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Casting “Crazy Rich Asians”: The Privileges and Pitfalls of Being Eurasian

The upcoming American film Crazy Rich Asians has recently announced some early casting choices for what the producers have said will be an “all-Asian” cast.

Among them are Constance Wu (of Fresh Off the Boat, one of the first stars tied to the project, and the female lead), Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, and Sonoya Mizuno, along with newcomer Henry Golding, cast as the charming male lead, Nick Young.

Set to play the Singaporean-Chinese character in the movie based on author Kevin Kwan’s bestseller of the same title, Golding’s casting is causing some stirs of controversy. From the start, the hallmark of the Crazy Rich Asians movie (as publicized by Kwan and the production team) has been that the cast will accurately reflect its namesake novel by casting all characters with Asian actors. However, Golding is Eurasian – that is, he is of mixed Malaysian and English birth.

While Golding is not the only Eurasian cast member (Mizuno is also mixed race), many are objecting to the casting of a half-white actor (who looks half-white) in a role that might have served to change the views of Americans toward Asian leading men.

With the lack of representation of Asian and Asian-American men as leading men in Hollywood – the hashtag #starringJohnCho gained ground as an activist movement to show what blockbuster posters might look like if an Asian-American man was given a headlining role – many are calling out the casting of Golding as just another disappointing whitewashing (or half-whitewashing) move by a major studio (Warner Bros.).

Blogs, message boards, in social media, and even the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post are questioning Golding’s casting, asking (in terms polite and not-so-polite) if this is as close as Hollywood dare get to casting an Asian man in a leading role? Is Hollywood racism so insidious that, even in a role written for a Asian leading man, they’re only willing to go “half a step forward” and safely cast a Eurasian man?

Must an Asian man appear “a little white” in order to be considered appealing enough for Hollywood studios and American audiences? Is this really any different than refusing to cast Asian and Asian-American men and women on the basis that their faces are unbankable?

But in considering Golding’s casting, and if racism against Asians is inherent in it, the question of racism against Eurasians, or mixed-raced Asians, cannot be avoided.

While comment sections can be the vilest places on the Internet that should have nearly every comment taken with spoonfuls of salt (some ignored altogether), they do show the uncensored opinions people hold when regarding Eurasians. Amidst discussion of Golding and Crazy Rich Asians, the sides arguing for and against his casting indicate the long struggle for acceptance of Eurasian or hapa individuals (among other mixed-race monikers).

The troubling question at the core of the debate seems to be, is Eurasian Asian enough?

On one hand, many make the bold statement that as a Eurasian, Golding is not Asian. Largely British-raised with an English father, he is called a “white guy” and his “Asianness” is discounted.

Others make the case that Golding, and those like him, are indeed “Asian enough” and the fact that even a part-Asian man (who looks obviously Asian) is being cast in a major Hollywood film should be accepted as a good thing. A commenter on Kwan’s page noted that Golding does indeed look like a Southeast Asian man and that his “casting was pretty good”.

Still, a number of people pointed to the Hollywood tradition of casting part-white Asians as leads as a way to be “diverse” while keeping actors pleasingly white. The South China Morning Post quoted a comment from Kwan’s Facebook page that spoke to this:

For a movie that was supposed to break barriers, I really feel that they came up short in this casting decision. I’m sure Mr. Golding is talented and is going to do a great job. However, the message is clear; you simply CANNOT be a full-blooded Asian male in a romantic lead in Hollywood. From Daniel Henney to Russell Wong and even Keanu Reaves; only Eurasians will survive Hollywood casting scrutiny.”

More of Kwan’s fans expressed disappointment in the casting choice, also not so much going after Golding’s “Eurasianness” but more Hollywood’s view of Eurasians as the safe alternative to a not-mixed Asian or Asian-American man. 

Nonetheless, all of the discussion of “Eurasians” surrounding the casting of Crazy Rich Asians is a prime example of the difficulty modern culture still has when considering mixed-race Asian people.

When discussing Eurasian, hapa, mixed-race Asian people, the argument can become very polar: Asian or not Asian; accepted or not accepted; identify as one or identify as the other. However, it is perhaps the identity as “the other”, in all its connotations, that provides the greatest strength and struggle.

Depending where you come from in the world, the experience of being a mixed-race Asian person is very different.

For example, being “hapa” (a Pidgin term meaning “half”) in Hawai‘i is a very different experience than being hapa on the US mainland. With Hawaii’s “minority majority” culture made up mostly of Asian-Americans, being mixed race in Hawai‘i is just accepted as part of the cultural fabric. While race is not ignored – Asian influences like Japanese and Chinese, along with the indigenous Hawaiian culture define Hawai‘i life – the notion of hapa is not necessarily a cause for further explanation. If a person identifies as hapa, they are hapa; not hapa-but-no-really-what-are-you.

As Kip Fulbeck told writer Alex Laughlin on npr.org“I think [hapa] is a much more interesting and accurate word than ‘Amerasian’ or ‘Eurasian’ or any these words that are two words combined, because I don’t think of myself as half Asian and half white. I think of myself as a whole.”

