By Girish Daswani
I am from Singapore. I grew up in an apartment close to Chinatown in the 1970s and remember wandering through the streets and shopping centres, as I killed my boredom of being an only child, reading books on Buddhism and searching for the best lanterns during the Chinese lantern festival. When my father left (I was about 8 or 9) and my mother could not afford to pay the rent anymore, we moved to the East: Siglap Road, Frankel Avenue and finally Marine Parade. My mother started her childcare centre in the different bungalows she rented, the children played below and we shared a room upstairs until the business grew and a room was made available for me (I was 14 by that time!). When we moved into our own two-bedroom apartment in Marine Parade, I was thrilled to have a home again – without the morning cries of children leaving their parents as they headed to work or the invading groups of naughtiness that interrupted my sleep when an extra room was needed for teaching. Even if it meant I had to share the HDB (Housing Development Board = public housing, commonly referred to as Singapore’s “Heartlands”, and where most Singaporeans live) flat with my mother’s brother, who was usually in a bad mood, or a room with my mother, I sensed a new freedom: I was then in junior college and about to head off for military service (Kranji did not have an MRT station at the time), and I was later to assume a coveted spot at the local University. I studied Sociology, was part of a local band, my “Malay”, “Chinese”, “Indian” and “Eurasian” friends became my extended family, and we spoke about the world outside Singapore through music and politics.
Aerial view of Marine Parade’s HDB flats
The world was my oyster – or that was how it felt. I started travelling, backpacked through Europe, volunteered for an NGO in Bangladesh, lived in Ghana with my father’s forgotten family, did my higher education in London and finally found myself in Toronto with a job as a university professor.
The author and his son in one of Singapore’s “Heartlands”
So, what has this to do with me having watched Crazy Rich Asians (CRA) last week? Well, having seen the very entertaining, much acclaimed, and Hollywood blockbuster film set in Singapore, I felt like everything I knew about Singapore was stolen, taken away from me. I’m being too dramatic, maybe? Maybe, but that’s how I felt. Some say that the movie (and the author of the book the movie is based on) depicts a side to Singapore that was previously hidden to many, including myself; that it draws the curtain that usually hides the obscene amounts of wealth, “old money” and patronage that have always been part of Singaporean society. And they may be right. Others are happy to see Singapore featured and photoshoped into an Asian-American Hollywood film that brings the tiny island-state into the international spotlight with a more joyful twist than the controversies of the recent Trump-Kim-Jong-un Summit (let’s not even discuss how some think that summit was a “good” thing). And they have every right to their happiness. The Singapore Tourist Board must have also been salivating on the free marketing advertisements that portrayed Singapore’s mouth-watering local food, its synthesis of colonial, Peranakan and modern architecture, its post-modern infrastructure, and the futuristic hotel (and prophecy of the end-times depicted by the Noah’s Ark) that is the Marina Bay Sand – an Ark built on reclaimed land. Salivate all you want, I say.
What I saw was different. What I saw was what I did not see. And this is important. It is important because, just as CRA claims to be a success for “Asian-Americans” (let’s just cut to the chase and say “Chinese-Americans”) representation in Hollywood (and that is indeed something important), it was a failure in being an ally to the indigenous people and other minorities of the country the movie is set in. These groups have been under-/not represented in the country’s own post-colonial public image; their concerns are generally not heard or seen as lacking credibility because of the country’s nationalistic ideologies of meritocracy and multiculturalism. The only Malay (the indigenous person of Singapore) in the movie was…. wait, were there any Malays in the movie? The “Indians” were represented by the colonial figures of the Sikh soldier or bodyguard, scary bearded brown men with turbans. It is them who guarded the property of the crazy rich Chinese family, and the short scene in which they appear is meant to trigger laughter among the audience. As for Tamils, they are only seen as usherers at the wedding. Filipinos and Indonesians (the “new Singaporeans”) are stereotypically cast as the docile domestic helper more commonly called “maids.” Even CRA’s representation of “Chinese” people seemed confused. Elements of Hakka, Peranakan, Teochew, Hokkien, and Mandarin-speaking cultures are indiscriminately blended together in ways that are unrecognizable to the Chinese Singaporean.
