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How Asians struck it Rich

The making of the feelgood hit of the summer Stateside endured as many twists and turns as the movie


Crazy for Wu: Production was delayed by five months to accommodate Constance Wu (centre)

Crazy for Wu: Production was delayed by five months to accommodate Constance Wu (centre)

Crazy for Wu: Production was delayed by five months to accommodate Constance Wu (centre)

The most popular film in America right now is a lavish rom-com with luxurious shooting locations, fabulous gowns, a handsome leading man and an ending that involves an engagement ring. But Crazy Rich Asians is no mere sleepover movie. An adaptation of the book of the same name by Kevin Kwan, the blockbuster is the first film to have an entirely Asian principle cast since 1993's The Joy Luck Club.

Its success won't just boost the coffers of Kwan, Warner Bros and its stars, but prove that racial diversity on the silver screen can reap rich rewards.

If the story of Crazy Rich Asians is a relatively familiar one (boy meets girl, boy transpires to be filthy rich, girl must impress imperious mother, boy must choose between family approval and love of his life), the making of the film has enough twists and turns to inspire its own, largely Asian drama.

The mission to introduce the modern lives of the super-rich Singaporean and Chinese people actually began five years ago when Kwan wrote and published Crazy Rich Asians, his first novel - and one loosely based on his own affluent upbringing.

If Kwan was a character in a book, you'd struggle to believe he was little more than fiction: his grandfather invented Tiger Balm, the aromatic Chinese paste that has more healing benefits than Savlon, while his cousin is Nancy Kwan, one of the first Asian actresses to break into Hollywood. He spent his childhood breeding arowanas, the exotic fish that can reach up to $300,000 a piece.

Crazy Rich Asians rapidly became a bestseller. A couple of sequels followed, but not before the offers to buy the film rights. Wendy Deng, the self-made Chinese businesswoman who famously married Rupert Murdoch, got in touch after receiving an advance copy. Her vision for the film, Kwan told The Hollywood Reporter, "completely gelled with what I saw".

Deng, however, was in the midst of divorcing from the media mogul and had to abandon ship. But others followed - Kwan met six producers in one day. One pitch suggested that Kwan turn his heroine, the Chinese-American academic Rachel Chu, into a white woman. Another told him: "It's a pity you don't have a white character." In the end, Kwan sold the rights for a symbolic dollar on the proviso he would retain control as the film went through development - although he also received other paydays as the project progressed.

Director Jon M Chu (left), whose previous work included Step Up: 2, GI Joe: Retaliation and both of Justin Bieber's documentaries, came on board after his sister encouraged him to read the book. What Chu called "the Avengers of f****** [Asian] actors" - including Michelle Yeoh, a martial arts veteran, as the terrifying mother Eleanor and British actor Gemma Chan (Humans) cast as cousin Astrid - fell relatively easily into place. Production was stalled, however, by five months to accommodate Constance Wu, who would play Rachel, the film's heroine.

The leading man, however, was missing. Unlike casting for a rom-com where all the characters are white, the list of eligible Asian actors on agents' rosters offered up slim pickings for the role of the suave, charming - and secretly loaded - Singaporean Nick Young.

Chu, increasingly desperate, followed up on a tip from his accountant Lisa-Kim Kuan. Having read the book, Kuan had remembered being struck by someone who had presented at an award show she had attended several years before. "As I was reading the book, I thought of Henry being the perfect Nick Young," she later told Vulture. "You know how it is when you read a book and you imagine the person to be in that perfect role?"

Chu checked out the Instagram of Henry Golding, a Malaysian-born, England-raised broadcaster who had been earning his keep presenting travel series for the BBC and Discovery Channel. "And every video was so charming," the director told The Hollywood Reporter. "He was like Cary Grant!"

At first, Golding was reticent: the newlywed 30-year-old had never acted before. "Jon pretty much set the hounds on me," he later told Jimmy Fallon, saying he received "three or four emails asking me to audition" before giving in. Then he had to leave his honeymoon early to finish off a screen test. "Wife wasn't happy, still making up for it," Golding (right) joked.

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The experience of shooting a film as a collective mass of Asians was a novel one for those actors who had spent their careers often being the only person from that ethnic background on set. The groundbreaking potential the film held was felt throughout its creation, as Wu found while shooting a scene in which a game of Mahjong sees her character Rachel stand up to Nick's mother Eleanor.

"We couldn't do too many takes on Constance's side, because it was so emotional for her," Chu told Vulture. "She would be crying and her eyes started to get really puffy. It tapped into something very true for Constance, and I think she had a very difficult time doing that take over and over again."

Quietly powerful moments of revolution are threaded through Crazy Rich Asians, such as in Katherine Ho's cover of 'Yellow' by Coldplay, which Chu was determined to use at the film's climax. "We're going to own that term," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "If we're going to be called yellow, we're going to make it beautiful."

Coldplay didn't give the producers permission to use their song at first, so Chu wrote a letter. In it, he explained how when he first heard 'Yellow' "it immediately became an anthem for me and my friends and gave us a new sense of pride we never felt before". Within 24 hours, Coldplay had approved the request.

It's not all a Cinderella story, however. Crazy Rich Asians has inspired a backlash from the minute the first trailer dropped, with Twitter users criticising the lack of browner faces in the film (to represent Singapore's Malay and Indian populations) and sparked a flurry of satirical hashtags including #CrazyRichEastAsians, #CrazyRichMongoloids and #CrazyRichEastLight-SkinnedAsians.

Last week, The Atlantic published a fierce rebuttal to Kwan and Chu's film, which dubbed it "affluence porn" and compares certain aspects of the cast's accents to "a parody of the 'ching-chong' stereotypes of Hollywood's past."

But if money talks in the film, it talks in the box office, too. Crazy Rich Asians has been credited with sparking a rom-com boom the likes of which hasn't been seen in Hollywood since the mid-2000s, when heavyweights such as Wedding Crashers were among the most lucrative box office successes of the year.

And even if this won't usher in a new era of rom-coms for Hollywood, for Asian-Americans the film has been a revelation. Asian-American actors are given less than five per cent of speaking parts in major Hollywood films, according to a study by the University of Southern California. During test screenings, Chu said that one commenter found the film's proposal scene derivative, saying that it was familiar from other romantic comedies.

But a group of millennial Asian-American women angrily contested him, saying: "We have not seen this scene before. This is ours now. We get that moment of the big kiss, and the big proposal. Now I can replace all those images of romantic comedies with our people."

Crazy Rich Asians is in cinemas on September 14.

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