- Locating Asianness in the Transnational Field
Based on the first novel of a trilogy written by Kevin Kwan, the film Crazy Rich Asians became a box office hit in 2018, grossing more than $200 million worldwide by October that year (Rodriguez 2018). Widely touted as the first mainstream Hollywood production featuring an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993, the film centers on Rachel Chu, a second-generation Chinese American professor, and her boyfriend Nick Young, who hails from an ultrarich, old-money Chinese family in Singapore. What drives the plotline forward is Rachel's introduction to Nick's family and friends to a mixed reception as they travel from New York City to Singapore to attend Nick's best friend's wedding. As a romantic comedy, the film's ostensible moral is a familiar one: it is about how a woman reaches for love and respect against all odds while not losing sight of who she is. However, as a cultural artifact, Crazy Rich Asians signifies the shifting meaning of Asianness in the ongoing reshuffling of global economic and political orders. Using Aihwa Ong's works as analytical probes, I situate Crazy Rich Asians within the transnational field of the Asia Pacific Rim to offer a deeper reading of the Chinese diasporic tension that threads through the film. In so doing, I wish to highlight Ong's contributions to theoretical inquiries on technologies of governing and politics of belonging.
Ong's works trace the contour of late capitalism not as a globalizing phenomenon with universal characteristics, but as a multilayered, multi-nodal development imbricated with global, regional, and local conjunctures and contingencies. She interrogates the relevance of the nation-states in an era defined by cross-border mobilities, and the modalities of governmentality aimed at regulating different subjectivities in motion. The analytical and methodological emphases on transnational flows and linkages [End Page 232] enable a more dynamic look at the politics of belonging and subject-making that takes shape within a broader regional and global geopolitical and economic context. Ong's book Flexible Citizenship (1999), for example, focuses on the circulation of capital, labor, and cultural imageries across multiple nation-states in the Asia Pacific Rim, as the ascendancy of Asian economies in the nineties offers up alternative modernities outside the West. Her work reveals the intersecting regimes of power and human actions operating transnationally to produce different configurations of citizenship beyond merely a legal category.
In Crazy Rich Asians, Rachel's encounter with the Chinese Singaporean society exemplifies an exercise of diasporic subject-making, in that her membership in the Chinese diaspora is frequently called into question. From the outset, a transnational logic of hierarchy that codifies and ranks different diasporic subjects based on national origin and family repute serves to assess and locate Rachel's relative social position. In several scenes, Nick's mother Eleanor further points out that Rachel does not belong because she is too American to sacrifice her own happiness to benefit the family. In these vignettes, Rachel's Chinese-ness is invalidated vis-à-vis a local construction of cultural citizenship based on the notion of Chinese familism. The Youngs perhaps exemplify what Ong calls "family biopolitics," where elite Chinese families develop a set of instrumental logics and practices to ensure security and prosperity for their members (1999, 121). Through the valorization and reification of ethnic distinctions, the extended kin network of the Youngs reaches the upper echelons of different nation-states through marriage, education, business, and consumption. Based in Singapore, its members get educated in Cambridge, shop in Shanghai and New York, invest in Taipei and London, and marry into power in Hong Kong and Bangkok. The transnational network of acquaintances from the same social milieu also becomes a tool of biopolitical control. In a much-talked-about scene, it takes less than a meal's time for Eleanor to learn that her son is bringing a mysterious girl on his home-coming trip. The news first takes off when an acquaintance overhears Nick discussing the trip with Rachel at a restaurant in New York. Soon, it gets bounced across the globe through multiple insiders eager...