Modeling a Minority: Summarizing the Asian American Experience in The Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians
BY CHANDLER TREON
This piece is published as a digital exclusive of the Asian American Policy Review.
I argue that it is not The Joy Luck Club that inaccurately represents Asian people, it is Hollywood that is guilty of their misrepresentation by limiting depictions of Asian people to this singular film for twenty-five years.
The Joy Luck Club (dir. Wayne Wang, 1993) not only exposed Western audiences to the hardships endured by Chinese immigrant women and their children, but also demonstrated the marketability of an Asian-majority cast that does not rely on stereotypical Hollywood interpretations of Asian characters. Despite The Joy Luck Club’s commercial and critical success, it took twenty-five years before another major Hollywood film featured a predominantly Asian cast. The production of Crazy Rich Asians (dir. Jon M. Chu, 2018) was inspired by the success of The Joy Luck Club and sought to remind audiences of the bankability of Asian-led productions. The cast of The Joy Luck Club was relatively unknown to American audiences while Crazy Rich Asians starred well-established actors such as Constance Wu and Michelle Yeoh. While Crazy Rich Asians sought to increase the prevalence of Asian representation in American media, its potential downfall manifests in the way the film glorifies the reality of the Asian American experience in America; it ignores the social and racial inequities of America in favor of romanticizing the adaptability of Asian migrants. Describing the Crazy Rich Asians franchise as Asian Pride Porn, Yuan Ding writes:
If the African American racial uplift movement relies on a Horatio Alger narrative that unintentionally reinforces anti-black stereotypes and exacerbates class divisions within the African American community, Kwan’s racial uplift narrative relies on the principle of free-market meritocracy that enables an Asian elite class to take advantage of a system that exploits the vast majority of Asian and Asian diasporic communities. In championing Asian economic ascension as the foundation for racial uplift, the Crazy franchise attributes the economic and cultural flexibility of diasporic Asians to the unimpeded flow of global capital while obscuring the structural unevenness such movement perpetuates.[i]
Though significantly dissimilar in tone, the two films share a similar theme of second-generation Asian American children experiencing the consequences of hardships endured by their parents before immigrating; consequences of the ever-pervasive model minority myth permeate both films’ narratives. The model minority myth is the idea that Asian Americans are inherently more likely to be successful and achieve the American Dream in comparison to other minorities (and sometimes to white Americans).
Due to the extreme and bourgeois subject matter of Crazy Rich Asians, The Joy Luck Club presumably portrays a more relatable and realistic experience of Asian American people. Even larger gatherings featured in The Joy Luck Club are dwarfed in comparison to the lavish parties in Crazy Rich Asians, featuring excessive amounts of bright fireworks, shiny supercars, and blaring music. The Joy Luck Club is rooted in more traditionally domestic spaces, focusing on mostly middle-class women and their immigrant mothers. In an interview, director Wayne Wang described the impact the film had on Chinese immigrants that shared similar experiences to the characters of the film:
When we were filming the scene, what was amazing was that during the rehearsal the whole row of extras could hear the dialogue. They were completely in tears. An older woman came up to me later and told me she had to leave her baby during the war and never found it again. She really broke down. There’s a lot there that the Chinese can identify with.[ii]
Despite the more grounded subject matter of The Joy Luck Club, scholars and critics such as George Tseo were dissatisfied with the film’s portrayal of China and its people. Tseo’s frustration with the Asian representation of the film is not an uncommon opinion among Asian audiences; however, I believe that this frustration is misguided. I argue that it is not The Joy Luck Club that inaccurately represents Asian people; it is Hollywood that is guilty of this misrepresentation by limiting depictions of Asian people to this singular film for twenty-five years. The Joy Luck Club proved that Western audiences are receptive to films with an Asian-majority cast and twenty-five years later, Crazy Rich Asians reignited interest in such films, resulting in a surge of mainstream, successful Asian-led productions. Through the examination of generational class differences and the visualization of talk-stories, The Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians detail the struggles present in the Asian community between Asian American children and their immigrant elders.
