Crazy Rich Asians explained by Singaporeans
So, you’ve watched Crazy Rich Asians. Perhaps you’ve dismissed it as a fluffy Hollywood rom-com, cheered it on as a major win for Asian representation, or cast doubt upon the reality of it - is that what rich Asians really do?
But regardless of which camp you’re in, there’s something you’re bound to notice as the visions of extravagance and glamour dance across the big screen. Little bits of “Asian” references that you may or may not understand, depending on whether you live in the Little Red Dot or in the 99.9% of the population out of it.
Lest you feel left out when some of the cinema crowd laughs and you don’t, here are ‘dem “Asian things” explained by Singaporeans so you can get woke:
1. “Ku Ku Jiao”
Crazy Rich Asians is rated as PG-13 for suggestive content and language. And the scene on the container ship party where Bernard and the crowd yells “Ku Ku Jiao” triumphantly, we believe, is a key contributing factor.
Let’s get it out of the way - Ku Ku Jiao refers to male genitalia in Hokkien.
This scene follows a time-tested tradition of people yelling about the male member - like the “P*NIS” game in 500 Days Of Summer.
It’s also a term used by ah-bengs* on the streets of Singapore to describe the male organ, and often, to diss each others’ erm...sizes.
*Ah Bengs, a stereotypical breed of Chinese men often found with dyed hair, tattoos and an extensive vocabulary of swear words. Image credit
In essence, when Bernard joked how Colin’s wife would: “Tie you up and take off your ku ku jiao ah” in marriage. That, my friend, was a direct insult to fragile masculinity.
In the land of Crazy Rich Asians, there’s a mahjong scene where Rachel and Eleanor’s relations hit peak tension. And to understand that, you first gotta know what the game is.
Image credit: Poker Mahjong Blog
Mahjong is a popular 4-player game in Asia where players try to win by forming sequenced or matching tiles, known as “pong” (three matching), or “qi” (in sequence), along with an “eye” (two of the same). There’re other special combos, but that’s too advanced to explain quickly.
So, as the in-laws exchanged pointed words, the mahjong moves held even deeper meaning:
Scene in the movie: When Eleanor and Rachel sit down at the table.
What it means: Mahjong table sides are named after compass directions - North, South, East, and West. Eleanor sits as the dealer, in the “East”, representing traditional Chinese values, while Rachel, the Asian-American, is fittingly seated in the “West”.
Scene in the movie: When Eleanor gets a “pong" (three of a kind).
What it means: Rachel asked Eleanor why she didn’t like her. Eleanor explained it’s because Rachel is not kaki lang, which refers to people of the same sort in Hokkien. The “pong” is thus a metaphor as it’s 3 of the same tile.
Scene in the movie: When Rachel throws away a winning tile - the eight of bamboo - to let Eleanor win. We then realise Rachel had a winning hand.
What it means: Rachel tells Eleanor she rejected Nick’s proposal so that he won’t have to choose between her and family - she’s voluntarily giving him up out of love, even if she can win.
Here’s a full analysis of the mind-blowing symbolism.
Wondered why Rachel was unsure about calling Eleanor “Mrs. Young” or “Auntie” when they first met?
That’s because calling someone “Auntie” or “Uncle” is just how you address your elders in Singapore and even Asia - and you don’t even have to be related by blood. It’s also meant to connote a sense of community and family.
So, yes, you can call the lady that serves you chilli crab at the hawker centre “auntie”, or that chatty taxi driver “uncle”.
Just be sure that they’re significantly older than you. You wouldn’t want to cluelessly call a young lady “auntie” and suffer her wrath.
4. Flowers in full bloom
There’re no perks to being a wallflower here. Instead, Su Yi’s tan hua (night-blooming Cereus) blooming in Tyersall Park necessitates a grand party with the full attendance of the Youngs. Simply because these fragrant flowers bloom at night just once a year and die by sunrise.
Tan Hua flowers. Image credit: Kevin Kwan Facebook.
The flowers are a subject of a Chinese metaphor, tan hua yi xian - which means short-lived or a flash in the pan. In other words, how beautiful things often disappear quickly. Cue melancholy violin music - just not Coldplay’s “Yellow” in Mandarin.
