My teenage son had a date Sunday, but the girl lives more than an hour away and my son doesn’t yet have his driver’s license, so I was recruited as the parental accomplice in this romantic mission. We met up with the girl and her parents at a shopping mall, and then I had to go kill a couple of hours to enable the young lovebirds to share some time together, so I went to the 14-screen multiplex theater to see Crazy Rich Asians.
Did you know that this is now the biggest box-office success for a romantic comedy in the past decade? Now nearing $170 million gross receipts, it’s the most successful cinematic love story since 2009’s The Proposal. It’s funny, it’s heart-warming, and it’s the best thing to come out of China since gunpowder.
Basically, Crazy Rich Asians is a live-action Disney princess movie. The female protagonist, Rachel Chu, is a New York University economics professor, the only daughter of a hard-working single mom. She has a handsome boyfriend named Nick Young. We might suppose that her career would cause Professor Chu to pay attention to the world of international finance, yet somehow Rachel doesn’t realize her boyfriend is the Nick Young, heir to a vast business enterprise based in Singapore. The Young family has been building its wealth for generations, going back to the 19th century when Singapore was an outpost of the British East India Company. In a flashback opening sequence, we learn that in 1995, Nick Young’s father had been wealthy enough to buy a posh hotel in London. Nick attended elite schools in England, but none of this background information about his family’s wealth seems to have registered with his girlfriend. When Nick is asked to be best man in his friend’s wedding in Singapore, he invites Rachel along for the trip, and this is how she discovers that the Youngs are, well, crazy rich.
Played by the adorable Constance Chu, Rachel is a latter-day Cinderella, and handsome Henry Golding as Nick is a 21st-century Prince Charming. There are plot twists aplenty, as Rachel struggles to win the approval of Nick’s mother, who thinks Rachel is too Americanized. And among the many things to love about this love story is that it is emphatically racist.
Americans are so used to hearing the word “racist” applied as a pejorative description of our own alleged sins that we forget the history of this word. First coined in France, racisme originally denoted a sense of national identity, and was employed by the French anarchist Charles Malato in 1897 to describe resistance to the internationalism that he advocated. Malato predicted that racisme, in the form of federations based on ethnic alliances (Latin, Slavic, Germanic, etc.), would precede l’avénement d’une humanité sans frontiers (“the advent of a humanity without borders”). From its French origin, “racism” was apparently imported into the English language by a U.S. Army veteran named Richard Henry Pratt who, among other things, strove to eradicate the vestiges of native culture among his students at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which he founded in the 1879. Both the French anarchist and the American educator saw racism as an obstacle to the assimilation of human beings into a homogenous global mass.
While most Americans think of racism in the historical context of chattel slavery and Jim Crow, the history of anti-racism is not exactly covered in glory. Pratt’s suppression of indigenous language and customs among his students, undertaken with the idea of enabling them to be assimilated to the mainstream of American society, is nowadays considered “racist,” despite his anti-racist intentions. And the European radical’s dream of humanité sans frontiers produced, in the 20th century, the bloodiest nightmares in human history. The Communist ambition to unite the toiling masses into a worldwide “dictatorship of the proletariat” gave rise to Stalin’s liquidation of the Ukrainian kulaks, mass starvation in Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” in China, and the “Killing Fields” of Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
Crazy Rich Asians is having none of that stuff. The movie is enthusiastic in its embrace of capitalist success, as well as an unapologetic celebration of Chinese ethnic pride. American audiences love this, and why shouldn’t we? Isn’t the stunning rise of the Pacific Rim economy proof that Americans, in what John F. Kennedy called “our long twilight struggle” against Communism, were on the right side of history? The success of capitalism in former British colonial outposts like Singapore and Hong Kong demonstrated that free enterprise offers a better hope for mankind than did the utopian ideology of Marxist-Leninism, which killed an estimated 100 million people in 20th century. Even the Communist Party regime in Beijing has now accepted the capitalist triumph, so that when President Trump gets tough on trade negotiations with China, the conflict is between the two most prosperous economies in the world.
Among the many ironies in the success of Crazy Rich Asians is that, in some ways, the movie proves that “racists” were right. The movie opens by quoting an epigram from Napoleon Bonaparte: “Let China sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world.” Bonaparte’s words seem prophetic, but no intelligent observer ever doubted the Chinese capacity for hard work and thrift. In 1900, an article about the “Yellow Peril” in the North American Review, a prestigious literary journal, included this quote: “Experience proves that the Chinese as all-round laborers can easily outdistance all competitors. They are industrious, intelligent, and orderly. They can work under conditions that would kill a man of less hardy race.” In 1919, English socialist writer Henry Hyndman wrote that “the white workers cannot hold their own permanently against Chinese competition in the labor market,” praising Chinese workers for their “greater persistence” and “superior education.” To dismiss such warnings as evidence of Western “racism” is to ignore the abundant evidence that they were correct. Nowadays, when Chinese-American students are so successful Harvard University is being sued for discriminating against them in the admissions process, every American teenager must work harder if he hopes to keep up with his “industrious, intelligent, and orderly” Chinese classmates.
