On August 15th, Crazy Rich Asians will hit theaters worldwide. Adapted from the eponymous bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan, it’s been making waves for being the first Hollywood studio film centered on an Asian American cast in 25 years. Its predecessor? Another book-to-film adaptation: The Joy Luck Club.
When Amy Tan’s novel was brought to the big screen in 1993, it was the first of its kind. The characters were complex and fleshed out with grit, subtlety and nuance, and the story was one many hadn’t heard before. Even today, only about five percent of screen time goes to Asians in Hollywood, according to Deadline. And despite one in 20 Americans being of Asian descent, Asian Americans are often relegated to Hollywood roles that are one-dimensional or strip them of their American identity. It’s a phenomenon called “perpetual foreigner-syndrome,” and this narrow-mindedness seeps into the cultural dialogue and zeitgeist (like it did, earlier this year, in this memorable Bari Weiss mishap). This is why proper representation on screen is so vital, and it’s why The Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians are, too.
“The Joy Luck Club is one of my favorite books,” Kevin Kwan told me in an email. “From the moment I first started reading it, I knew it was going to be incredible. For me, it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime reading experiences that you cherish forever. It inspired me as a writer and still remains hugely inspirational.”
Likewise, as a child of South Asian immigrants, I found the story relatable in its depiction of mother-daughter relationships, as well as all the sacrifices immigrant parents make so their children can thrive. It explored and weaved in so beautifully the hardships that our parents faced, giving language and description to their suffering in a way that I’d never seen on screen. Despite American conception and erasure of what it means to come to this country, the immigrant life story can be deeply arduous and life-altering. Sometimes, the past never fully heals.
Though my own parents no longer live in war or poverty, they have oftentimes shown immense regret for leaving the country they were born in. Three million people in Bangladesh were murdered in 1971 during a civil war, and my parents survived it. However, with that came a survivor’s guilt that was rapturous. They eventually left to have a “better life,” always with the intention to return. But when they did, it was still not safe for them to stay. The agony of living in a liminal state — never quite being accepted in the country they migrated to, but also no longer finding solace in the broken country from where they came — caused immense trauma. A trauma they passed down. All they had was the hope that their children would never directly suffer.
The Joy Luck Club begins with a similar parable of a mother humming her child asleep, speaking about the vast place from where she came and of a swan she once bought from a market in China. The man who sold it to her said it was a “duck that stretched its neck in hopes of becoming a goose, and now look! – it is too beautiful to eat.” The mother buys the swan, hoping to bring it to America.
“In America,” she says, “I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English.” Eventually, when the mother enters the grand country she dreamt of, an immigration official takes the swan away from her. She manages to take one lone feather, which she hopes to one day give her daughter to serve as a reminder that while it might look worthless, “It comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.”
These “good intentions” seep into the fabric of The Joy Luck Club, which is in essence about motherhood, especially mothers who are reticent to share vulnerability because of what it might have cost them in their past lives; the sounds of their origins haunt them forever.
The story follows four mothers, who each have parables of their own. There’s Suyuan (played in the movie by Kieu Chinh) who fled China after the Japanese invasion during World War II while carrying her twin babies in a cart, only to have the cart collapse, forcing her to leave her twins at the foot of a giant tree. She herself lives and eventually moves to the United States, where she has another daughter named June Woo (played by Ming-Na Wen), but Suyuan’s past remains a painful memory. The agony of not knowing what happened to her children causes her grief beyond comprehension. It becomes a ghost that lives inside of her, even after she dies.
Ying-Ying (played by France Nuyen) tells her tender “no spirit” daughter, Lena St. Clair (Lauren Tom), that she also lost a baby, but through a terrible accident. Her marriage to a gruesome, abusive man left her so very fragile that one day she accidentally killed her child. Years later, in America, she can’t give Lena love or attention because she’s been fragmented, part of her incapable of moving on from what she did, but she encourages Lena to stand up for herself. She encourages her daughter to have a full life, unlike her own.
An-Mei (Lisa Lu), the mother to the sweet-tempered Rose Hsu (Rosalind Chao), also lost her mother. When her mother begins a relationship with a wealthy man after her first husband’s death, she’s disowned by her family. And when she’s eventually raped by this same man, her family doesn’t believe her and she is banished, forced to become his fourth wife, birthing a son which is suspiciously claimed by the second wife. Eventually she kills herself, eating sticky rice balls laced with opium, believing that her life and future hold no hope. An-Mei warns Rose not to have the same fate by living a servile life to a man.
Finally, Lindo (Tsai Chin) tells her over-achieving daughter, Waverly Jong (Tamlyn Tomita), that she also lost her mother, at age 15, when Lindo was sold off to a matchmaker to be married. When she finally marries into a family, her prepubescent husband is entirely uninterested in her, and they remain in a loveless, sexless marriage for four years, as Lindo experiences constant humiliation and abuse from her mother-in-law for not bearing a child. Eventually, Lindo finds a way out, years later making her way to America. But the memory of her mother remains constant; Lindo reminds Waverly that she’s always wanted to be like her mother, because she never really had her.
The life lessons that each mother shares with her offspring serves as a reminder that, as children of immigrants, we see only one side of our parents’ lives, and know little of their brutal pasts. What they stole, what they carried, what scars have caused irreparable damage. It also serves as a reminder that storytelling is one of our greatest strengths as humans. It has the power to help us connect in inexplicable ways and feel less isolated. In the case of Joy Luck Club, it also has the ability to heal. When we speak of our pain, it feels less loaded, less tempestuous, less like a knife at our throat. Storytelling can be an act of survival.
Though in essence, Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians are very different — one is about hardship and there other is about luxury, in a post-Colonial sense — they are important stories because they give greater depth to Asian histories and stories.
“I know [Crazy Rich Asians] won’t represent every Asian American,” wrote Constance Wu on Twitter. “So for those of you who don’t feel seen, I hope there is a story you find soon that does represent you…I am the American daughter of immigrants. Immigrant stories are the stories of dreams, of love, of sacrifice, of courage, of honor. They are truly what make America great.”
“I think the facts speak for themselves,” Kwan wrote me. “It’s taken Hollywood a quarter century to make another film with an Asian cast. And this is the first big studio romantic comedy ever to feature Asian leads.” The existence of both these films prove that there are many stories worth exploring, especially by people who aren’t traditionally seen on screen. Our stories are timely, resonant and multi-dimensional. Let’s not wait another 25 years to tell the next one.
Feature image via Everett Collection.