The very fact that I’m using “Chinese”, “Malay”, “Indian” (let’s not forget “Eurasian”) is not random: These are the four official “Races” of Singapore. “Race” is a thing in Singapore, part of our post-colonial baggage that helps the government structure and divide Singaporeans according to “origin” types, and comes with the usual racial stereotypes. It is so central to the bureaucracy that it is printed on our identity cards.
Poster for Singapore’s “Racial Harmony Day”
The metaphor and bureaucratic use of racial “types” can also be linked to Singapore’s fascination for “nature” (or how “race” is sometimes linked to “nature” and natural selection) and its attempts to control it (Joanne Leow). This fascination justifies a series of politics, from control over marriage and purity (see Teo You Yenn’s Neoliberal Morality in Singapore), to control of public housing (allocation of homes and mixing of races), to control over language (each race has its own “mother tongue”). How does it relate to the movie? Well, because CRA makes it seem like Singaporeans don’t really mix or intermingle beyond hierarchical, practical purposes (like the Sikh guards, the Tamil usherer opening your door, or the Filipino maids hiding their Chinese boss’s Jimmy Choo shoes and fancy jewellery in drawers). Maybe crazy rich people mix less with others – some anthropologists might agree with that. But as a middle class Singaporean who has also mingled with wealthier locals, I would say that the mixity is a lot more prevalent and complicated than the segregation-like social landscape the movie portrays.
I grew up speaking standardized (British) English in school, with Malay as my second language, and I used Singlish amongst my friends and other locals, a way of speaking English interspersed with words in Malay, Tamil, Mandarin, Hokkien and Teochew. My friends were from various socio-economic, cultural and religious backgrounds: Say Chong was my friend in Primary 3; with him, I watched the latest kungfu movies from Hong Kong (myself, Say Chong and others used to pretend “fight” using the martial arts moves we learnt in movies). Timothy was one of my closest friends from primary 3 to 6; he introduced me to the wonders of climbing down monsoon drains and protected me from potential bullies. Others became like brothers and adopted sisters (we played football in the void decks, participated in plays and school debates and made music together). Together, we shared a tapestry of experiences: we lived in Singapore and were attracted to each through common interests, schools, neighbourhoods and the need to connect with a person or group outside our respective family unit. I never limited them to their “race”. We spoke a common language: the language of being from a place, in a place. As such, we shared the experiences and frustrations of its rites of passage, including the Primary School Leaving Examinations (through which you were placed into “Normal, “Express” or “Gifted” streams), ‘O’ levels, ‘A’ levels, and military service (for males only).
I experienced racism for the first time in the army. My platoon mates mainly spoke Hokkien and Mandarin to each other, and I did not speak enough. Some did not like me and only referred to me as “Keling Kia”, never by my name. The expression “Keling Kia” comes from the colonial era. Then, South Indian labourers of Tamil or Telugu decent were called “Keling” (in Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew) and “Kia” was often used in Teochew to refer to non-Chinese ethnic groups.
Indian coolies, Singapore, c.1900
The first Chinese girl I went out with was a friend of my cousin’s. My cousin was not pleased. To be fair, I never told her I was pursuing her friend romantically. But when the girl’s parents found out about us (they saw us at a bus stop, close to her HDB block, holding hands), they were incensed. She broke up with me immediately after that. I heard from a reliable source that her parents forbid her from seeing me, compared me to other Indians – cause we apparently all abuse alcohol and our wives – and told her that if she wanted to continue seeing me, she could “roll in the mud” (I assumed at the time that this was not a New Age cleansing ritual) and leave home. She made the right choice, went to a different university than me and her parents had her brother introduce her to his Chinese friends from NTU – one of whom she later married. I’m not bitter. I was hurt at the time but I had my friends and I had my music to channel my frustrations (one result was “She Don’t Care Anymore”, Big O Singles Club No. 5). University seemed not to place limits on me and I blossomed into a graduate.
