected upbringing. One which comes with so many expectations, and so many fears of disappointing or not living up to those expectations, be that from our own country, or our own families. It would delve into what it feels like to be a Singaporean abroad, and how we present ourselves internationally. Most importantly, it would be a story of love overcoming all struggles and conflict. Love for each other, our families, ourselves, and the love we find in a person who loves us for who we are."
Anita Kapoor, television host, writer, emcee, speaker and advocate
"I want to see a film that reflects the true presence of Singapore and Singaporeans. A script that implicitly understands how very different, albeit imperfect, this Asian experiment now a city, a country and a state, and one of the only true multi-cultural countries on Earth — mistakes and all — really is. Strip back the faux glamour. Beam with intelligent nuanced, pride. Be vulnerable about the faults and f*ck-ups, and confident that we are in actual fact an Asia that is advanced as f*ck. A self-aware film about Singapore. That's my ultimate script."
Marc Nair, author and poet
"The Adventures of Captain Other. Captain Other believes in justice for anyone who has been unfairly represented, racially discriminated against or stigmatised for being the minority. Like a hawk to a rabbit, like a sailor to a port, like a hungry man to prata, Captain Other will be there to right the wrong and make sure perpetrators face the othered arm of the law. Captain Other's catchphrase? 'By Any Means Necessary'. But be careful, Captain Other! Your nemesis, White Horse, lurks in the shadows, pulling strings from high places, and is rumoured to have a dastardly plan up his sleeve."
Shirlene Noordin, public relations director
"I would like to hear more stories about how immigrant women from Nusantara came to Singapore, toiled away and made this their home. We hear all the time about the stories of the Samsui women and the Ma Jies. What about the women who came from Java, Minangkabau, Bawean Island and the Celebes who left their villages to come to Singapore? What were their sacrifices? Not even just the women, but the men as well, like my grandfather's family who came from Pekalongan to Singapore in the early 20th Century. Their stories are never written. Maybe it's up to me to write these stories."
Prashant Somosundram, founder of Intermission Bar at The Projector and one-third of The Glory Hoes
"I do not look to Hollywood to validate my identity or narrative. In terms of films, I would like to see a movie that addresses the experience of a queer South Asian in Singapore. We are constantly faced with racism within and from outside the queer community and sometimes the pressures to assimilate can be quite strong. I think there are very interesting tensions that can be explored in navigating queer, South Asian and Singaporean identities."
Sarah Bagharib, humanitarian communications officer and social advocate
"I think the story that needs to be told in Singapore is the collection of success stories of minority women — the game-changers, trailblazers and more. There is also a difference between having these examples of successful minority women as mere token examples compared to having a complete narrative of leading successful women who come from minority background. I think it's really important that we start having this narrative because we need to showcase to the younger minority girls who their role models are — women who look like them, speak like them and have names like theirs."
Ebi Shankara, actor and Fly Entertainment artiste
"I would like to have a minority-centered drama that's family-oriented because I think wit and humour are always received better. We can tackle poignant issues using this as a medium, like in Fresh Off The Boat and Black-ish. People always doubt or fear things that they don't understand, so humour can be a great tool to help with that. And also to bring a fresh take on minority-centered humour and not the stereotypical, pigeon-holed humour that we are fed."
Sharul Channa, stand-up comedian
"As a Singaporean of Indian origin and being an artist, I am extremely happy that I have fellow friends and veteran actors from Singapore acting in Crazy Rich Asians. Although there is no representation of minorities in the film, it does a lot for the acting industry in Singapore as it more prominently puts local actors on the global platform. This only means that more doors open for Singapore artists of all races and experiences.
If I could put my narrative in a film — it would be about a female stand-up comedian from Singapore making it on the global platform and putting Singapore on the comedy map as a country that produces funny people. It should showcase that women in Singapore are both progressive, hard-working and deserve to be equally paid."
Gareth Fernandez, musician
"As a Eurasian Singaporean, I'd love to see a story about a mixed race person. It'd be called What Are You, because that's what I'm always asked."
Adibah Isa, culture editor
"I would love to see a film that depicts the small but not insignificant struggle of being a 'modern Malay Muslim in Singapore', as other races or entities have labelled us. What does that even mean? Do you lose a part of yourself while kowtow-ing to the powers that be who determine what being modern and progressive is? What are your conversations with God like, and how do these rules or regulations play out in real life with interactions among peers, friends and lovers? In Singapore, how has the relationship with our native land — one that generations before us have seen being taken over and trodded upon by outsiders — shaped the way we've made our mark here?"