Stepping into the overly air-conditioned cinema, I was giddy with excitement. I had fallen, along with the rest of the world, in love with “Crazy Rich Asians,” the film I was about to see.
It wasn’t so much an enthusiasm about seeing an all-Asian cast on the “big screen” for the first time for I had grown up watching Chinese films in similarly too-cold cinemas back home. Rather, my giddiness stemmed from something recognizable to most — an earth-shattering homesickness. I needed two hours to forget that I wasn’t back in the Asian tropics, to be awash in scenes from a city so similar to my own, to hear the languages and accents that had brought me up.
The film is branded as a romantic comedy — your typical girlfriend versus the “monster-in-law” trope that somehow never tires. Yet, as I watched scenes of Singapore dance before my eyes, it wasn’t so much the star-crossed love story of Nicholas Young and Rachel Chu that caught my attention, but the intergenerational relationship between multiple Chinese mothers and their children.
Perhaps it’s because my own Chinese mother embodies so many of the same traits, but the most comforting, most “homey” elements of the film weren’t the hawker markets, or the banyan trees, or even the Cantonese spoken by so many of the characters. Instead, it was, overwhelmingly, the looming presence of the Asian matriarch and the world that unfolded and swirled around her.
From the gossip sessions of the “crazy rich” Singaporean mums, to scenes of family dumpling wrapping, to the quiet respect each of the children had for their mothers, every snapshot reminded me of the women who had raised me.
Eleanor, the meddling matriarch of the notorious Young family, is my mother. She speaks her mind, coming off as borderline rude with her brutal honesty. She’s judgmental, quick with her criticisms and commands respect from those around her. She expects certain ways of behavior and treatment of elders, and absolutely does not know how to process the jokes and quips I throw her way. Yet, I know without an inkling of doubt that she loves me more than anything, that in her eyes I stand in the highest esteem. I know that all the sacrifices she makes — many of which happen without my knowledge — are intentional. She takes the second seat so I can shine under the spotlight.
Kerry, the silently doting and utterly selfless mom of Rachel, is also my mother. All that she has done is for her daughter — to protect her, to raise her in a world free of harm and prejudice, and to remind her that with passion, there are no limits. Kerry, who fled to America to protect her unborn daughter from an abusive father, who flew from New York to Singapore upon hearing her daughters fight with a classist Chinese family, embodies the unconditional love a mother has for her children.
In this way, the film illustrates what lies behind the Western stereotypes about Chinese mothers, capturing the intensely nuanced emotional spectrum of the Chinese experience, and turning cliches about Chinese “tiger moms” and “dragon ladies” upside down. “Crazy Rich Asians” shows the human side of a culture deeply embedded in a tradition of filial piety, a culture that values stoicism and respect and softness of energy. Emotions are seen through actions — the offering of food, the silent sacrifices, the continuation of family traditions. To conform to expectations is to show your love for family, to carry yourself a certain way to show your reverence of tradition.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is, in my opinion, a dedication to Chinese mothers, a love letter to everything they do behind the scenes. To watch it while dreaming of Asia is to return home, to be thrown into the swaths of familiarity and the undying vigilance of the women who raised me. Watching my own Chinese mother cry and laugh next to me in that too-cold cinema, the film made my imminent departure to school even more heartbreaking.
“I better properly learn now to play mahjong,” my mum said to me in Cantonese as we walked back to our car. “Otherwise, how can I call myself a proper Chinese mummy?”
I turned to her and smiled.
“Nah, I think you’re doing just fine.”
Hana Davis | firstname.lastname@example.org