The author (singing) with his fellow bandmates of The Trip in concert
Why, again, am I sharing this with you? How does it relate to CRA? Well, it is to counter-balance the movie’s picture of singularity (Singapore = rich and Chinese) and the absence of conviviality between the so-called different groups and to point to the many Singaporeans who live together and with each other, mainly in the HDB flats that the cinema screen scans over quickly (you see them in the background while the characters drive to their parties and exclusive destinations). It is to point to the prejudices that already exist politically and socially; prejudices that would not allow a non-Chinese become Prime Minister. As Singaporean historian Thum Ping-tjin put it:
[The] most competent and popular politician in Singapore is not allowed to be prime minister because he is the wrong race, he doesn’t meet the qualifications of an (mandarin) elite.
If I am sharing this with you, it is to alert you to the hidden secret that there is poverty in Singapore, even as its officials try to rationalize it, provide tips on how to better manage the rising cost of living and transfer the bulk of the responsibility to the economic choices people make (see Teo You Yenn 2018 and this).
Also, where are the Crazy Rich Singaporeans who are not Chinese? Are we all not “Asians”? Why could the movie director not have taken some creative and intellectual initiative, hired some Singaporean consultants who knew about the politics and the history of the place, put more Singaporeans into leading roles (we have great actors by the way, including Tan Kheng Hua, who I was thrilled to see play the female lead’s mother), and made some modifications to the script by making the main character’s best friend Indian, Malay or Peranakan (unless the idea was to only portray local characters who had gone to élite Chinese language schools; yes, that is a thing in Singapore)? And why was there a (most probably fake) quote from Napoléon Bonaparte at the beginning of the movie? Why had the director picked that Orientalist warning whereby China, the feminized “sleeping giant”, would one day awaken from its slumber as the movie’s epigram? Has “China” ever been sleeping? Is Singapore China? Are Singaporeans Chinese? Is Asia China?
To me, CRA came across as a movie about Chinese hegemony and neo-colonial domination more than about “Asians” anywhere. I found myself entertained by the movie but perplexed at the same time. It haunted me for a few days, and I ended up watching it a second time with my (Singaporean) niece. Why did Jon M. Chu’s team come to Singapore only to film clichés and Photoshop the country, relegating its true diversity into the far, very blurry background? I understand that this isn’t meant to be a movie about Singapore, but why try to break some stereotypes by perpetuating others? While Hollywood reproduces stereotypes all the time, and in this CRA is no different from other American Hollywood bluckbusters, the movie’s claim to be a “movement” (in the fashion of Black Panther – a comparative analysis of this requires another blog post) or a work that is about representing “diversity” and “Asians” is misleading. For the movie’s lack of attempt to provide a true diversity of representations as unproblematic is problematic to me.
In response to my frustrations with the lack of representation in the movie, a Chinese-American told me on Twitter: “I’m not sure why you as a Singaporean are inflating your sense of importance. It’s based in Singapore not a film about Singapore. This is a clear distinction.” He was quite right. This was not a film about Singapore, but a Hollywood-American movie based on a book whose author is, yes, a Singaporean, but one who left the country at age 11 and has since been living in the US. It is also a movie that, although set mostly in Singapore, includes a substantial amount of shots filmed in Malaysia and reworked through CGI (including the Young family house). CRA‘s Singapore, thus, is a highly Orientalized, imagined “Asian” fantasy. It is not my country.
Yet some of the film’s scenes do, paradoxically, tell you a lot about the country and its ties to diversity, colonialism and imperialism. While Nick Young’s best friend’s wedding takes place in CHIJMES, whose hall we see turned into a tropical forest, the after-wedding party is held in Singapore’s majestic “Gardens by the Bay”. In line with its fame as an international “Garden City” known for its beautiful Botanical Gardens and bountifully green public spaces, Singapore’s famous tourist attraction is also a symbol of the unseen labour that goes into maintaining racialized divisions and naturalizing the status quo. These divisions and hierarchies are, unsurprisingly, maintained in CRA. Designed by a British company, Gardens by the Bay consists of two climatic zones (Mediterranean and Tropical mountain range) that hold around a thousand species of plants, flanked by “Supertrees” (the purple tree-structures you see in the movie, about which someone watching the movie close to me exclaimed, “Just like the movie Avatar!”) and “themed gardens” that include four “Heritage Gardens” called “Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Colonial”. University of Saskatchewan scholar Joanne Leow has shown how these correspond to “racialized, codified spaces that classify the main ethnic groups and their related botany in Singapore as scholarly Chinese, artistic Indians, rural Malays, and enterprising colonials”. So just scratch a little below the surface and you will find a history of peoples, managed and organized through colonialism, simplified into types and re-created as living and breathing stereotypes.