5. Dumpling making traditions
Food is one of the pillars of culture. And just like how the Newton Food Centre stole the show for hawker food, another iconic food scene is set in Nick’s grandmother’s house and revolves around… dumplings.
Image credit: Spoonfuls of Wanderlust
Here, the Youngs gather to make dumplings by hand even though they could probably buy off multiple restaurants to make ‘em. Eleanor explains to Rachel that dumpling making is part of necessary traditions, which need to be followed else “they’ll disappear”.
The subtext: Gurrrrlll, you ain’t cultured and don’t understand the importance of family traditions as we do (read this in Awkwafina's voice).
Another iconic phrase in this scene, “Better too many than have people say we stingy,” Eleanor says when she looks over the mountains of dumplings made by her clan. It’s a typical Asian sentiment to veer towards excess as a sign of generosity for the sake of “face” (reputation).
6. Matriarchal families
All hail Queen Bey Michelle Yeoh. Image credit: Warner Brothers
The Western media might portray Asia as a largely patriarchal society, but mama’s the actual power player in many an Asian household. In Crazy Rich Asians, we barely see the dads - with exception of Peik Lin’s father (played by the wonderfully comedic Ken Jeong).
Mums like Eleanor and matriarch of the Youngs, Shang Su Yi, hold court. They get to dictate who their sons can or cannot date, command the kitchen staff like a general at war, and generally show who’s boss. In Singapore, many mums are considered Tiger Mums, justly named for their fierce manner and tough love.
7. Grown adults staying with their parents
Unlike in the West where many are eager to move out as soon as possible and see it as a rite-of-passage, many Asians stay with the family even well into their 30s.
The reason? Filial piety (or expensive housing *cough*).
We see the many guilt trips sent Nick Young’s way when he stayed overseas with Rachel for a year or so, despite being a very fully-grown, handsome man. “If children are away from home too long, they forgot who they are,” says his mother Eleanor. Burn.
The fact that Nick’s room is kept pristine in his absence, and how his grandmother Su Yi chides him for not visiting her for A WHOLE YEAR - well, it takes a whole lot of willpower to withstand that kind of well-intentioned pressure. So it’s no surprise IRL that many adult Asians stay with their parents to take care of them, whether out of love or obligation.
8. Domestic helpers
They’re not the faces spotted on the glitzy Crazy Rich Asian posters, but the truth is that domestic helpers are key members in many Asian families who live with their employers.
Image credit: Jerry Wong
In the movie, they’re seen helping out in the kitchen, putting away things and generally making life a whole lot easier for their employer.
In Singapore, female domestic helpers - colloquially known as “maids” or their more PC name "helpers" - are sought after for the help they can provide to busy households. These ladies often come from countries like Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia and often do everything from whipping up a feast to taking care of elderly. They move from developing countries to seek better work opportunities in Singapore, and send the money they make home to their families.
You can spot many maid agencies in SG where maids are trained, and where employers interview potential maids.
Crazy Rich Asians - Understanding “Asian Things”
To someone unfamiliar with Asian culture, these nuances might fly right over your head, or just cement the idea that we’re kinda really crazy. But no matter what your background is, we hope that the movie sparked a deeper interest in learning about other cultures instead of taking the easy route of dismissing them as foreign and odd.
May the gates of understanding open for you. Image credit: Warner Brothers
Besides, we’re barely scratched the surface - the movie covers mostly Chinese traditions, and that’s but a small subset of being Asian! So, here’s to looking out for more of such movies that highlight the diversity of stories we have to offer.
In the meantime, as we wait for bigger, better things (heard that’s a sequel in the works), here's what you can indulge your Crazy Rich Asians fever with.
- "Crazy Rich Asians” Places To Visit In Singapore - For the folks intrigued by that “ship” hotel.
- Crazy Rich Asians Hawker Food At Newton Food Centre - For hungry folks intrigued by hawker food.
- How Real Is Crazy Rich Asians? - For folks who want the truth, and nothing but the truth.