Crazy Rich Asians opens with a powerful first scene that a lot of ethnic minorities can relate to.
Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor Sung-Young arrives at an expensive London hotel, with her two children and nanny, only to be told by white staff members that they should find some other place to stay, despite having reservations.
This experience isn’t limited to East Asians; many people of colour have also felt the cold shoulder of discrimination in predominantly white countries. However, the cast of the new movie opened up to Yahoo Movies UK about some of their own memories of racism and othering that they have dealt with.
“I was in Nantucket recently which is like an island very close to New York, a predominantly New England country,” Henry Golding, who plays Nick Young, recalls. “Me and my wife were the only sort of Asians at that point and you definitely kind of get that sense of like, oh they’re very curt with certain people. Was it racism? I don’t know but sometimes…”
“It can sometimes just be really subtle things,” Gemma Chan, who plays Astrid Young, interjects. “Just little things like, ‘oh you speak really good English,’ which is a loaded question.”
“Where you from?” Henry adds.
“No, where you really from?” Gemma continues. “We’ve all been asked those questions so I hope from this film, for me, the reason why representation and diversity, we talk about that: why is it important?
“Whether or not a group, whether it’s a particular race or not, or another group, is represented or not on screen in mainstream popular culture has a direct impact on whether that group is normalised or othered in everyday life.
“For me, it has a direct impact on how kids are treated at school, it purveys all society,” the actress says. “I hope it just means that kids won’t be asked those kinds of questions or have those ignorant reactions.”
Awkwafina doubles down on this point about discrimination starting at a very young age.
“There was an Asian-American writer and he once said that Asian-Americans the one thing they all had in common was discrimination growing up in an America,” the rapper-turned-actress says. “Being teased on the playground at a young age, you’re made to feel different and it kind of informs this thread growing up that you always feel othered in a certain way and not really knowing where you belong.
“That’s why I really connect with Rachel’s existence because she exists in America goes to Asia and there she’s made to feel a certain way. Just because she’s Asian it doesn’t mean that fluidly translates to any Asian country she goes through.
“That’s why that opening scene is very powerful you feel like all the times that has happened to you in your life,” Awkwafina adds. “Eleanor won for us and that’s why you know people clap and gasp while doing it.”
Michelle Yeoh, who is from Malaysia, went to school in London but says her experience was more reminiscent to that of Constance Wu’s character Rachel who is looked down on in the movie by her boyfriend’s mother.
“It’s very interesting because when I first went to England, to London as a student, we would go to Chinatown to get our comfort food but because I come from Malaysia and we do not speak perfect Cantonese,” Yeoh remembers.
She and her friends would not understand the menu or know how to use chopsticks either so when they asked for forks the Chinese owners would get angry.
“We had the Chinese look at us in disgust,” the actress says. “[The owner] was like ‘what are you?’ he called us “gweilo, gweilo” which means foreign devil.
“We were like ‘did you just say that to us?’ so they are very specific. The Chinese are very proud of their race and you know, ‘how dare you as the Chinese not even know your own language,’ so we were told off when we were kids.”
Michelle has had an illustrious career appearing in hits Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tomorrow Never Dies, Star Trek Discovery and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and is happy that now there are Asian characters that Asian people can see themselves in
“Only very recently in the last few years have you seen any inclusivity of the different backgrounds but I do find it offensive when it’s just a token,” Yeoh says, “oh let’s just put a Chinese face in because guess what, the Chinese market is the biggest in the world right now but to do it that way is completely wrong.
“The Chinese audiences are also smart, they’re not just going to think because there is a Chinese face that means you’re talking the same dialogue that we are. It’s not. We need to see that the characters have backgrounds, they have flesh, they have stories that need to be told.”
Crazy Rich Asians is out now