Growing up as a Chinese-American, finding role models who looked like me on the big screen was always difficult. I saw many movies with all-Asian casts, but they were all Asian, not Asian American. There were movies with Asian leads like “The Replacement Killers” with Chow Yun-fat and “Romeo Must Die” with Jet Li, but aside from “The Joy Luck Club,” I can’t remember another mainstream movie that really spoke to my experience as an Asian American.
At one point, I just internalized a belief that society just favored White faces more. I accepted this as the way things were in mainstream Hollywood, and didn’t think things would ever change.
Then comes Jon M. Chu and Kevin Kwan, who’ve turned my world upside down and have made me believe again.
The much anticipated film “Crazy Rich Asians” finally debuts on August 15. It’s the first film backed by a major studio with an all-Westernized Asian cast and creator since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993. Kevin Kwan, the author of the book “Crazy Rich Asians,” admits to turning down a major payday from Netflix just to make sure the movie would stay in theaters for everyone to see.
Although the film is mostly set in Asia, the Asian American community is particularly anxious. Could this be the film that will open more doors for Asians in Hollywood? Or give them more ammunition not to back projects like these in the future? A lot is at stake, and everyone knows it.
It’s February 2018 and I’m waiting inside a room at the London West Hotel in Los Angeles. Director Jon. M. Chu, Constance Wu, Henry Golding, author Kevin Kwan, Awkwafina, and Michelle Yeoh walk in. They are catching up amongst each other — I quickly learn that it’s been a while since they’ve seen together.
“When’s the last time you guys saw each other?” I asked as they sat down.
“Asia! Almost a year now,” said Awkwafina as she sipped on a glass of Perrier.
“But we all keep together on WhatsApp,” Chu said.
“Yeah we have a group chat,” Yeoh chimed in.
“Yes, way too many,” Chu said. “We try to do separate group chats when people are in town.”
“So we can ostracised people!” Awkwafina jokes.
Before getting into how this film came into fruition, we must first explore director Jon M. Chu’s upbringing.
Chu grew up in the Bay Area as the youngest of five children. His father, Lawrence Chu, is a successful chef in Silicon Valley at his restaurant Chef Chu’s where diners have included the late Steve Jobs, Justin Bieber, Serena Williams, and Mark Zuckerberg.
“My parents have always taught me to keep my head down and focus on the work,” Chu told NextShark in a 2016 interview. “Do things so well that they have to want to hire you — that’s always been our philosophy.”
Chu spent most of his life focusing on his passion for filmmaking, but it wasn’t until he went to USC for film school when he started thinking about his identity.
“That was the first time I noticed people saw me differently,” Chu said. “There were jokes here and there that would ring in my head — like when you’re in a meeting and they make some sort of a racial joke to rib you.”
“You don’t think of anything in the moment until later, but it also indicates that they see you differently,” he added.
In 2016, Chu had just finished filming “Now You See Me 2” in Macau when he started looking for more Asian-centric projects.
“In that time I was sort of meditative about, ‘What is my next step? How do I use my unique upbringing and sense of being all-American, but having this history of being in a Chinese family?’”
Chu went to Beijing a few times and filmed in Macau. During that time, he struggled looking for the right material, until one day, he got an email from his sister.
“I just read this book called ‘Crazy Rich Asians!’” the email said. “You’ve got to check out!”
Chu read the book and loved it, but didn’t pay too much attention at the time because he was filming. Two months later, his sister reminded him again about it. From there, he called his agent on a Sunday to inquire about the movie adaption.
Unbeknownst to him, Chu was actually already in the running to direct the film. His agent already had the script ready when he called him and Chu read the script that night and loved it.
On Monday morning, Chu called his agent again asking how he knew he was interested in the movie. His agent was equally confused and thought producer Nina Jacobson had already called him about it.
“No, my sister called me about doing it!” Chu told his agent.
“It’s all really weird. I didn’t know there was a script,” Chu said, “I thought it was still in development somewhere. When things like that happen, I knew this was what I am supposed to do. All that searching, I’m meant to do this.”
Less than a year later, Chu and Kwan sought out to put together the dream team. Kwan himself had a dream list, which Chu noted was actually pretty consistent with what many outlets speculated online.
“We knew that casting this movie was key,” Chu said. “When we got set up at Warner Brothers, we said, ‘You’re going to have to spend three times as much money and spend four times as much time to find the right cast.’”
Constance Wu, who’s made a mark on her career for her performance as Jessica Huang in ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” was on that dream list.
“We were chasing Constance from the beginning,” Chu said. “Actually, at first, our timing was off because she was shooting.”
“Yeah, because I knew you were going on the fall, and I’m unavailable for nine months out of the year, but I was really passionate about this one,” Wu responded.