Aerial view of the Gardens by the Bay
Singapore, thus, includes many peoples not seen or experienced in CRA. While I have problems with how Race (and Nature) is manufactured and imagined in the country, I have more problems with how Singapore’s neo-colonial complexity is purposefully left out of the movie. One might then respond that CRA is about Family, that it is a rom-com focusing on how love triumphs over traditions and class differences. But what of the intimacies between “Chinese Singaporeans” (a modern invention, by the way) and other racialized Singaporeans? In her book The Intimacies of Four Continents (2016:16) Lisa Lowe writes:
it is the pronounced asymmetry of the colonial divisions of humanity that… privileges particular subjects and societies as rational, civilized, and human, and treat others as laboring, replaceable, or disposable contexts that constitute that humanity.
I could also respond, where were brown and black bodies – are other Singaporean / Asian bodies replaceable, disposable or treated as less than Singaporean / Asian? By her use of the term “intimacies” Lowe (2016:18-20) is suggesting that we instead focus on the close connections and relations between colonized people; slaves, peoples of indigenous descent and colonized labourers (for example, slavery in the Caribbean and Chinese and Indian free-labour “coolie” systems). These alliances and social ties of affinity created between different colonized people are important to consider because they actually existed (even as they might have been resisted), but (as complicated as they are) were often eclipsed by the dominant Anglo-American narrative.
How to understand that we are all intimately connected, even if in a complicated way that is not always straightforward? A last story from my years in Singapore might help. I remember spending long nights in Cuff Road, just off Serangoon Road, Singapore’s Little India. I would sit in my adopted uncle’s office, a converted shop-house, one of many that lined the street he had grown up on and continued to call his home.
Shop houses, Little India, Singapore
My uncle (Māma, lit. “mother’s brother” in Tamil) was a well-known astrologer in Singapore and I got to know him soon after my father left my mother. He loved talking about politics and history. As I grew older, these conversations – involving groups of people, usually his close friends – went on late into the night and sometimes well into the morning. I would watch his paan-stained lips, red from the juice of the beetel leaf and areca nuts, articulate connections between India and Singapore and how their histories converged. Māma was talented at revealing the connections and convergences between the stars, the past, the present and the future, and what these alignments said about the present and what they signified personally and politically for everyone in the room. He was a gifted astrologer, but also an exceptional connector of worlds and people.
Rather than connecting us, CRA reinforces a narrative of division (“races”, classes, “civilizations”), while simultaneously erasing or occluding the other intimate connections and convergences that exist – and which I’ve experienced and tried to write about in this post. It reinforces an American identity-politics that bears the burdens of imperialisms (old and new). It may be a win for Asian-American “representation” – we need to acknowledge that many Asian-Americans of East Asian decent, and beyond, are rightfully-so, personally elevated and emotionally affected by this movie – but it is a loss for the larger battle of truly addressing (mis-) representation and considering the concerns of other minorities who are also part of the story. Until we recognize that and come together in new and unexpected ways, to expose the simple and simplistic mainstream narrative, we will only reproduce division, racial difference and exclusivity – something that I thought CRA was trying to challenge. I am secretly grateful for having watched CRA. Having spent half my life away, I thought that I had left Singapore behind me. But having watched the film, I realized that Singapore is very much still inside me. CRA doesn’t do justice to what life in Singapore is for most Singaporeans, me included.
Chua, Beng-Huat. 2002. Political Legitimacy and Housing: Singapore’s Stakeholder Society. Taylor and Francis.
Leow, Joanne. Unpublished. “New Asian Tropicalities: Reading Nature in the City in a Garden.”
Lowe, Lisa. 2016. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Duke University Press.
Teo, You Yenn. 2011. Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How Family Policies Make State and Society. Routledge.
Teo, You Yenn. 2018. This Is What Inequality Looks Like. Ethos Books.
Purushotam, Nirmala. 1998. Negotiating Language, Constructing Race: Disciplining Difference in Singapore. Mouton de Gruyter.