The Political Creative Legacy of Asian America (Or, Why “Crazy Rich Asians” Doesn’t Do It For Me)

"Asian American identity was not constructed out of a desire to create divisiveness, nor was it a frivolous endeavor. Asian America was created as a response to being treated differently by society and the state."

This piece was written by Miho Watabe, one of SPICY’s guest contributors. Miho is a public anthropology student living in Washington, D.C. She grew up in New Jersey and stays awake all night contemplating structural inequality.

My mother recently told me about a profound experience. During the April confirmation hearing of David Bernhardt to head the Department of the Interior, two Greenpeace activists positioned themselves behind the former oil lobbyist and silently donned “swamp creature” masks. CSPAN caught their green silicone faces lurking behind Bernhardt, who would soon be in charge of federal public land despite his Big Oil connections. Needless to say, the image went viral.

As my mom watched the news coverage of the action, she was surprised to see that one of the activists was an Asian woman. She later described the realization to me as an embodied sensation. She felt her chest swell, her limbs were energized, and pride washed over her. Further meditating on it, my mother connected these feelings to seeing a body like hers—”a younger version of myself,” as she put it—do something so political and so brazen. 

Hearing this fascinated me, mostly because I had been experiencing something similar. Last year, I began researching a series of anti-police brutality protests that took place during 1975 in New York City’s Chinatown. As I pored over images of Asian American protesters taking to the streets, I found these photos viscerally empowering. I became convinced that representation was crucial for fostering the dignity and political self-awareness of Asian Americans. And, very much my mother’s daughter, I felt proud when thinking about this political past. 

As personal as my reaction may sound, Asian Americans have sought representation that articulates their political agency and positionality since the inception of the Asian American movement. First arising in popularity in the late 1960s, the term “Asian American” was coined by civil rights activist Yuji Ichioka, who formed the Asian American Political Alliance at UC Berkeley in 1968. Ichioka and other Asian American activists such as Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama were deeply influenced by the Black liberation movement, which played a critical role in the development of Asian American activism. Similarly, the anti-war movement politicized many Asian Americans, aligning them with the Third World Liberation Front alongside Black, Latinx, and anti-war activists. 

The phrase “Asian American” allowed peoples of Asian descent to unionize around their collective, racialized experience as Asian folks in a white supremacist country that maintains its racial politics in black and white terms. Identity was not simply a check box for the census; it was political project to conceptualize what it meant to be Asian in the imperialist, capitalist nation of the United States. These activists used their identity to directly articulate how they were treated by the state, to explore how the immigrant experience intersected with Asian bodies, and to imagine mass liberation.

Asian American identity was also combative towards the “model minority” myth that simultaneously grew in prominence during the 60’s. The Asian American movement saw the model minority as a depoliticizing myth based in racist logics, arguing that it constructed a false dichotomy between “good” and “bad” minorities. At this time in history, to say you were Asian American was to take a political stance: one that was firmly leftist in nature.

In tandem with this movement came art, writing, and culture centered around Asian American expression and politics. Roots: An Asian American Reader is one such item. It’s filled with articles about different Asian enclaves across the country, poetry, and seminal essays including The Emergence of Yellow Power by Amy Uyematsu. Likewise, Gidra and Bridge magazines became important outlets for Asian voices, and art groups like the Basement Workshop were formed as havens for creatives.

This community-centered cultural transformation was critical to the Asian American movement’s success. Glenn Omatsu writes about cultural workers (which included poets, writers, artists, and creative activists) who “saw political consciousness as rising not from study groups, but from involving people in the process of social change—through their confronting institutions of power around them and creating new visions of community life based on these struggles.” The creativity from this time period sought to encompass the Asian American experience, along with the Asian American values of community and liberation. 

This brings me back to the present. The past few years have been especially important for Asian American representation. Crazy Rich Asians dominated the box office in 2018, Fresh Off the Boat is still afloat, Disney’s Mulan will hit theaters next year, and Ali Wong is receiving the praise she deserves for her comedy onscreen and onstage. After centuries of humiliating and dehumanizing representations of Asians, born from white imaginations into the overbearing dominance of white media, a film like Crazy Rich Asians that treats Asian bodies with dignity feels essential, especially when media representations affect the everyday safety and survival of Asian people in the U.S. 

