Soundtrack for the Chinese Diaspora: The Music of Crazy Rich Asians
By Catherine Fung
August 16, 2018
I grew up in the 1980s, a child of ethnically Chinese parents from Taiwan and Viet Nam, in Saratoga, California, a historically white city that was increasingly becoming more Asian with the emergence of Silicon Valley. A hopelessly uncool kid who didn’t have an older sibling to introduce me to popular music that my peers were listening to, the soundtrack of my childhood was my father’s. He grew up in Saigon during the 1950s and early 1960s, and he was obsessed with listening to music on the U.S. military’s radio station, as well as watching American films at the movie houses every night. During my childhood, he immersed me in the music and films of his youth. He would put on his favorite records, and once a week, he would take me to the local video rental store to pick out movies he remembered watching as a kid. As a result, the soundtrack of my childhood was Rodgers and Hammerstein, Elvis, The Beach Boys, Motown, the Beatles. To this day, I’d sooner sing you a Herman’s Hermits song than New Kids on the Block. I know The Temptations’ catalogue better than I know Michael Jackson’s. I wanted to be Julie Andrews when I grew up, and didn’t take much interest in Madonna. It didn’t occur to me that the music I grew up listening to was “foreign,” or that it was a signifier of how my family has been colonized by the West and had assimilated to American culture. Of course all that could be said to be true, but this music felt just as “ours” as anyone else’s. And it didn’t occur to me that this music was any less ours than the Canto pop my dad also had records of, or the songs of Taiwanese pop idol Teresa Teng, which is the only music my mother listens to.
And maybe that’s why the thing that resonated with me most when I watched the film Crazy Rich Asians (directed by John M. Chu, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan) wasn’t the food, the landscape, the fashion, or even the beautiful people, but the music. I came into the movie with my Asian American cultural critic hat on, ready to engage with the critiques that I had already seen or anticipated seeing—that the film, which really only represents the mega-rich Singaporean Chinese and still marginalizes the other groups that make up diverse Singapore isn’t “Asian enough,” that in spite of Asian America’s excitement over seeing an American blockbuster film with an all Asian cast, the film’s designation as an Asian American film is debatable, and that for all the “RepSweats” the film inspires, it should just be allowed to be what it is. What I did not anticipate was how the movie soundtrack—a feature that the medium of film offers that the book does not—would grab me. It’s already been noted that the soundtrack is “groundbreaking” for featuring an almost all-Asian lineup of artists. For me, a closer look at who the artists are and what songs they perform opens up interesting conversations about representation and identity, about cultural appropriation, about circuits of production and consumption.
Before the film drops us into the action, it opens with a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “Let China sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world.” Perhaps that moment of China’s awakening is now, when the country increasingly gets prophesied as the world’s next superpower. A Mandarin song with a big band feel begins: “Waiting for You to Return,” performed by contemporary Chinese Jazz singer Jasmine Chen. The history of the song further gestures to China’s place in global politics; it was originally recorded in 1937 by Shanghainese singer and actress Zhou Xuan, who was known as one of China’s Seven Great Singing Stars. Zhou’s highly popular recording garnered controversy due to it being interpreted as having a political subtext. During Japanese-occupied Shanghai from 1937-1945, the song was interpreted as anti-Japanese and treasonous. Interestingly enough, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the song was banned for being bourgeois and decadent, a perception that would continue through the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and even well into the 1980s. Other artists have since covered the song, including Teresa Teng, whose 1979 recording is the one I’m familiar with, thanks to my mom. With this song, the film traces a transitional time for Shanghai—from being a major trading center since the Opium Wars opened up China to merchants from Great Britain, Germany, France, and the U.S., among other foreign powers, to being besieged by Japan during World War II. The film includes other jazz songs contemporaneous to “Waiting for You to Return,” and a wedding reception scene that is anachronistically stylized in a way that could be plucked out of The Great Gatbsy. The contemporary take on these songs prompts a reflection of how far China has since come. Is the bourgeois decadence associated with the song now acceptable, even aspirational, at a time when we can have a film called Crazy Rich Asians? Does China’s awakening come with its financial rise? And, given that the still shot of the Napoleon quote gives way to aerial views of not China, but of the glossy, hyper-modern, cosmopolitan landscape of Singapore, how does this song connect all Chinese of the diaspora? Overseas Chinese of the merchant class, after all, have long been derided as “disloyals” by Chinese on the mainland and as settler colonialists in places they settled, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Viet Nam, the Philippines, the Americas and the Caribbean. Oftentimes called the “Jews of the East,” the overseas Chinese are associated with business and banking. And, indeed, in some of those places (like Singapore), they comprise much of the elite class. Are these overseas Chinese also credited for the circulation of capital that prompts the awakening of China? Does this opening sequence, with the quote, the song, and the landscape, bring the diaspora back home?