“I told all the producers ‘We have to wait,’” Chu said. “There is no choice. Some things just happen because they happen and other things happen because they have to happen.”
“We had to have Constance. She represented everything that I wanted to say in the story. She inspired me from the things that she had been writing already,” he added.
Perhaps the most seasoned main cast member of the bunch is arguably Michelle Yeoh who, of course, needs no introduction.
“I remember being in the theater in Palo Alto,” Chu said. “This little theater, when ‘Crouching Tiger’ came out, was packed to the brim.”
“All ethnicities, all ages, and they are cheering. Literally standing up in their seats. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “So, the honor of being able to work with someone like Michelle, of course, was always in the top of our list.”
“Yeah, I grew up watching many of her films,” I said.
“She was tough on us,” Chu said. “She said the script has got to be right — and she beat us up to make sure her role wasn’t just some villain and that she was representing all these other people in our culture and specific dimensions of this character.”
Awkwafina, who made her mark as a rapper with “My Vag” which went viral on YouTube in 2012, was recommended by several people to Chu and his team.
“She has a lot of fans out there,” Chu said.
“Oh, thank you. Yeah, I do!” Awakfina said with a laugh.
However, the main character of Nick Young, who plays the boyfriend of Rachel Chu, Constance Wu’s character, was the most difficult to cast, according to Chu.
“We were searching all around the world, literally, and had guys lined up,” Chu said. “Great people. Great actors. But, there is something Nick is a very unique character. Kevin wrote a very difficult character to cast. The charm; his sort of old Hollywood charm, and the accent. The presence.”
A worker at their Malaysia office recommended Henry Golding, who funny enough was not on that dream list at all because Chu admittingly had “no idea who he was.”
“We looked him up on Instagram and was checking all his stuff and I was like, ‘Oh he’s never acted, there’s no way he could actually do lines,’” Chu said as the room burst out laughing.
“How is hearing all this making you feel right now?” I asked chuckling.
“100% true!” Golding said.
“No, he actually auditioned and he earned the part! It was great!” Wu interjected.
“He totally did!” Chu said. “We threw them together in a room, sparks flew, and that’s history.”
From there, the cast added a few more heavy hitters including Ken Jeong, Gemma Chan, Nico Santos, Jimmy O. Yang, and Harry Shum Jr.
Filming the movie took about three months, according to Chu. In that time, the cast formed a deep bond with each other filled with funny moments on and off set.
“I remember a lot of sweat because it was very hot,” Wu said.
“Well it is Malaysia!” Yeoh chimed in.
“Our air conditioners were fans with ice,” Chu said.
“But, minus the ice!” Golding said as the room laughed.
“I ordered KFC every night, and one time I sent the man to another hotel by accident, and so it was kind of like this ‘Benny Hill where are you?’ He was like, ‘I’m here,’ and I was like, ‘I’m here too,’” Awkwafina said.
Awkwafina, who plays Goh Peik Lin, the best friend of Rachel Chu in the film, is a Singaporean new-money character who rocks short blond hair and drives an Audi R8. Her character was one the cast believed fit perfectly with the actress.
“I feel like it was like watching Johnny Depp do ‘Pirates,’” Chu said. “I wasn’t sure if it was intended to be like so crazy it would never work or so crazy it does work. So, like, thank God it worked.”
“Goh Peik Lin was a crazy character, you know,” Awkwafina said.
“I think there was no distinguishing Awkwafina from Peik Lin,” Golding said. “They were the same character.”
“I don’t know if I ever told you this. You are very much like the real Peik Lin, except that you are not as loud as she is,” Kwan interjected.
“The real one?” Wu asked.
“Really? I’m not as loud?” Awakfina added.
“No, you’re not as loud, believe it or not,” Kwan replied to a stunned Awkwafina.
“I will say that I’m definitely not rich,” Awkwafina said. “I’m definitely not Peik Lin, but I think Peik Lin is one of the most real characters I’ve ever played. I don’t think it’s because she’s Asian. It’s a certain feeling. I’ve been in some incredible movies, but this is probably one of the most important moments of my life.”
“Living in Asia as an Asian-American was also something that was existentially really important. It allowed me to see how small America is when you leave the country and how big this movie can be. Because, it involves so many different places and people, it was a really powerful experience for me,” Awkwafina added.
The cast spent time studying their respective characters, but agreed that having Kwan himself on set really helped bring their characters to life. In a hilarious twist, Chu had forgotten to introduce Kwan and Yeoh to each other in the beginning, which prompted this awkward exchange:
“I just remembered this guy standing at the door,” Yeoh recalled. “We had this scene talking [with Henry] in the bedroom. Then I go, ‘There’s this creepy guy standing at the doorway,’ and I’m going, ‘Do I know him? He’s smiling like he knows me really well, and I feel really bad.’”
