Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

August 22, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians is not social work

Filed under: Crazy Rich Asians — Razib Khan @ 12:55 am


I have not watched Crazy Rich Asians. Perhaps I will for my cultural edification. Unlike some people, I don’t care too much about “representation.” This isn’t for ideological reasons…I just have weak group identity/identification, and on an implicit level, I probably think I’m a unique enough person that no other is going to “represent” me in the media, ever. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

But the reality is that the Western Asian cohort in the cultural space is dominated by the aggrieved chattering class. So there is this piece in The Guardian, Where are the brown people? Crazy Rich Asians draws tepid response in Singapore. It references another piece, ‘CRAZY RICH ASIANS’ IS NOT A RADICAL WIN FOR REPRESENTATION.

About the author of the second piece:

Sangeetha Thanapal is an artist and writer working on the intersections of race, gender and body in Asia and Australia. She is the originator of the term ‘Chinese Privilege,’ which situates institutionalized racism within Singapore. Her fantasy fiction and political writing have been published by Djed Press, Brown Girl Mag and many more.

First, about “representation.” I put it in quotes because in a social justice context the word means something particular. For example, “representation” of South Koreans means Sarah bane-of-goblin-kind Jeong. Not, an evangelical Korean missionary in the Middle East. In the academy, “representation” means a good regional, racial, and gender proportionality. Not, reflecting the political and religious variation in the population.

Crazy Rich Asians are Asian, but not the representational kind of Asian. Sangeetha Thanapal though is a representational Asian: she’s cosmopolitan, educated, and woke. Ironically, her South Asianness is almost incidental. Kind of a wrapping around the real substance of her ideological affinity to a certain tendency which spans all shades.

The second issue are the specific particulars to Singapore and the relationship between East Asians and South Asians, or more generally, “Chinese” and “Indians.” It is a simple fact that Chinese people are racist against Indians for being dark, for India being a poor an underdeveloped nation, as well as differences in comportment and social mores. It is also a simple fact that Indians are racist against Chinese people, who are perceived to be strange-looking dog-eaters who lack deeper values than the acquisition of money and power.

If you want to represent the true dynamics of the Chinese and Indian relationship in Singapore, then you need to represent the racism and segregation which is mutual. Of course, there are other dimensions as well, such as the growing number of mixed-race Chindians. Unless that is, you want to “represent” your nonexistent utopian vision?

Which brings me to the big issue about objections to Crazy Rich Asians: the critiques are reductive and simplistic, even if they utilize layered and verbose textures. Singapore is dominated by a Chinese ruling class, and there is racism against minorities. But a massive influx of highly educated professional Indian immigrants in the past few decades into Singapore is why Indians now earn a bit more on average than Chinese in Singapore. But this summary is misleading too, and masks the diversity of the South Asian population, from well-off Indian immigrants to manual laborers from Bangladesh, as well as the long-established Tamil community which is itself socioeconomically diverse.

Finally, there are some things that Thanapal and others bring up as “Chinese privilege” which I don’t see as a privilege. Singapore is a mostly Chinese city, in a region where Chinese economic power is ascendant. It is entirely reasonable that the city-state should be given preference to English and Mandarin Chinese as the dual languages. Thanapal’s Tamil language is not hard-wired into her being like her dark skin and curly hair. Tamil can continue to be maintained in the traditional Tamil community, but in Chinese dominated city-state it seems reasonable that Tamils should learn the lingua franca of the majority and adopt it as their own. Mandarin can be a fine first language even if your hair is blonde or your skin is black.

Chinese Indians speak Indian languages, and when they speak English they naturally have an Indian accent.

I’m not saying my viewpoints are the “right” ones. But, for various reasons my viewpoints are not not “represented” in the mainstream international media. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. So there, I said it.

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