Food plays a major role in this summer’s most lavish romantic comedy
On the surface, Crazy Rich Asians is a (great) romantic comedy about a Chinese-American woman, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who discovers that her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), is actually, well, crazy rich. During a trip to Singapore to attend a wedding, she is abruptly forced to navigate his old-school wealthy world, complete with disapproving relatives and jealous women. Underneath that glossiness, though, is a story about Chinese culture, family love, respect, and obligation that’s long overdue: Crazy Rich Asians’ stars are currently gracing magazine covers and eliciting internet buzz not because they’re starring in a frothy summer film, but because it happens to be the first U.S. studio film in 25 years to have an all-Asian and Asian-American leading cast. Finally, there’s a film that represents a little-seen portion of the world, at least when it came to mass media.
Throughout Crazy Rich Asians’ fish-out-of-water story, Rachel is seen as an outsider, especially to Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), because she is a Chinese-American, career-focused economics professor who was raised by a single working mom; Nick, the heir to the Young fortune, grew up in a privileged world. How can Rachel connect with Eleanor and the rest of his family? The answer is food, naturally.
Sumptuous food-filled scenes are weaved through the film, each with their own storytelling purposes. During their first night in Singapore, Rachel, Nick, and his friends grab dinner at a frenetic hawker centre, an open-air market full of food vendors. The real-life Newton Food Center is where Nick begins to slip into his comfort zone of being back home, as seen though his ease of ordering at the stalls. It’s a decidedly un-fancy meal, but it’s fun and easy, with Rachel and Nick even feeding each other bites of hokkien mee, satays, and fishball noodle soup over pints of beer in a way that isn’t overly saccharine.
Then there are the over-the-top extravagant parties, where food is representative of status. Everything is made on the premises of the family’s grand house, from fresh noodles to vegetables to steamed dumplings to decorative watermelons to colorful desserts. The food preparation is overseen by Eleanor, who has to approve of everything before it goes out to the crowds.
But the most meaningful scene of the film (involving eating or otherwise) is centered on dumplings, which are more than just delicious foodstuff here. Nick has a fondness for his grandmother’s dumplings — he calls them the best he’s ever had — so it makes sense that preparing them by hand holds special importance. At this particular moment, the entire family, including Rachel, is making the dumplings for yet-another dinner party. There’s a reason the Youngs are physically composing the items at their home dinner table instead of handing it off to their staff. Nick recounted the manner of which he was taught to make a dumpling by his grandmother (Lisa Lu): by placing the baby (the meat and vegetable filling) on the bed (the dough), and tucking the baby into the bed (folding the dumpling). “And then you eat the baby,” Rachel laughs.
What follows then feels like a dumpling standoff. When Rachel observes how much she enjoys the intimate and casual gathering, especially compared to those extravagant parties, Eleanor countered with the deeper significance of the dumplings. The wonton-wrapped bundles are symbolic of family history, a link tying the Youngs together through tradition. The elder Youngs taught their children how to make these specific dumplings, and they’re expected to pass the tradition on.
Otherwise, “they’ll disappear,” as Eleanor explained. It’s a subtle but pointed nod toward Rachel’s less-than-desirable background and ambition. And just to show that acceptance isn’t a given, Nick’s grandmother, who is also Eleanor’s mother-in-law, then criticizes Eleanor’s dumplings at the table. The scene suggests that the expectations of mothers are high and unrelenting; it’s revealed at some point during the movie that [spoiler alert!] Nick’s grandmother didn’t approve of Eleanor, either, but Nick’s father married her anyway. Because, ultimately, it’s impossible to make every family member completely happy.
Eleanor and his grandmother both raised Nick, grooming him to be the favorite Young sibling. Because of this extra care and attention, they expect him to live a certain life, complete with the dumplings. Nick isn’t outwardly aware of this — when it comes to his girlfriend and family, he thinks he can have his dumplings and eat them, too — but Rachel understands that it’s something much deeper than that. Do you follow your passions, or do you follow your family? The search for the answer is something Rachel and Nick, and many Asian families, struggle with.
But hey, at least there’s dumplings along the way.
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