Commentary
By Kion You 9-05-2018

Global hype for Crazy Rich Asians had been growing months before Aug. 15, when the movie finally debuted to public audiences: "It's not a movie," director Jon M. Chu told audience members at a private Los Angeles screening in July. "It's a movement." Many Asian Americans agreed, touting the fact that it had been 25 years since a major Hollywood studio presented an all-Asian cast, and the anticipation paid off: The film has already passed $110 million in box office sales, and has remained on top of the box office charts for the past few weeks.

The idea of a "movie as movement" opens floodgates to all sorts of criticism, as cast members have vehemently branded the movie as a spur to change Hollywood’s lack of Asian representation —according to a 2016 study done by a group of UCLA professors, only 3 percent of roles were played by Asians in top films. The film's understated, yet pivotal portrayal of Christianity deserves to be looked at in the same way as critics have done with the movie's lack of South Asian representation and its depiction of Asians as uniformly rich.

Crazy Rich Asians begets notions of Christianity in hyper-capitalist countries, satirizing Christianity by showing it as a tool for the wealthy to cozy up with those even more wealthy, accruing large doses of social capital with sprinkles of gospel. The movie, coming from author Kevin Kwan’s personal experience, thus provides a damning window into how Christianity functions today in the world’s richest countries.

Although specific discussion around religion occupies only a small portion of the film, and the protagonists never bring up their religious beliefs, it is no coincidence that the first scene showing Asia, specifically Singapore, is a Bible study among Eleanor Young (the male lead's mother) and her friends.

Hidden away in a lush tropical villa in the hills, Eleanor directs her socialite friends to open their Bibles. However, while reading Colossians 3:2, "set your mind on things above, not on things that are on the Earth," incoming gossip texts break up any semblance of spirituality: The women collectively gasp, discovering that Nick Young, the male lead, is bringing home to Singapore a girlfriend, a no-name American-born Chinese, automatically assumed to be a gold digger. "Oh I do hope she's a good Christian girl," one woman chimes in. The novel includes several other comedic breaks to Bible reading, such as a sharing of insider information about the imminent collapse of a stock, to which one woman cries, "Quick, quick! Where's my handbag? I need to call my broker."

This almost slapstick satire of a Wife-of-Oligarch-Christianity in the film undergirds several serious questions regarding Christianity in Singapore, and reveals damning truths found in a country half the size of Los Angeles but containing 150,000 millionaires. According to Dr. Robbie Goh, Singapore’s government has historically shut down activist urban missions and centers ministering to low-income workers, extrajudicially jailed liberal Catholic activist in the late 1980s, and even banned the Christian Conference of Asia in 1987 for participating in political affairs, effectively decimating liberal, class-conscious Christian organizations.

Unsurprisingly, the country saw a concurrent rise in “Church Inc.” as megachurches in Singapore grew massive business arms (in the fashion of the United States), which, according to Dr. Jeaney Yip, “blur religion and business.” New Creation Church’s Rock Productions, for example, owns the $360 million, 5,000 seat Star Performing Arts Theatre. However, religious charity collection totaled $1.3 billion in 2012, and Billy Graham once called Singapore the “Antioch of Asia” for its focus on intra-Asian missions, thus making it evident that Christianity is tolerated as long as it does not challenge the existing economic structure. Protestant Christianity in Singapore today, Goh states, is largely made up of people in “better educated, more privileged socio-economic and English-speaking backgrounds.”

A Christianity that doesn't assimilate to power

Crazy Rich Asians does not only describe Christianity in Singapore, but also in Hong Kong, a similarly post-British-Christian-colonial hub with similar degrees of income inequality and cosmopolitanism. In the novel's sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, a character named Kitty is taken to Hong Kong's Stratosphere Church, branded "the highest church in the world," at 99 stories up, and having an attendee list with incomes just as high: "It boasts more members on the South China Morning Post's rich list than any other private club on the island." Kitty is amazed by the sheer opulence of the church, seeing people like the pastor's wife in "a white Chanel suit, the three enormous Bulgari gemstone rings on her fingers sparkling as she waved her arms back and forth."

Hong Kong and Singapore function as centers for Christianity in Asia (along with other cities such as Manila and Seoul): Hong Kong has around 900,000 Christians (12 percent of the population), while Singapore has around 1 million (18 percent of the total population). Residents of both cities attempt to navigate Christianity within an economy squarely focused on accumulating capital and governments desiring to squash any form of religion challenging its profit model. Crazy Rich Asians merely points out these fault lines hidden underneath a supposedly stable religious society.

