Magazine article Newsweek

How Constance Wu and 'Crazy Rich Asians' Are Changing the Game for Asian Americans in Hollywood; "Joy Luck Club" Was the Last Major Hollywood Movie Featuring Multiple Asian-American Leads, Making "Crazy Rich Asians" More Than Just a Romantic Comedy

Magazine article Newsweek

How Constance Wu and 'Crazy Rich Asians' Are Changing the Game for Asian Americans in Hollywood; "Joy Luck Club" Was the Last Major Hollywood Movie Featuring Multiple Asian-American Leads, Making "Crazy Rich Asians" More Than Just a Romantic Comedy

Article excerpt

Byline: Anna Menta

There has been one Asian-American woman, in the history of television, to be nominated for an Emmy as a lead actress in a drama. That happened this year, when Sandra Oh received a nod for the BBC's Killing Eve. In the history of movies, there has been one Academy Award-winning best actor of Asian descent: Ben Kingsley, who is British and part Indian, for 1982's Gandhi. The only woman of Asian descent nominated for best actress, Merle Oberon (part Indian and Maori), did not win for The Dark Angel, a movie that was made more than 80 years ago.

Constance Wu noted those odds growing up in Virginia as the daughter of two Taiwanese immigrants. For years, Lucy Liu, on the series Elementary and in numerous films, and Oh, who starred for 10 seasons on Grey's Anatomy, have been among the few Asian-American women in leading roles in mainstream entertainment. Wu added another welcome face to the mix when she landed the part of Jessica Huang, the anxious and feisty Taiwanese immigrant mother on ABC's Fresh Off the Boat. Now, she's starring in Crazy Rich Asians (opening August 15), the first major Hollywood film with all Asian American and Asian British leads in 25 years, since 1993's Joy Luck Club. It's also, as Allyson Chiu noted in The Washington Post, "an entire movie about Asians without martial arts and stereotypical nerds."

The pressure to make the film all things to all Asian-Americans is thus intense. Margaret Cho understood that weight when looking back years later at her sitcom All-American Girl--the first American TV show focused on an Asian family--which lasted one season, beginning in 1994. Because the edgy Cho had no creative control, the series ended up endorsing, rather than erasing, stereotypes and myths. "With ethnic identity, there's a right way to be and a wrong way to be, and that's a really weird thing," Cho told Kore Asian Media on the 20th anniversary of her show. "The panic comes from not seeing Asian-Americans on television, so the few images we do have of them become overly scrutinized."

Cho also noted that diversity in entertainment has come a long way (she's a big fan of Fresh Off the Boat ), but hypersensitivity remains, with some worried that Crazy Rich Asians will err on the side of too Asian or its opposite: Accusations of whitewashing surfaced on Twitter when one of the stars, Henry Golding, was called "not Asian enough" (his father is British, and his mother is from Borneo's Iban tribe).

Wu gets it, and she is familiar with social media activism; she was at the center of a Twitter campaign, #StarringConstanceWu, which imagined Wu as the lead of various white-centric blockbusters like The Hunger Games. Even the "starring Constance Wu" credit for Crazy Rich Asians comes with complicated feelings, after years of struggling to find work in Hollywood. "It's difficult to take ownership of being treated with respect," she says. "Usually, you're asked to be grateful for whatever scraps you get, and if you're not grateful for your scraps, then you're shunned."

In the film, adapted from Kevin Kwan's best-selling novel of the same name, Wu plays Rachel Chu, a down-to-earth Chinese-American professor at New York University who is invited to a Singapore wedding by her boyfriend, Nick (Golding). She soon discovers he's filthy rich, and Rachel falls victim to the snobbery of Singapore's elite, including Nick's controlling mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who disapproves of her son's "mainland" girlfriend. A psychological game of chicken ensues.

Unlike the broadly funny immigrant Jessica on Fresh Off the Boat, the challenge with Rachel was adding nuance to a "straight woman" surrounded by big personalities. "When you play someone from the outside, you can make that character sing, because they're either a badass or funny--one thing or the other," she says. "You're painting with just blue, but there's a lot you can do with that blue. …

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