In his article “Joy Luck: The Perils of Transcultural ‘Translation,’” George Tseo argues that the representation of China and Chinese people in both the film and the novel is flawed based on inaccuracies that Chinese audiences would recognize while Western audiences remain ignorant:
My wife, Fu Hui, can see things in Joy Luck that I cannot precisely because she was born and raised in China. In the places where I can only sense flaws, she sees them as clearly as if they were cracks in a crystal. Where I see nothing wrong at all and am as fooled as any Westerner with zero knowledge of China, she can define the cultural distortions exactly.[iii]
Tseo claims that some aspects of reality have been sacrificed in both Amy Tan and director Wayne Wang’s attempt to make the story more accessible to American audiences. Text subtitling scenes featuring Chinese dialogue is inaccurate, and in some instances, the dialogue featured in the film and novel is atypical. I believe that this dissonance is a result of the formation of the Asian American identity—Asian American children contextualize their elders’ Asian experiences within their newfound culture for self-reflection in various ways. This contextualization of inherently Chinese experiences is often done through the use and understanding of “talk-stories,” a form of intergenerational storytelling popularized by Maxine Hong Kingston in her famous memoir The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.[iv] These talk-stories are characterized as autobiographical tales about life in Asia blended with elements of legends or folktales. As such, talk-stories are typically hyperbolic or fantastical narratives rather than historically accurate chronicles. The Joy Luck Club uses these talk stories to communicate with American viewers—Asian or otherwise—in the same manner that Chinese mothers would communicate with their American children. On these Chinese narratives, Yuan Yuan writes:
China experiences are generally transfigured into ‘China narratives’ only after they have lost their reference to China; thus they are related more to the present American situation than to their original context in Chinese society. The present American context provides meaning and determines the content of the China narrative.[v]
In The Woman Warrior, the narrator grapples with the talk-stories told to her by her mother and how their Chinese contexts fit into her own American lifestyle; the same mother-daughter dynamic is present in all four pairs in The Joy Luck Club. June (Ming-Na Wen), Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita), Lena (Lauren Tom), and Rose (Rosalind Cho) all gain insight and grow from the talk-stories shared by their mothers, but only when they finally manage to contextualize their mothers’ experiences within their own American lifestyles. The embellished nature of these talk-stories is the source of Tseo’s grievances with The Joy Luck Club, as the recontextualization of Chinese experiences into talk-stories introduces inaccuracies to the plot. For example, Tseo views Auntie Lindo’s (Tsai Chin) story of how she managed to escape her loveless and abusive marriage to a teenage boy in China as particularly problematic: “Auntie Lindo’s perception, if true, would be exceptional. What occurs after she does become a bride is not merely exceptional, it verges on the impossible… If accurate, Auntie Lindo’s account describes a lunatic mother-in-law or one possessed of the most extreme gullibility.”[vi] Tseo is right about the unrealistic nature of Auntie Lindo’s anecdote, but I think that the nature of her talk-story is justified by her character while also remaining true to Chinese mythology; in Tseo’s own review, he cites the Chinese novel The Western Pilgrimage as potential inspiration for the tale due to its themes of immaculate conception. As far as Lindo herself, it makes sense that she would structure her talk-story in a way that portrays her as clever enough to devise a ruse convincing enough to release her from her marriage. Throughout the film, she is shown to be very self-assured and competitive, pitting her daughter Waverly against June when they were children and only admitting that Suyuan (Kieu Chinh) was a better cook after she was already dead. Lindo also establishes herself as an unreliable narrator when it is revealed over a game of Mahjong that she lied about the contents of the letter June’s sisters sent from China. When confronted by An-Mei (Lisa Lu) and Ying Ying (France Nuyen) about her deceit, Lindo protests, “How can I tell her what the letter really say? Then she never go to China, never go to see her sister. Am I right? Yes, of course.” Lindo justifies her lie as necessary to ensure that June will make the trip to China. The inaccuracies in her talk-story are justified in a similar way, guiding Waverly—and viewers—to better understand her.
