It’s been around one year since I wrote one of my first opinion columns for The Daily Pennsylvanian, sitting in my summer housing in Philadelphia — an article titled, “Growing up (wanting to be) white.” Kevin Kwan, the author of “Crazy Rich Asians,” shared my article on his Facebook page soon after, and my whole world stopped for a moment: Kevin Kwan is real, his book is real, this movie with an all-Asian cast is happening, and he shared my article.
One year later, I find myself in a vastly different place. This summer, I had the opportunity to intern for a studio in Los Angeles, my first extended time so far away from home and the east coast. Thrown into a new environment, learning about something as volatile as the entertainment industry — it was nerve-wracking, but also extremely enlightening. Amid administrative duties and 9-to-5 job exhaustion, I watched some of the best movies of my life, all the while waiting for the movie I’d been waiting a year for.
The biggest thing I learned, and perhaps the simplest? Money is truly the beating heart of every industry, and the film industry, one of the most impactful branches of media representation, is no different. Studios make films to turn a profit, to keep surviving. Why don’t we have people of color represented on the big screen? Because, simply, big studios don’t want to risk losing money to do the right thing.
I remember being nervous for the opening of “Crazy Rich Asians,” wondering if people would pay money to see a bunch of Asians on screen. I remember sitting at an early screening a week before the official release date, sinking into the plush theater chair and praying every ticket be bought. I’ve never cared much about box office numbers or dollar signs, but in that moment, I realized a good number could dictate everything — if more Asian films in the future would be greenlit, if we could see more faces that looked like mine across the screen.
Fast forward to now, and the movie is a triumph — raking in $35 million over a five-day opening, exceeding critical expectations and being called a “watershed moment” by Asian Americans across the country.
I was swept away by how my community could rally together and fill those seats. Wealthy Asian influencers literally bought out theaters to support the movie; the hashtag #GoldOpen was created to anticipate the opening. Asian people across the country came out and showed unadulterated support. I was impressed by how many non-Asians I saw in the theaters, and speechless at how Asian stories could matter at the box office too.
"Crazy Rich Asians" hitting No. 1 at the box office means one thing, loud and clear: There is a space for our stories, and people want to hear them. There is a space for Asians to be represented and heard, and that’s the main space of the theater: the center of attention. We spoke with our wallets this weekend, and the white majority of Hollywood and the country better be listening now, too, if money is what it takes.
While “Crazy Rich Asians” represents a historical turn in representation for Asian Americans in Hollywood, I do not pretend this movie has no flaws, or that it perfectly represents all Asian experiences. The movie itself is a far cry from my own experiences growing up as a middle-class Asian American, or a fair representation of Asians that do not fit in the East Asian identity. Singaporean politics and racism is also its own beast that the movie does not attempt to battle or address.
However, the fact that this movie exists, even with just the purpose to entertain as a romantic comedy and showcase an extremely talented cast that happens to be Asian, is a feat in and of itself. The fact that people will support a movie like this and make it a reality is a huge, crazy rich success.
As consumers and students at Penn, the fight for media representation doesn’t stop here. If you’re an artist of color, keep working at your craft, keep acting, singing, dancing, writing, creating art. Financially, we can all support smaller content creators of color, support our friends’ creative endeavors, consume the diverse movies and shows and music that we want to exist: The $15 ticket we pay at the theater can go so many ways, and help so many voices be heard. Money matters, if we use it to strengthen our communities and our visibility.
After all, while the movie ticket was $15, the feeling I got when I heard the opening tunes of an old Chinese song my own parents could recognize: priceless.
JESSICA LI is a College junior from Livingston, N.J., studying English and psychology. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.