Yet being hapa or a mixed-race Asian-American can play very differently on the US mainland. Many mixed-race Asian-Americans (myself included) give up trying to explain being mixed race, as any appearance of Asianness was defaulted to as JUST ASIAN. While there nothing wrong with being “just Asian”, it does not give due to the range of cultures a mixed-race person may have a connection to.

Can a person be of more than one culture, instead of choosing one?

In a post on the blog The Ruby Ronin, the author, who only goes by Mary, candidly discusses her experience growing up half-Asian in America. Growing up in a small town in Utah, she found herself a bit between cultures.

Self-described as looking comparatively “un-Asian”, Mary recounts, “constantly teased for being a ‘gook’ or a ‘chink’ and never a moment went by where I wasn’t racially profiled. Me liking Japan didn’t really help improve the situation, so memories of people yelling ‘hey ching chong wong’ and other such uncultured insults are still a very fresh memory today.”

She goes on to say:

The ironic thing is, everyone in my town saw me as Asian and I was labeled with that stereotype – so you would think I would feel more Asian than white. However, my mother never taught me her native tongue so I couldn’t communicate with family, and Asian Americans usually grew up and hung out with other Asian Americans in their community and therefore treated me, the weird white girl, with a strange indifference.  After all, I wasn’t really Asian (plus, I was from Utah).

So basically, I didn’t fit in anywhere.  In a town full of white people I was heckled and called Chun Li, then when I was with real Asians I felt like something was missing from my overall composition that prevented me from becoming one of the crowd. I hear from other halfies this is quite common, and most half children tend to suffer severe identity crisis for quite a long time.

It’s this question of “What are you?” that might plague a Eurasian or hapa person; of not belonging to either culture, of feeling as if a choice needs to be made.

For many Asian countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, India, among others, Eurasians have had to work through finding acceptance in their native home, contend with anti-Eurasian/anti-mixing sentiments, and even muddle through the confusing place of having both high and low status within a society.

While a large number of Asian glossy magazine covers, as well as the fashion editorials inside them, flaunt Eurasian models of all genders, making Eurasians (and their European features) stylish right now, that hasn’t always been the case in Asia.

While the 19th and 20th century colonial era in Asia saw the rise of some influential Eurasian men and women, the question of where Eurasian people quite belonged in Asian society was often in question. While anti-miscegenation laws did not exit in places such as Hong Kong or China (like they did in the US), Eurasian children and growing Eurasian families found themselves in the odd place of being raised in Asia but not entirely having a place there.

In places like Hong Kong, many Eurasian families rose to power, prominence, and wealth, very often identifying more with the colonial British rather than the local Chinese.  Yet they were still an emerging group caught between worlds. Because of their Chinese blood they were barred from living in certain parts of Hong Kong; because of their European blood they were not always trusted as Chinese. Not entirely accepted by upper-crust British, but often rejected by full Chinese Hong Kongers, Eurasian families resorted to creating a tight-knit Eurasian community uniquely their own – one that still very much informs life in Hong Kong now.

Yet, amidst the strides Eurasian families made in Hong Kong in the colonial era, it was death that, instead of being the great equalizer, was the reminder that Eurasians were neither European not Chinese in the eyes of Hong Kong. Eurasians could not be buried in colonial cemeteries due to their Chinese ancestry, but were also not allowed to be interred in Chinese cemeteries. 

It wasn’t until 1897 when philanthropist and businessman, Sir Robert Hotung, founded Chiu Yuen Cemetery that the Eurasian community finally had a place to properly bury their dead.

Looking at being Eurasian in colonial Hong Kong, and even now, one could say that Eurasians embraced being “other”.

And while being Eurasian is common in large metropolitan cities in Asia, with Eurasian features even being seen as desirable and “the best kind of mix” now, being Eurasian is still often seen as somewhat of a “non-category” when it comes to race.

Eurasians, hapas, mixed-race Asians are pressed to choose a raise to embrace – usually the one they most physically present as. One might make the argument that forcing a mixed-race person to choose the race they most physically “resemble” is a way for dominant races to make it easier on themselves. In the cultural longing for categorization, being able to immediately racially identify someone is immensely less challenging than having to accept them without a context of how to treat them – consciously or subconsciously.

But beyond racial “identification” (which is growing increasingly treacherous in these times), mixed-race Asians must contend with fighting for their own kind of visibility.

Mixed-race Asians are typically just glossed over as “Asian”. Western media is not yet equipped to understand what it is to be mixed-race – be it Asian, Mexican, Black, etc. Because of this lack of visibility and understanding, many hapa and Eurasian people still strive to find acceptance in the two or more cultures they simultaneously inhabit.

And though Henry Golding’s casting as Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians brings up serious problems with how Asian men are treated and regarded in Hollywood, his casting also highlights the issues associated with being hapa or Eurasian, its privileges and pitfalls.

Though for Asians, being mixed race may be seen as “favorable” in certain circles, let’s not forget that Eurasian and hapa people also fight for visibility and equality, often from both sides of the racial divide.