Similar to The Joy Luck Club, Crazy Rich Asians begins with its own talk-story, contextualizing a Chinese experience from filmmakers to viewers instead of from mothers to children while also indicating to viewers just how crazy rich the Young family really is. Writing about the series of novels Crazy Rich Asians was based on, Ding notes: “In multiple encounters between racist white characters and wealthy Asians, the latter emerge triumphant through pure meritocratic market competition, enacting the often self-fulfilling revenge fantasies of (post)racial justice.”[vii] Crazy Rich Asians begins with such a fantasy when Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is able to outplay the racist hotel manager by employing her family’s wealth and buying the hotel outright. The film opens on a stormy night; the large, stylized captions in the center of the frame inform us of the setting: “London 1995.” The film cuts to the interior of the Calthorpe hotel where two employees are standing behind the front desk. One employee does a double take as the Young family walks in, which initially seems to be a reaction to a young Nick (Nevan Koit) wiping his muddy shoes all over the pristine white floor. His incredulity is otherwise quickly revealed to be directed towards the Young family’s race when he pretends to check the hotel’s ledger and dismisses Eleanor, claiming that the Youngs do not have a reservation despite Eleanor’s confirmation with him the day before. Suddenly the manager of the hotel Reginald Ormsby (Daniel Jenkins) appears from behind the desk and asks if there is a problem. When Eleanor repeats her request that her family be shown to their room, Reginald sarcastically responds, “You must have made a mistake. I’m sure you and your lovely family can find other accommodations. May I suggest you explore Chinatown?” He even denies Eleanor the use of the hotel phone—which is conveniently placed on the counter directly in front of her—forcing her family to venture back out into the heavy rain to use a phone booth in the street. After a heated phone call with her husband, Eleanor and her family return to the hotel where the manager approaches them aggressively, threatening to call the police when suddenly the owner of the hotel, Lord Calthorpe (Peter Carroll) enters the room from a personal elevator. The manager begins to apologize to Lord Calthorpe for the disturbance, but Calthorpe walks right by him, greeting Eleanor with open arms. He demands that the manager prepare the Lancaster suite for the Young family, eagerly proclaiming the Young family as the new owners of the hotel, with Eleanor as the new “lady of the house,” much to the manager’s surprise. Within the span of a few minutes, Eleanor used her financial power to best the racist hotel staff when it would have been much more reasonable (and cheaper) to simply secure alternate accommodations. I believe that the filmmaker’s decision to begin the film with this revenge fantasy draws a connection to the motives behind making the film in the first place. Prior to its release, various Asian influencers took to social media to promote the film, citing the importance of its release to Asian Americans as the reason that it must succeed. The financial success of the film—the budget is reported as being thirty million dollars and the box office sales being $238.5 million[viii]—is itself a realization of a revenge fantasy against conventional Western media, proving that the lack of Asian-led productions in Hollywood has been costly. However, the film does unwittingly perpetuate the model minority myth in its quest for increased Asian visibility, alienating Asian Americans from other minorities.