It is with this framing that I think about the film’s use of Chinese covers of English songs, including (Singaporean/Malaysian American) Cheryl K’s version of “Money (That’s What I Want)” (written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, recorded by several artists, but perhaps most famously by The Beatles), (Taiwanese-Canadian) Sally Yeh’s version of Madonna’s “Material Girl” and (Chinese American) Katherine Ho’s version of Coldplay’s “Yellow.” Perhaps these songs serve the pragmatic function of appealing to western audiences who could say, “Hey, I know that song!” We could critique the film for this move—in not using music “native” to Asia, but instead leaning on immediately recognizable western songs, the film is perpetuating the idea that western popular culture still reigns supreme, and that the role of Asians isn’t to produce and export culture to the rest of the world, but only to consume and reproduce the cultures of others. I reject this reading, in part because the film does feature Chinese artists doing their own music, including VAVA, who is being touted as China’s hottest rapper. In addition to the aforementioned 1930’s Shanghai jazz songs, the film also features songs from the 1950’s by Hong Kong singer Grace Chang and Lilan Chen, an artist I haven’t been able to track, but whose “Ni Dong Bu Dong” sounds very swinging 60s Hong Kong to me. Put together, alongside the non-Asian artists featured, the soundtrack serves as a musical landscape and genealogy of the overseas Chinese. It offers nostalgia for classic tunes from the mainland, traces Chinese songs produced around Asia, and reappropriates music from the U.S. and the U.K. that plenty of Chinese of the diaspora and their descendants listen to. The decades marked via the music highlights times of migration and cultural exchange. (My own family’s history is marked by these moments: my grandfather left China for Viet Nam in the 1930s due to the Japanese occupation, and my father left Viet Nam for Hong Kong, and then later to the United States, during the 1960s.) As an Asian American, many of the songs featured in the film were new to me, and of the ones that were familiar, the covers of English songs (and of course the English songs themselves, including Kina Grannis’s rendering of “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” made famous by Elvis Presley) were the most so. But they didn’t strike me as gimmicky, lesser versions of the originals. I saw them as locating these artists within a genealogy of music in a world where the boundaries between East and West become increasingly blurred. Moreover, that genealogy is inherently hybrid; after all, Shanghainese jazz, which blossomed in the French Concession, is a mixture of Chinese folk and American jazz that oftentimes incorporates Latin beats. We cannot call this music any more or less “pure” or “authentic” than, say, the hip-hop music of Queens, New York-born-and-bred Awkwafina, who stars in the film and provides a rap for the English version of Cheryl K’s cover of “Money (That’s What I Want).”
Which isn’t to say, of course, that structures of power that determine the politics of representation don’t matter, especially in a blockbuster movie that is entirely about consumerism. The seeds of my own musical repertoire, after all, were planted by a history of colonialism and militarism, given how my dad was able to access American music. One cannot ignore the power dynamics involved when a Chinese American girl grows up singing along to the songs from The King and I. But from that opening quote, Crazy Rich Asians prompts the audience to reverse the assumed power structures and imagine a world in which the West is not front and center. The film is laced with jabs at the U.S.’s waning status: Ken Jeong’s character, a transnational Singaporean nouveau-riche dad who studied at Cal State Fullerton, tells his children to finish their food because “There are a lot of starving children in America,” and Constance Wu’s character, Rachel Chu, sighs while arriving at Singapore’s airport, “Changi has a butterfly garden. JFK just has salmonella and despair.” I like Jane Hu’s take on what Crazy Rich Asians shares with the film Black Panther:
“Watching Crazy Rich Asians returned me, perhaps unexpectedly, to one of the central themes of Black Panther: its science-fictional portrayal of Wakanda as an alternate—and better—modernity against the reality of present-day America. In Crazy Rich Asians, a similar alternate modernity might be found in Chu’s portrayal of capitalist Singapore: a hyper-accelerated, hyper-networked island whose abundant splendor comes into frequent conflict with the lagging ethos of America as represented by Rachel. Both Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians are, in ways, post–Bandung Conference films about the right to development, where a seemingly unfettered process of modernization has occurred not in America, but in a separate national context with its own non-white racial makeup.”
So while the film’s soundtrack certainly traces histories of western colonialism in Asia, the world the film fantasizes is one of Asian dominance, where Chinese no longer get excluded from spaces because they own them, where the Material Girl might as well be Sally Yeh, if newer generations of listeners aren’t even familiar with Madonna. It’s not a progressive, egalitarian, or socialist fantasy by any means, and it’s one in which I, a middle-class American who dropped out of Chinese school will likely lag behind, and one in which darker skinned Asians are still relegated to voiceless roles of servants and domestics. But it is one that nonetheless undermines the idea that the West is the originator of modern culture, and that any “translation” is just a diluted copy. In the world of the film, rich Asians are the producers of culture and meaning; or, at the very least, they have the power and privilege to appropriate and commodify the culture of others. Director John M. Chu was very much aware of how power determines the significance of cultural forms when he selected the song “Yellow” by Coldplay, a band that had been accused more than once of Orientalist exploitation in their music videos. As Chu explains, he wanted to resignify the word “yellow,” historically associated with the Yellow Peril, sickness, and cowardice, and turn it to something beautiful for a generation of Asian Americans. While this may be an empowering gesture of reclamation, one wonders if it reproduces white supremacist models of cultural appropriation, not so different from the way that Elvis Presley capitalized on Big Mama Thornton’s song, “Hound Dog” and changed its meaning. The line between reclamation and appropriation depends on who has power and what position we occupy in relation to that power.
If our identities are represented by the music we claim as ours, then the soundtrack for Crazy Rich Asians prompts me to think about my own power and positionality. As an Asian American, I have been made to feel like a “banana”: a yellow girl who has internalized white culture due to the violences of colonialism and assimilation. It’s no wonder that I relish in a musical landscape filled with the voices of “my people.” And yet, because I want to resist reproducing the violences of colonialism, Chinese hegemony, and class privilege, I am careful about what I locate as my cultural “origins.” Given these ambivalences, it perhaps makes sense that the film locates 1930s Shanghai as a point of musical origin for the Chinese diaspora-- It is a time and place of cultural transactions and proliferations, where the same people who were subjected to foreign domination also went on to dominate others. As a member of the Chinese diaspora, I have to confront and hold all those histories at once. Now, as I add “The Evening Primrose” to my musical repertoire, my dad laughs, “That’s a really old song. I think your grandpa might have known it.”