12 thoughts on “Casting “Crazy Rich Asians”: The Privileges and Pitfalls of Being Eurasian

  1. Please get your facts straight: Gemma Chan is not mixed race. Her maternal grandparents and mother left China and settled in Scotland. They became Scottish citizens. So they were Chinese-Scottish similar to the actress Katie Leung (but she was born there). Gemma’s father grew up in Hong Kong. But it’s a common mistake since there are so few well known British Asian/East-Asian actors/actresses that most assume they are mixed race when they are indeed not. I just wanted to clarify that.

    I enjoyed reading your article and I look forward to watching Crazy Rich Asians.

    1. Thank you for pointing that out. Upon further research, I’ve requested a change to my piece. And I’m happy you liked the article!

      I do want to clarify that I didn’t make any assumptions about her being mixed-race simply because she is an Asian actress with a rising profile. What I read about her was a bit misleading, and I made a mistake. Thank you for reading! ~Louise

  2. Very interesting article. So true about the cultural limbo mixed people find themselves in.
    It might be to much to load a film with the task of seriously changing the Asian platforms. Best to cast it true to the book and sees how it falls.
    Henry Golding is perfect as the sexy,sharp-cheekboned Nick! It is so disappointing when a fabulously drawn character who sits clearly in your imagination is morphed into a screwed over Hollywood box-office version by people who haven’t read the book! I couldn’t care if he was from New Zealand, Iceland or Ohio … he’s just yum! Bring on the hundred handbags and the billion dollar snob wars.

  3. Harry is good looking and he seems like a nice chap and all of that but he is not even half Chinese. Even if you wanted to cast someone who is Eurasian, at least let him be half Chinese!

  4. I read CRA book many years ago before the world recognized the Rich Asia …
    I wish to see my son grow up fast enough to be in the film because I just know it be a better one the how many shades of grey
    Mama lam

  5. Nothing new with Golding’s casting; Hollywood has always avoided casting full Asians when it can. I sympathize with the struggles faced by multiracial Asians, but I’m also sick of seeing Eurasian beauty being fawned over and glorified in Asian media as yet another form of insidious white worship.

  6. Eurasians ARE Asians, having originally been created in Asia, and existing in Asia for centuries until this day, centuries later. If Eurasians do not “look” Asian, neither do many folk in Northern India, Pakistan etc.

  7. I agree, Actors should reflect their character’s background. However, acting is acting and as such the best actor for the part should be cast…difficult one.

  8. I don’t claim to know Golding but I know people who have worked with him. To be specific, Henry is British-Iban (the indigenous majority of Sarawak, Borneo-Malaysia). In Malaysia we have a different issue when it comes to cultural representation, which is that Peninsular Malaysia, where much of our Film & TV industry is based, has largely ignored East Malaysia.

    To Asian Americans, Henry is just another Eurasian but as a Borneon like myself, Henry has managed to tap into a market that has not only excludes us, but has often cast West Malaysians as East Malaysians because we aren’t “famous enough”, coming from the opposite end of the country.

    Malaysians will claim James Wan (director of SAW and Insidious) as Sarawakian although he’s grown up in Australia mostly yet Henry Golding landing a Hollywood film is problematic cos he’s not Asian enough even though he lives in Asia? When he himself (to my knowledge) hasn’t been cast in Malaysian films? The irony.

    Last year, Henry embraced his Iban roots, (which he proclaims on his personal website) by going ‘bejalai’ in the jungle, or as Australian aboriginals call ‘walkabout’. Bejalai has many forms and it can even mean the return of an expatriate Iban who has gained knowledge in his travels and come home. This was documented for Discovery Asia. In the episode, after he went ‘bejalai’, he returned and got married at a distant relative’s longhouse in a traditional Iban wedding.

    If you scan through Golding’s Instagram, you’ll also see that he has a hand tapped Bunga Terung (eggplant flower) tattoo on both shoulders, which is a rite of passage for Iban men. These things tell me that Golding is someone who embraces his tribal roots, which the majority in his own country, has tried to shut out.

    Henry might be another white face to you or Hollywood but he’s also half indigenous and coming from another Borneon who feels our underrepresentation in the media deeply, I’m happy for him.

    What’s problematic is when Asian Americans or diasporic Asians use whitewashing as something experienced by Asians all over the world when the Asian identity is far more diverse. There are all kinds of powers at work to keep minorities, minorities. One’s nationality doesn’t ordain their heritage or their experience, even if he is Eurasian.

    Some of us are happy for his success and that they’re shooting part of the film in Malaysia. Constance Wu is amazing and so is Michelle Yeoh. I for one, am looking forward to the film. Borneo represent. ✌🏽

  9. A reminder of one of the most insulting casting fails was Meryl Streep playing falsley convicted Australian Lindy Chamberlain. The comical accent will be forever remembered, but the damage was that an opportunity to help repair a National outrage backfired and was lost. So even though I mentioned above, it might be a big ask for the film’s casting to influence, getting it wrong can be lethal. Given the wide range of nationalities in the book, someone somewhere is not gonna be happy! Good luck to casting agency on this one…

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