These representations should be celebrated as the victories that they are, yet, there is also something troubling about them. Eddie Huang called out part of the problem in his interview with comedians Desus Nice and The Kid Mero. When asked about his relationship with Fresh Off the Boat, a show based off his autobiography of the same name, he explained how the TV sitcom disappeared the violence in his life—violence that shaped his personhood and his experience as an Asian American. “As hard as we work, as hard as we try, at the end of the day it is kind of the man picking which one of us gets ‘to do’ this,” Huang noted. Where our bodies were once rendered invisible, now our struggles are too. 

It’s not fair to burden a few films and TV shows with the entire complexity of Asian America, nor is it acceptable or sincere to demand Asian American trauma porn. But it is important to ask what is sacrificed when some of the best-known, contemporary Asian creators not only refuse to explore the nuanced elements of Asian American-ness, but are actively working to avoid it by “trying to not make it an issue.” Of all the films that were released in 2018, the Asian American character I most identified with was troublemaker and labor activist Squeeze from Sorry to Bother You—a character written by Boots Riley who purposefully casted the role to Steven Yeun. Perhaps my soft spot for Squeeze speaks to the intersectional strength of the film, or maybe it reflects my own politics. You’re far more likely to come across Asian labor organizers and telemarketers in the United States than crazy rich Asians, and Squeeze actually reflects a long legacy of Asian American labor activists on the West Coast. 

I can understand how thrilling these representations are to Asian American audiences. Apolitical Asian excellence is an enticing fantasy that Crazy Rich Asians offers to Asians who live a different social history than the gated communities of Singapore that are featured in the film. But these productions also signal to a commodification of Asian identity, and it’s arguable that they dangerously echo a similar function as the model minority myth. Mark Tseng-Putterman wrote a compelling piece about how white expectations haunt Crazy Rich Asians, noting that avoiding race “runs the risk of expanding whiteness as default by expecting Asian Americans and other people of color to abide by its cultural norms.” If Asian creators work hard to specifically depict the Asian American experience as a post-race cakewalk with boba references, it validates our current society without recognizing the impact of structural inequality on Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian communities. 

Asian Americans occupy a strange social limbo. While our bodies are not always yellow (Black and Brown Asian Americans are consistently overlooked in an already overlooked demographic), our bodies are always alien when they’re not invisible. Asian Americans have the widest intraracial wealth gap among all racial groups, we are the fastest-growing immigrant demographic in the U.S., mental health is devastatingly overlooked in the community, and anti-Asian violence is on the rise. These experiences are deserving of attention, if only to ultimately liberate us from them. After all, Asian American identity was not constructed out of a desire to create divisiveness, nor was it a frivolous endeavor. Asian America was created as a response to being treated differently by society and the state. Collectivizing around racial identity has been one tactic for survival in this capitalist-propelled structure of racism. 

One of the trickier aspects about media representation is getting across the idea that representation is not simply about seeing yourself, but also about seeing possibilities. What radical creatives in the 1960s and 70s understood about representation was it is was just as much about interpreting the present reality as it was about painting a visual path towards liberatory solidarities, and thus, towards liberatory politics. Crazy Rich Asians presents a fever dream of Asian opulence and superiority. The capitalist structures of power and inequality remain the same, except Asians are at the top of the economic food chain. This role-reversal feels even more salient in the context of whitewashing in films in the last century. But in the context of responsibility to community, family, and equality—Asian American values that I hold dear—Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t fully represent what I want for Asian America. 

Whether Asian Americans like it or not, our bodies are political. The question is now that Asian Americans are gaining the social power to take control of our representation in popular media outlets, what will we do? I, for one, think Asian American creators should give it all that they have and revisit our radical past. The goal of Asian American representation should not be about making dim sum acceptable to white people. Historically, Asian American artistic expression has been about demanding respect and humanity for Asian and other nonwhite peoples, exploring that nonwhite experience and its relationship to the state, and imagining paths to a better future. The Asian Americans who have come before us worked toward this. If anything, it’s tradition for us to keep fighting forward.