The celebration of Chinese success in Crazy Rich Asians should not inspire envious hatred, but rather emulation. If you want to get crazy rich, there are valuable lessons to be learned from this romantic comedy. At one point, Nick’s mother lectures Rachel about the tremendous sacrifices that were required to build and maintain the Young family’s wealth through several generations. Of course, as the audience learns, Rachel’s own mother made great sacrifices to provide her a chance at the good life in America. Children benefit from the hard work of their parents, and inherit whatever advantages their ancestors have bequeathed them. Is it “racist” to be proud of one’s heritage? Should we condemn the ethnic chauvinism of Crazy Rich Asians? Don’t be absurd! The Chinese have learned much from the West and, if they are now able to teach us some new lessons, we ought to be grateful for the tutoring. Americans have always admired success, and we have long been entertained by the distinctive folkways of the various ethnic groups that make up our nation. What was Duck Dynasty, after all, except Crazy Rich Rednecks?
Compared to the vast majority of the world’s population, the average American is already crazy rich. The U.S. per-capita GDP is nearly $60,000 a year, more than twice that of Russia (about $28,000) and more than three times greater than Mexico ($19,500). It should be noted that the wealth of Singapore, where per-capita GDP is more than $90,000 a year, greatly exceeds that of mainland China ($16,600), and the circumstances of that intra-Chinese disparity deserve study. Liberals in America have developed an annoying habit of generalizing about groups and ascribing “privilege” to some (white people, males, heterosexuals) while depicting others as helpless victims of systemic oppression. But my teenage son, white and male though he may be, certainly has less “privilege” than many of his female or non-white peers from more affluent backgrounds. The large demographic categories about which liberals make sweeping generalizations tend to ignore the enormous variety within these groups. My oldest daughter’s husband is the son of immigrants from Argentina, and my daughter’s infant son is counted as “Hispanic” for purposes of whatever diversity formula some bureaucrat may apply, but my son-in-law is a successful attorney and my grandson is by no means oppressed. It is only the rigid mentality of identity politics, fostering a paranoid fear that dangerous racism is lurking everywhere, that would label some of my grandchildren “victims” and some of them “oppressors.”
Walking out of Crazy Rich Asians at the mall cineplex Sunday, I was still blinking back tears from the romantic happy ending. (Spoiler alert: Love conquers all.) It turned out my son and his date had been sitting in the back row of the theater, and after their date ended, he and I talked about the movie. We both enjoyed it, but agreed that Nick Young was just too perfect. How could any real-life guy ever be expected to be as perfect as that romantic hero? Rich, handsome, and oh-so-sensitive, Nick always says the right thing at the right time, and he says it with a British accent. Talk about a “Yellow Peril”! Every would-be teenage Romeo is going to have to work hard to improve his game, if Nick Young is the romantic ideal against which he’ll be measured.
Ultimately, Crazy Rich Americans is about family values, a phrase made famous by social conservatives in the 1980s and ’90s. When moviegoers first see Nick’s mom in Singapore, she is leading a Bible-study group, reading from the epistles of the Apostle Paul. We can imagine this pious Christian matron disapproves of her son’s premarital intimacy with Rachel, and there’s a subplot in the movie that involves another character’s adultery. To preserve family wealth, the audience is being taught, requires the preservation of marriage and it also requires something else referenced in the movie, filial piety. Respect for one’s parents is a core value of the culture of family loyalty that the Young clan represents. Nick’s choice of Rachel, with her Americanized attitudes, is a challenge to this value. His mother had hoped he would wed the daughter of another prosperous Singapore family, so the central drama of the movie is Rachel’s fight to overcome Madame Young’s objections.
Americans can learn many things from Crazy Rich Asians. In the opening scene, Madame Young confronts a snobby British hotel clerk who doesn’t realize that he’s dealing with the wife of a man who can afford to buy the hotel. The audience feels the injury to Madame Young’s fierce pride, and we can admire how she maintains her dignity in this encounter. Witnessing a clash of rival racisms — the anti-Asian prejudice of the clerk versus the Chinese matron’s pride — we see how foolish superficial judgments can be. She doesn’t want to flaunt her wealth, but is forced to make the clerk aware that he is merely a hired hand. She’s classy.
There is no reason anyone should be offended by the exhibition of Chinese ethnic pride in Crazy Rich Asians. The Chinese have struggled for centuries to obtain their current enviable status as a rising power in the world. Americans — rich or poor, crazy or not — should study this highly entertaining lesson. If it’s “racist,” it’s a good kind of racism, a healthy antidote to the utopian nonsense about “humanity without borders” that has caused so much misery in the past century. China is now wide awake and, as Napoleon predicted, she is shaking the world. It’s time that the rest of us wake up, too.