Corinne Mitsuye Sugino takes issue with this method of overcoming racism, describing the capitalist system as violent and the use of purchasing power as a tool for confronting the oppressing group as dangerous. Sugino writes:
Here, racial liberation is constrained to a vision in which escaping racism is only possible by climbing the ranks of hierarchy instead of seeking to eviscerate it. The effect is not only that substantive liberation from anti-Asian racism is circumscribed, but any semblance of freedom is possible only through the perpetuation of more violence.[ix]
Another major problem with this strategy of overcoming racism through the accumulation of wealth and status for Asian Americans relates back to the model minority myth; it places additional stress upon Asian Americans to exceed already demanding expectations. Not only do Asian Americans have to succeed to feel valid in their Asian identities, they also must be successful enough to nullify the effects of racism. We see this in The Joy Luck Club when Rose is accosted by Ted’s mother about Rose’s relationship with her son. The viewer is informed through Rose’s narration that she had, “never been around people like this,” but the looks on Ted’s parents’ faces make it clear that this is something they had already assumed about her. Ted’s mother suggests to Rose that because she is Asian, Ted’s relationship with her would be problematic for Ted when he inevitably assumes control over his father’s business. Citing the Vietnam War as a source of agitation for Ted’s future business partners, of whom she describes as “people of a different standard,” Ted’s mother is trying to make Rose feel inadequate as a partner in hopes that she will be encouraged to leave him. While race is a clear factor in Ted’s mother’s attempt at manipulation, I doubt that Rose would have been treated the same way if she had come from an equally or even more successful family than their own. It is only through Ted’s intervention and insistence that Rose manages to overcome his parents’ racism, not through her own actions or merit.
The model minority myth is often defended due to its promotion of “positive stereotypes;” however regardless of the “positive” nature of such stereotypes, they are just as capable of causing damage as negative stereotypes. June is the perfect example of an Asian American woman that has been negatively affected by the model minority myth promoted by both American society and her community, including her own mother. Battling constant comparison to Waverley from adolescence to adulthood, June has always been made to feel inadequate in her mother’s eyes. In adulthood, June’s feelings of inadequacy are intensified as she finds herself in competition with all three of her childhood friends. Her frustrations come to a head during one of the last dinners June had with her mother. When June passive-aggressively confronts Waverley about the unpaid work she had done for Waverley’s firm, Waverley dismisses June, mocking her work and telling her that she lacks style. June is then humiliated by her mother, who openly agrees with Waverley, saying, “True. Cannot teach style. June not like Waverley. Must be born this way.” As they wash the night’s dishes, June confronts her mother with a sarcastic and pained apology for being a disappointment, citing her own poor grades in school, her less than prestigious career, and her status as an unmarried woman. June is the opposite of everything that the stereotypical Asian American is expected to be, and it has clearly had a detrimental effect not just on her relationship with her mother, but also on her mental health. Her feelings of inadequacy are not uncommon among young Asian Americans struggling to meet the incredible standards set by their parents and American society.
Unfortunately, the American system of meritocracy does tend to value Asians over other minorities and uses that comparison of perceived merit as a basis for discrimination against Black and brown people in the United States. This sociopolitical factor makes the depiction of so-called “positive Asian stereotypes” in American media a potentially problematic double-edged sword. However, I would argue that inclusion of well-to-do Asians in American media, such as those seen in Crazy Rich Asians, is necessary for the progression of positive portrayals of Asian Americans. Additionally, the overall theme of the film does not necessarily promote wealth as the only avenue for overcoming adversity. In fact, I would argue that it advises against it. The protagonist of the film, Rachel (Constance Wu), faces adversity in the form of the community of bourgeois elite that her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) belongs to, particularly from Nick’s mother, Eleanor. Eleanor makes it clear to Rachel that she disapproves of Rachel’s relationship with her son, telling Rachel, “I know this much. You will never be enough.” Frustrated by Eleanor’s disrespect, Rachel takes the advice of her friend Peik Lin Gok (Awkwafina), who suggests that Rachel prove her worth to Eleanor by demonstrating her ability to fit in with the Asian elite. She imitates the upper-class women through an extravagant makeover and confident demonstration of self-worth at Colin (Chris Pang) and Araminta’s (Sonoya Mizuno) wedding, catching Eleanor’s attention, but ultimately, her attempt at upward mobility fails to gain Eleanor’s approval. It is not until Rachel meets with Eleanor after refusing Nick’s proposal that she finally proves herself. Meeting with Eleanor over a game of Mahjong, Rachel reveals that Nick proposed to her and promised to leave his family behind forever; the revelation visibly shocks Eleanor, who fears losing her only son. Rachel allows her a second to panic before telling Eleanor that she turned him down, eliciting from Eleanor a sigh of relief before she says, “Only a fool folds a winning hand.” Rachel does just that, physically and symbolically, through the game of Mahjong. Rachel picks up the tile she needs to win the game and places it in her row, saying “If Nick chose me, he would lose his family.” Removing the winning tile from her row, she continues, “And if he chose his family, he might spend the rest of his life resenting you.” Rachel holds the winning tile in her hand for a second before placing it back amongst the free tiles, allowing Eleanor to add it to her own row. Eleanor reveals her winning hand and says, “So you chose for him.” Rachel tells her:
I’m not leaving ‘cause I’m scared or because I think I’m not enough. Because, maybe for the first time in my life, I know I am. I just love Nick so much. I don’t want him to lose his mom again. So I just wanted you to know that one day, when he marries another lucky girl who is enough for you, and you’re playing with your grandkids while the tan huas are blooming and the birds are chirping, that it was because of me. A poor, raised by a single mother, low class, immigrant, nobody.”
