POSITIVELY PREPOSTEROUS PROSPERITY
inSing witnesses the wealth and wackiness first-hand on the set of Crazy Rich Asians
By Jedd Jong
Sprawling mansions, multi-million-dollar weddings, a bachelor party on a converted container ship, private jets, limited edition supercars – oh, to live as the top 0.1% does. inSing got a whiff of that rarefied air when we visited the set of Crazy Rich Asians in Singapore. Besides taking in the luxury, we learned that, yes, rich people have their problems too. Please contain your outpourings of sympathy.
Crazy Rich Asians is based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel of the same name. Kwan was born in Singapore, and his family relocated to the United States when he was 11. The story’s protagonist is Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor at New York University. Rachel falls in love with Nick Young (Henry Golding), who hails from Singapore. Nick takes Rachel back to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) to Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno). It is only then that Rachel realises that Nick belongs to one of the wealthiest families in Asia, and as the girlfriend of an extremely eligible bachelor, she draws the ire of scores of Nick’s would-be suitors.
Rachel also butts heads with Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who disapproves of her son’s choice. Rachel finds herself drawn into an intricate family drama, with players including Nick’s beautiful cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan); Astrid’s unfaithful husband Michael (Pierre Png); Peik Lin (Nora “Awkwafina” Lum), Rachel’s best friend in Singapore, rowdy groomsman Bernard Tai (Jimmy O. Yang); social-climbing Hong Kong soap opera starlet Kitty Pong (Fiona Xie); and various other colourful characters.
When we visited the set along with other members of the press, it was the penultimate day of filming in Singapore. It was a night shoot, which tends to be arduous on the cast and crew. The scene being shot that night was set after the wedding reception at the Gardens by the Bay in Marina Bay Sands. In the shadow of the towering Supertrees was a cluster of banquet tables, each with a roasted pig as its centrepiece. Food stylists would occasionally spritz the pig with oil to keep its skin glistening. A stage sat towards the front of the garden, with an ornate fan-like backdrop and a bandstand on it. The laminated dance floor before the stage was kept covered with a grey carpet. The scene of the dinner itself was shot the night before.
Observing from a distance through a bank of monitors, we watched a heated confrontation between Nick, Rachel and Eleanor, with Nick’s grandmother (Lisa Lu) witnessing the argument. In between takes, director Jon M. Chu rushed over to speak to us. While he was perspiring heavily from the muggy Equatorial weather, Chu appeared to be in good spirits. To keep the cast looking picture-perfect while shooting outdoors, Chu told us that the makeup department alone was 30 strong. “That’s the biggest makeup crew I’ve ever had, and I’ve done bigger movies,” he remarked, quipping “sometimes dressing nice to a wedding takes more effort that being ninjas on the side of a mountain” – referencing his earlier film, G.I. JOE: Retaliation.
Chu’s credits also include two Justin Bieber concert films, two films in the Step-Up series of dance movies, Jem and the Holograms and Now You See Me 2. He explained that after helming several sequels, he was ready for a change of pace and sought out material that would be more personal to him. “I grew up in a Chinese restaurant with my dad and mum who came over – my Mum is from Taiwan, and my Dad is from [Mainland] China,” Chu said. “There’s that side of me, the traditional part of it, but I also grew up in California, as a California boy my whole life, so I have this other side.”
It was the director’s sister who introduced him to the novel, which struck a chord with Chu. “It says everything that I feel, but in the most fun way, not so dark and deep or trying too hard,” Chu observed. He added that he was excited to showcase Singapore in his film, proclaiming that “The world has not seen this world on the big screen in a big American movie.”
Chu was effusive about his cast, saying “they’re hilarious, they’re amazing, they’re talented, they’re fresh, they’re excited to tell a great story.” Over the course of the night, we would consistently hear about the actors’ camaraderie on and off the set. “Our cast gets along better than any other cast. They go for karaoke every night,” Chu said, adding jokingly “Almost too much, I think it might be a problem.” He added that he wished he could hang out with them more, but alas, a director’s work is never done. As if to demonstrate this point, Chu was whisked back to work and away from the media, returning to direct another take.