“That was me to you on my first day!” Awkwafina said.
“That’s my bad. I probably should’ve introduced you guys. Sorry!” Chu admitted.
“Security! Get this stalker off the set,” Kwan joked.
While one might assume that Asians were the first to embrace Kwan’s book when it was released in 2013, it was actually Caucasians that first took notice. In fact, during one of his early book tours in Texas, when he told a mostly White audience of a Hollywood producer wanting to whitewash a pivotal character, they screamed in disgust.
“I get that reaction all across the world, not just in the U.S., but in Europe, Australia, and Asia, of course,” Kwan said. “People want to see stories with original, fun characters that transcend their race, and that’s what we hope we can do with this movie.”
“People will come and see this and see it for a great movie and forget that it’s an Asian movie or the Asian movie,” he added.
“It’s not just a good Asian story. It’s a great story which just so happens to be Asian,” I said.
“But at the same time, I don’t think success is ‘Oh they just happen to be Asian,’” Wu interjected. “Because we don’t ‘just happen to be Asian.’ This is part of our history, it’s something we’re very proud of.”
“I don’t think race should ever be incidental to a part. I think that we only think that because the roles we’ve previously been relegated to haven’t been given a complete arc,” she added.
“I think that the solution isn’t ‘no more stereotypes’ because, you know what? An Asian nerd deserves to have his own story too. A tiger mother deserves to have her own fully realized story. We need narrative plenitude, not narrative scarcity, so that one story doesn’t have to represent the whole. So hopefully we will make some money so people will make narrative plenitude,” Wu said as the room laughed.
While the film garnered great interest, initial feedback, and support from the community, it hasn’t been without some controversies along the way. One major point was Golding’s casting as Nick Young because the actor is of Eurasian descent in real life.
“I never categorize myself as half British or half Asian,” Golding said. “I was always just the person that I was meant to be, which was–”
“You are you,” I said.
“I’m me! I represent with my Asian side so much more, it felt so weird defending that, because it was so unnatural,” he said.
“You lived in Asia, though,” Wu noted
“Yeah. I lived there, I was born in Asia,” Golding said. “When you talk about your grandparents growing bamboo and stuff, that’s exactly my half of my family in Sarawak, so it was a very strange position to be defending my Asian-ness. It was baffling to me.”
However, Golding also stressed that he doesn’t disagree with people voicing their concerns.
“I think from the outside, someone does see names and categories and go ‘Oh, he’s half-White. He can’t be full Asian! He doesn’t know the struggle,’ which is odd for me,” he said.
“We had a few people bring that up on the web — and they are right to, because, for a lot of people, this film is shining a light on people who deserve to tell their stories,” he added.
Despite what people may think, he says he felt a personal connection with the character after reading the book.
“I totally was so in sync with the character,” he said. “It was strange when I was reading the book, when Jon finally got in contact.”
“I was like, ‘This is so weird. This [character] grew up in the U.K., he’s struggling with his old Asian values, the filial kind of culture.’ So for me it was just an amazing experience,” he added.
At this moment, I was told to wrap things up since they had to get ready for their next interview. I turned to Michelle Yeoh and asked, “What is it like being a part of this film? You are a legend. You’ve been in so many–”
“Oh stop! Now I really do feel old!” she said with a laugh.
“No! You’re a legend that never ages,” I yelled out as the room laughed.
“You know what, the most exciting thing for me was to watch the young crowd,” Yeoh said. “They are our future.”
“I am very happy when I watched the way they interact with each other, what passions they have, how outspoken and how brave and strong they are. They are a good future,” she added.
She then turned to her co-stars and said, “So thank you. I really enjoyed working with all of you.”
“We love each other so much. We became a family; we’re a family,” Awakfina said.
“There was something in the air. It was like we felt how large this was. It was bigger than us,” Golding said as the cast nodded in agreement.
Chu wrapped up our interview with the following anecdote of Kwan walking up to him during the first day of shooting:
“[Kevin] told me when he started writing the book that he was in sort of this down place. He never jumped into the story before and on a post-it note he wrote ‘Joy’ and put it on his iMac.
“Every time he wrote a page he looked at this word, joy, because that’s what he wanted to bring, not only to his life but to other people he could share this with.
“He told me, ‘If there’s one thing you do with this whole movie, bring joy. That’s what movies do. That’s what these characters do. That’s what they brought me and changed my life.’
“That was something we carried forward everyday and I hope we bring that to the audience.”
Photography by Melly Lee