Even an honest and upright official will have difficulty resolving a family dispute. (Chinese proverb)
Romantic comedies are not my usual cup of tea; they tend to be too soppy and saccharine for my taste. I was also apprehensive about the portrayal of Singapore by an author who left the country when he was 11 and can never return because he did not complete his national service obligations.
Indeed, there is much in the film which perpetuates American stereotypes about Asians, specifically Chinese, as the “model minority”. Petite Rachel Chu (played by American Constance Wu) is a brilliant economics professor well-versed in game theory. She was raised by a single mum (Kerry Chu, played by Singaporean Tan Kheng Hua) who emigrated from China practically penniless, and worked hard to give her daughter a good education.
She is dating the dashing Singaporean Nick Young (Malaysian-English actor Henry Golding), who hasn't let on that he is heir to a vast family fortune and a hotel empire. Nick is used to being coveted for his money, not loved for himself, and he has been treasuring his time with Rachel uncomplicated by knowledge of his incredible wealth. Upon arrival in Singapore for Nick's best friend's wedding, Rachel has to contend with jealous socialites, gossiping relatives and formidable opposition from Nick's disapproving mother, Eleanor Young (Malaysian Michelle Yeoh).
As a Singaporean expatriate, I must admit my eyes misted over at seeing the familiar trees, buildings and cuisine of my homeland. It was amazing seeing my mother's old convent school chapel featured on the big screen. I also appreciated how the director took pains to get local slang and customs accurate, despite some dissonance with the Youngs speaking anything but Singlish (Rachel's friend Peik Lin's mother was the only character who managed a real Singaporean accent).
But most of all, I appreciated how the story, though decked out with bombastic splashes of wealth which I for one have never witnessed in real life (though such affluence does exist), followed the twists and turns of family drama which can resonate with anyone from any culture, most especially with those who have to navigate multiple cultures and family expectations.
Rachel innocently committed all the expected faux pas, eliciting a pained “NOO!” from me when she collared Mrs Young in an exuberant embrace. Growing up in a rather Westernised family myself, I sympathised with her blunders and the accusations of her being a “banana” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Amongst the inundation of gossipy texts bandied about Rachel was the word “Kantang”, short for “jiak kantang”, a Hokkien-Malay phrase referring to Westernised people who “eat potatoes” instead of being Asian and eating rice. Yes, our identities revolve around food. I was taught to greet my grandmother not by saying “Hello” or “How are you?” but “Have you eaten your fill?” Like most of China in the “good old days”, my grandmother grew up in a peasant family where food was scarce. Food is intrinsic to family bonding time in communal cultures, a time when everyone takes a break from work or study and relaxes together, exchanging news and advice.
A central scene involved Rachel learning how to make dumplings with Nick's extended family. She admires Mrs Young's engagement ring, and is duly rewarded with frosty jibes. Later, Mrs Young reveals that she too was deemed unworthy by her own mother-in-law, but remains unrelenting toward Rachel. Mrs Young sacrificed her law degree to help her husband with the family business, and she believes that Rachel, being an American taught to “follow her passion”, will not sacrifice her economics professorship for Nick. Indeed, in pragmatic Asia, people often sacrifice their own dreams in order to fulfil familial expectations. But is that ultimately fulfilling, and will it always result in harmony? Rachel points out that Nick may resent his mother for the rest of his life.
Another observation sticks out from the dumpling scene – Rachel compares Nick's large and boisterous family, full of colourful characters, with her own experience growing up with just her mother for company. In Asia and in Asian immigrant communities, the extended family traditionally lives together, providing a lot of annoying interference from the older generations but also a strong base of support, helping the entire family flourish together, emotionally and materially. Cohabitation before marriage continues to be frowned upon, and marriages are all the stronger for the social taboos keeping them sacrosanct. I just wondered why Nick's father never made an appearance. His mother complained that his father was overworked, which is rather common among Asians too, particularly with those who remember what it was like to be poor.
— W Bradford Wilcox (@WilcoxNMP) September 1, 2018
The saving gift of friendship is also showcased in this movie. Nick's friend Colin is able to analyse the sticky family situation and offer some hard truths; Rachel's old friend Peik Lin is there as sounding board, chauffeur, fashion adviser and most importantly, someone safe to run to away from all the drama. That is real friendship.
For Chinese Americans, this movie is a real breakthrough in media representation, just as Black Panther was for African Americans. At the same time, the Singapore portrayed in the movie is as elusive to regular Asians as Wakanda is to anyone else. It's a Cinderella story celebrating marriage, family and friendship while examining the intricacies of traditional Chinese versus Westernised Chinese identities and the fraught dynamics in a community burdened with expectations and envy. It's just a really good story with the right dashes of romance, comedy and tension, and a fabulous ending that prompted an enthusiastic round of applause. (No, Mr Smith, I do not think the applause was for the ring itself, but the precious reconciliation it represents.)
The lovers are finally married, all shall be well. (Chinese saying)
Warning: a couple of rather lewd scenes involving a Hong Kong porn actress (no nudity, but close enough).
Jean Seah is a social media manager and freelance writer based in Queensland, Australia. She is also chief editor of the American site Ignitum Today.