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The debate about representation

by Constance Singam

I saw Crazy Rich Asians yesterday and was thoroughly entertained. I wanted to see the jewels, the fashion, the glamour and beautiful people. I was a voyeur!

In defense of my view on representation and the lack of interest in it with regard to this movie is that for me it was just a Hollywood movie, set in Singapore with Chinese characters, of whom some were Singaporean actors. I recognized them and was glad to see them on a wide screen. They did us proud.

The Singapore in which the movie was set was the fake, man-made Singapore created out of the sea by the men in white, a part of Singapore I seldom, if at all, visit and with which I absolutely have no relationship. It still was fun to see some familiar sights, phony though it was, of my Singapore.

So really I had no expectation at all of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ being representative of us, Singaporeans and Singapore. The culture that was celebrated was American, the people who filled the screen and the entertainment was mostly Chinese American; the wedding celebration was American Chinese (or it could well have been an American-Chinese version of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, at least in inspiration).

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The cultural context could be that of the crazy rich Singaporeans with some references to Chinese values and traditions to suggest a degree of authenticity. The missing father is one such reference to a lot of missing fathers whose businesses of making money and other distractions, such as mistresses, keep them away from home and family celebrations.

This silence or denial of a male father figure gives the appearance of the powerful women that is often offered as an example of female agency among defenders of patriarchy. It is this notion of female power, as the keeper of traditional attitudes and practices and family values and unity that is played out in this movie.

The emasculating power and control of the mother and the grandmother over the happiness of their male children is a powerful theme here. But the modern Americanised woman, and her single mother execute a coup with aplomb and she wins her man. To be fair to her future other-in-law, Mrs. Young, who eventually did recognise the intelligence and strength in the character of Rachael Chu the woman her son loves.

The female characters were all strong but I can’t say the same of the male characters in the movie. The lead actor, Henry Golding as Nick Young, didn’t have to act very much. He was no doubt picked for his Eurasian good looks and hairless body. Like Henry Golding, some of the cast was not even Chinese.

Now that is my analysis if I want to be analytical about ‘Crazy Rich Asians’.

But the importance to recognise the urgent need in our society for a discussion of the issue of representation cannot be denied. This has to be done by examining the images of denial of the multicultural, multiethnic society that we are and this discussion should be done about images inflicted on us daily in our own backyard.

Just before the actual movie we had to suffer through a local advertisement which confused me and made me cringe. Confused because I had no clue as to where the narrative was leading me and cringe for having to watch a very badly made, both culturally and artistically, advertisement about Income Insurance, our very own NTUC Income. Who approves these ads and who pays for these appalling ads? I have to say that those decision-makers lack sensitivity and good taste.

That is what my rant is mainly about. The advertisement shows a Chinese wedding celebration filled with Chinese guests and only with Chinese guests. So in an ad about NTUC Income Insurance shouldn’t the ad feature the diversity, of whom many are Malays and Indians, who buy their insurance. Shouldn’t that ad be more representative?

Hollywood is about box office successes and nothing more.

Local representations or lack thereof in our publications exert more power, than Hollywood movies, in influencing our attitudes and values. And we should demand better, representation and more intelligent images from national institutions such as the NTUC. It is our right.

So can we then start a conversation about representation in images that appear in advertisement, newspapers and magazines with a similar energy that we have exerted over this Hollywood creation?

This was first published at Constance Singam's blog and reproduced with permission.