Can “Crazy Rich Asians” eventually become ordinary Asian Americans?

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“Crazy Rich Asians” is America’s top movie this past weekend with an estimated total gross of $34 million. You can add my $11.75 when I see the film this week.

This is no doubt a milestone achievement for the Asian American community. We haven’t seen a major Hollywood movie with an all Asian cast since the “Joy Luck Club” more than two decades ago. Most importantly, “Crazy Rich Asians” is both a commercial and critical hit with a 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

As much as we should savor this moment, I offer this question. Can Asian Americans achieve mainstream success in books, theater, and film telling stories that are not so…Asian?

Asian Americans should certainly own their stories. God knows we’re sick and tired of whitewashing (here’s looking at you Matt Damon) and yellowface casting (I mean you Scarlett Johansson, Emma Stone).

But if we are to truly examine the kind of stories that Asian American artists have been able to sell to Hollywood and New York over the years, a clear pattern emerges: they are almost exclusively about being Asian, whether topics like Asia, family, race, immigration and culture.

(I’m moderating a panel discussion about this very subject at the Exceptional Women in Publishing conference in San Francisco on September 22.)

While you should certainly write what you know, Asian American authors mostly seem to get memoirs or autobiographical /semi-autobiographical stories published. “Joy Luck Club” and “Crazy Rich Asians” were originally such books.

But creative writing also means true creativity, crafting stories about people, places, and events from pure imagination.

We have had a few notable moments in recent years.

Korean American actor John Cho starred in both “Columbus,” a critically acclaimed indie movie and the short lived television comedy “Selfie,” a modern update on “Pygmalion.” In each case, Cho was not only paired with a white female lead but the stories were not about his race.

But “Columbus” and “Selfie” were hardly blockbusters.

Justin Lin directed “Star Trek: Beyond” and the “The Fast and the Furious” movies. Jon Chu, who directed “Crazy Rich Asians,” also helmed “Now You See Me 2” and “Step Up 2.” But they were behind the camera, not in front of it. Nor did they write those movies.

Why does this matter? By limiting Asian Americans to stories only about themselves, we reinforce the idea that this community is foreign, worlds apart from mainstream society.

More than any other racial or ethnic group, Asian Americans have always faced a problem of “otherness,” a community viewed with suspicion because we don’t “look” American. Black Americans certainly face racism but rarely questions about their citizenship.

Despite being labeled as a “model minority,” Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners: “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” and “Do you speak English?” are common questions we get. Most of this racism is benign but occasionally morphs into tragedy like the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Japanese internment camps.

In many ways, Asian American artists face a classic immigrant’s dilemma: how to assimilate into mainstream American society without ceding ownership of the stories so central to our identity.

“Crazy Rich Asians” is a step in the right direction, a romantic comedy that’s attracting audiences of all races and backgrounds. Let’s hope one day an Asian American can find success writing the next great American novel, play, or movie that has nothing to do with being Asian.


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