This summer, I found myself working in Hong Kong, where I began to attend an international, English-language church, with a Hong Kong Chinese majority, but a sizable group of Filipino attendees and a small contingency of white expatriates. Upon first entrance, I could immediately spot the class differences in the sanctuary, largely divided between the Filipino domestic "helpers" (there are 380,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong) and the more affluent Hong Kong Chinese, many of whom undoubtedly hire these workers in their homes.

Some Filipino women, I could see, were there to simply have an air conditioned space to sit down and relax on their one day off, as they live in their employer's homes and are pushed out on the seventh day (Hong Kong is notoriously cramped and humid — hospitable public spaces are almost nonexistent). However, others worshipped with abandon, eagerly shaking my hand and blessing me every Sunday. Overall, class and race differences didn’t seem to matter once I entered into the sanctuary, and I began to envision a Christianity based in solidarity, cutting against the classist, politically stagnant Christianity I had preconceived as I was reading the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy before setting off for Asia.

On July 1, the date of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from the U.K. and the date of its annual protests, I saw 50,000 protesters flood onto Hennessy Road and take to their causes, which mostly revolved around the Chinese government’s encroachment on rights. However, thousands of protesters were migrant workers seeking better working conditions, many working in tandem with Christian nonprofits and church organizations. Faces of the Hong Kong movement for democratic autonomy, such as Benny Tai, Joshua Wong, and Chu Yiu Ming, who previously worked to spearhead Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, all exercise their Christianity in concert with their protest. Within this stronghold of high-intensity capitalism, I began to see how Christianity could be used to speak truth to power, rather than assimilate to it.

My anecdotal experience by no means encapsulates the lives of almost 1 million Hong Kong Christians, nor separates Hong Kong Christianity from its Singaporean counterpart. Hong Kong is still fraught with questions of government collaboration versus critique, and some have advocated against protest, such as the Cardinal John Tong Hon, who urged Hong Kong Catholics to act with "restraint in the deliverance of force" and be “calm” in the voicing of grievances. The intertwining of church and profit are also just as present in Hong Kong: By virtue of sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars worth of land, churches have been seizing profit opportunities and leasing land for copious amounts of money, furthering Hong Kong’s drastic wealth gap. The protests and solidarity, in the bigger picture, could only do so much in $300 billion gross domestic product.

As I sought God as a transient in a place with a million millionaires shoulder to shoulder with low-wage workers living in “coffin cubicles,” I wondered if Christianity in Hong Kong — or Singapore, or the world for that matter — could reimagine itself outside of the global capitalist system it currently was trapped in. My church and the protesters I saw provided some degree of reassurance, but I could not help but doubt its viability in such a firmly entrenched economic framework.

When religion is hollowed out into a vessel of wealth

Just as the viewer in Crazy Rich Asians is introduced to Singapore, the viewer leaves Singapore with another glimpse of empty religious symbolism: a wedding at the First Methodist Church. The wedding guests, there to see Araminta Lee and Colin Khoo wed in the "event of the century," pull up to the church in gaudy BMWs, Benzes, and Bentleys, and stroll onto the red carpet as every fashion photographer in the country takes their photo. Inside, the church is shown transformed into a tropical paradise, complete with a faux-river running through the central nave. Whispers of "$40 million," the supposed cost of the wedding, permeate through the aisles.

Just like in the beginning of the story, when Bibles mask phones buzzing with incoming relationship gossip and insider trading tips, the meaning of religion and church is hollowed out into a vessel of wealth, marriage becoming the unity of two bodies collectively worth 10 figures. Tolstoy's opening line in Anna Karenina, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," remains wholly applicable, summing up the overt glamour and hidden despair of these old money Singaporean families. The Young family will never be "happy" because everything emotional and spiritual has been stripped away to maximize and maintain capital in the guise of “the family name,” a hopeless and godless endeavor.

Simply by making a Gatsby-like film of extravagant excess, devoid of any explicit racial, economic, and religious commentary, director Jon M. Chu's blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians has shaped and will continue to shape global perceptions of East Asians, inside which Christianity plays a significant role. Moreover, the film will continue to cement the notion of Christianity's inevitable present and future under the umbrella of capitalism, bringing the viewers into the religious question of the contemporary moment: Between a true Christianity and the current stratification of capital in the West, and more recently in Asia, what will remain? It is often said that it is easier to envision the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but even if this is true, thankfully Christianity looks further than the end of the world.

Kion You is a journalist at Brown University, and writes on topics such as fashion, Christianity, education, and Asian American identity.

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"'Crazy Rich Asians' Shows the Role of Christianity in the World's Richest Countries"
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