Rachel turns over her tiles as the music flares solemnly but triumphantly, revealing to Eleanor that she allowed herself to be defeated. This scene shows that Rachel did not earn Eleanor’s respect through upward economic mobility, but through her own intelligence and compassion. Her ability to walk away disproved Eleanor’s preconceived notions of Rachel’s unsuitability, causing Eleanor to rethink her prejudices against Rachel for being a middle-class Asian American woman.
The importance of both The Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians to the Asian American community cannot be overstated, regardless of personal opinion. In America’s capitalist meritocracy, economic success of Asian media is the only surefire avenue to guarantee that our voices remain audible to the rest of the country; the recent surge in popularity of Asian American and East Asian film and television such as Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-Ho, 2019) and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton, 2021) is proof that Western audiences are receptive to such stories. My hope is that, in time, Asian representation in American media will continue to grow and expose Western audiences to the vast diversity of the Asian community, completely eliminating the monolithic sentiment of Asian Americans that has been so prevalent in this country’s history.
Chandler Treon is an MA Literature student and teacher of record at Texas State University. His writing focuses heavily on multicultural media, particularly Asian American films due to his own Vietnamese and Filipino identity. It is his hope that Asian American representation will continue to grow in Western film and television, and that he will be there to contribute to its scholarship. When he is not reading or watching movies, you can find him lifting weights with fellow writers or volunteering at a local cat sanctuary.
[i] Yuan Ding. “‘Asian Pride Porn’: Neoliberal Multiculturalism and the Narrative of Asian Racial Uplift in Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy,” MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 45, no. 3 (2020): 65–82. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/780463.
[ii] John C. Tibbetts. “A Delicate Balance: An Interview with Wayne Wang about The Joy Luck Club,” Literature/Film Quarterly 22, no. 1 (1994): 2–6. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43796609.
[iii] George Tseo. “Joy Luck: The Perils of Transcultural ‘Translation,’” Literature/Film Quarterly 24, no. 4 (1996): 338–43. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43796745.
[iv] Maxine Hong Kingston. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. (Picador Classic, 2015).
[v] Yuan Yuan. “The Semiotics of China Narratives in the Con/Texts of Kingston and Tan,” Critique 40, no. 3 (Spring 1999): 292–303. doi:10.1080/00111619909604914. https://www-tandfonline-com.libproxy.txstate.edu/doi/abs/10.1080/00111619909604914.
[vi] Tseo, “Joy Luck,” 340.
[vii] Ding, “Asian Pride Porn,” 68.
[viii] “Crazy Rich Asians.” IMDb. IMDb.com, August 15, 2018. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3104988/.
[ix] Corinne Mitsuye Sugino. “Multicultural Redemption: ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and the Politics of Representation,” Lateral 8, no. 2 (December 1, 2019). doi:10.25158/L8.2.6. https://doaj.org/article/b23cf0b7c7094e1ab6005942c9a8f476.