Crew members were stationed across the Gardens by the Bay complex, with personnel shuttled to and fro on buggies and golf carts. A function room had been converted into a green room, where we would meet several cast and crew members when they weren’t needed on set. Producer Nina Jacobson ducked behind the partition curtain in the green room where we were waiting. Outlining the film’s appeal, Jacobson described Crazy Rich Asians as “a universal story but told in a way we haven’t seen, in a place we haven’t seen.” Jacobson co-produced the blockbuster Hunger Games franchise, so she knows cinematic potential in a book when she sees it. “When I first read the book, I couldn’t put it down,” Jacobson recalled, adding “I very much identify with Rachel, but I was also fascinated by this world.”
According to Jacobson, the film examines cultural attitudes in a way that hasn’t yet been seen on the big screen. Jacobson said one of the themes in the story is “Tension between family and duty and happiness and love,” and the film deals with negotiating those tensions in a global economy in which “increasingly, people have a foot in two worlds.” Jacobson credited Malaysian-born co-screenwriter Adele Lim with providing “insights into generational conflict,” and assured us that there would be nuance to the conflict presented in the film. “It’s not just everyone being mean to the American girl,” Jacobson clarified.
According to Jacobson, Constance Wu was the first choice for Rachel. Jacobson described her leading lady as “funny, smart, casual” and “a breath of fresh air”. Wu actively pursued the part, and didn’t even have to audition. Similarly, Michelle Yeoh was the top pick to play Eleanor.
Jacobson insisted that the filmmakers were “mindful about people’s heritage,” and were aiming to accurately represent the characters as written in the book. This led to the elephant in the room: leading man Henry Golding, born to an English father and a mother from the Iban tribe in Sarawak, Malaysia, plays Nick Young. The character is ethnic Chinese and is described in the book as resembling “Cantopop idols”. The casting received its share of backlash, with critics decrying the film as committing ‘partial whitewashing’. This seemed hypocritical, given that star Constance Wu has been an outspoken opponent of whitewashing in media.
Jacobson called Golding “by far the best person for the part,” adding that “he felt like how we always imagined Nick.” Jacobson justified the casting by pointing to how “Singapore is a very multicultural place.” Clearly prepared for the topic to be broached, Jacobson said “There are many people whose families have mixed backgrounds and we could get away with it here, especially with Michelle as his mother, who has a Malaysian background as well.” The producer explained that due diligence had been done, and that author Kwan and Warner Bros.’ international partners had all been consulted about Golding’s casting and given their approval. “He had to be both the kind of guy a girl wishes she could be with, and a guy wants to have a beer with,” Jacobson reasoned, saying that Golding struck that balance.
While Crazy Rich Asians can be loosely classified as a romantic comedy, Jacobson insisted that there is dramatic heft to the story too. “Oftentimes in romantic comedies, there’s a major contrivance or misunderstanding,” Jacobson said. “To me, a movie is as romantic as the conflict between the characters is great.” Jacobson broke down the components of the film, saying “There’s the comedy of manners, there’s the romantic comedy, but at the heart of it, there’s a real dramatic conflict.”
Production designer Nelson Coates gave us a sense of the logistical undertaking that making Crazy Rich Asians was. Principal production lasted a mere 40 days, with shooting taking place in three cities in Malaysia and in Singapore. Despite the stressful schedule and the daunting task of re-creating staggering opulence on a limited budget, Coates was easy-going and friendly. He described working with a crew from 18 different countries, saying “you have to tune your ear to different kinds of English.” He remarked on some of the challenges of working in an unfamiliar environment, saying “Singapore does a funny thing in that they blend metric and Imperial. You might get a 4’ by 8’ sheet of plywood, but it’s 16 mm thick.” Coates seemed to take it in his stride.
To create Tyersall Park, the Young family mansion, Coates turned to the Carcosa Seri Negara, formerly a luxury hotel in KL. The historic complex had been abandoned for some time, and the production team gave it a makeover to turn it into the stately home befitting the wealthiest of the wealthy. “There were bats and hornets and feral dogs, we had to do major cleans,” Coates recalled. Some movie magic was required to make multiple locations feel like they were part of the same mansion. Coates built the Tyersall Park kitchen in the Kuala Lumpur Craft Museum, earning the approval of one key cast member. “Michelle Yeoh walks in and she goes ‘how did you know?! How did you know about all the food?!’ She was so excited to see it,” Coates beamed. The gates were built near Champion’s Public Golf Course in Singapore, in a stretch that the production nicknamed “monkey road”.
Coates’ eyes lit up as he described a central set piece – a container ship that had been converted into a party yacht to host the bachelor party. “When you get in, you come down the stairs from where the helicopter’s landed, and there is the basketball court, and the pit that you can dive and do stunts into, and the cars that have been cut and turned into pool tables on the top, and a climbing wall, and a series of Ducati motorbikes in front of a huge electronic wall that has all the streets of Singapore going past you as fast as they can, so it looks like you’re in the ultimate videogame. Then there’s the gambling area, and the arcade area, and a stage where all the beauty queens from all over the world come out and do a little dance.” All this was built in a parking lot in Kuala Lumpur.
While striving for a fidelity to the source material, certain changes had to be made to accommodate filming. For example, a scene that takes place in the Lau Pa Sat hawker centre in the book is relocated to Newton Circus for the film. “I know it’s not the one that’s in the book, but we chose it because it’s triangular,” Coates said. “Everywhere you look, you see vendors. We wanted that full explosion of foods.” Coates became a big fan of Singaporean food, and was fond of one particular snack, exclaiming “I love those ice cream sandwiches!”
When actress/rapper Nora “Awkwafina” Lum swung by, the room lit up. Energetic and personable, Lum quickly put everyone at ease. Rocking a necklace shaped like an avocado, it was clear that while some characters in the film were bound by strict decorum, Lum’s Peik Lin was a little on the wacky side. “She’s fashionable, but not classy,” Lum said of her character, adding “she wears bunnies all the time”. It was easy for Lum to relate to the character. “She’s a little bit of myself – I’m crazy, I’m very eccentric, and I’m a different kind of Asian female for people to digest,” she proclaimed. “She’s not a stereotypical character – she’s not the brooding mother-in-law, she’s not the classic beauty, she’s just a little crazy – so I feel like I connect with that a lot.”
Lum’s onscreen dad is played by Ken Jeong, whom she was thrilled to work with. However, filming scenes with him was challenging in its own way. “He’s so funny that when we run takes, I can’t keep a straight face. I break character every time,” Lum laughed. “In America, we have a very limited icon list, and he’s one of the most famous prominent Asian-American entertainers that we have,” she said of Jeong. “He literally called Jon and was like ‘I don’t care if I get paid, I just want to be in this movie,” Lum revealed, adding “it’s that important for our community back home.”
The actress considers it a privilege to be part of the first Hollywood studio film in 25 years with a predominantly Asian cast. “It’s something I didn’t think I’d see in my lifetime, and definitely not something I thought I’d be a part of,” she admitted. Lum stated that it was “important for the next generation to understand that this is possible,” hoping it sets a precedent in the American entertainment industry. “I look at the cast and realise that we’ve all, at some point in our lives, been the minority on a set full of white people,” Lum said, turning vulnerable for a moment. “We’ve been ‘that Asian’ on set. And now, that dynamic doesn’t exist.”
Stay tuned for more of our coverage of Crazy Rich Asians! Up next – interviews with stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh.