When I recently watched Crazy Rich Asians, it wasn’t hard to see why it’s been a major box office success.
Apart from the fact it’s the first Hollywood studio film in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast, it nailed the expectations of a good romantic comedy, with just enough fuzziness and relatability and no over-the-top cringe factor.
Given my own crazy (though not so rich) South Asian upbringing, I was keen to catch up with one of the stars of the movie in the hope they, like their character, would understand my struggle of cultural identity, in and out of the entertainment/media industry.
So over a serve of mouthwatering chilli crab in a bustling hawker food market in Singapore, I recently sat down with Chris Pang who plays Colin Khoo in the romantic comedy.
“Growing up in Australia, I never saw myself represented on screen,” Chris tells me.
Immediately there’s the first box of commonality I can tick. Apart from Indira Naidoo, I too struggled to see someone like my Indian self on television during my childhood.
For Chris, who started acting in Australia back in 2010, the decision to move to Los Angeles five years ago had a lot to do with the lack of opportunities for ethnic actors like himself Down Under.
“I think that acting for ethnic minorities is limited in general and the industry in Australia does reflect that, but the problem with Australia is the industry is so much smaller. Just by the numbers, you’re going to have so little opportunity,” he says.
“So I just didn’t feel like it was sustainable to have a career in acting in Australia so I had to move.”
At this point, Australian film Tomorrow, When The War Began was notably Chris’ standout project on his resume.
He has worked on a few projects since making the move to the States, but nothing has put him on the Hollywood map like Crazy Rich Asians has.
“It’s rewarding just because of the cultural relevance of this film,” he says with an undeniable grin, completely unaware of other diners around us who’ve recognised him.
For a long time Western media has portrayed Asian men as ‘weak’ and ‘unsexy’, and Chris is thrilled this film challenges those damaging stereotypes, which have once upon a time even rocked his self esteem.
“Even when there’s an Asian guy as the lead, say Jackie Chan or Jet Li, they never get the girl and they are presented in a very asexual way.
“You never have that idol to look up to who looks like you, and so it’s very damaging to one’s self-image and self-worth growing up. I certainly dealt with that,” he explains.
“And it’s something I’ve always wanted to change and now here’s the opportunity whereby this trailer comes out – I’m not even talking about the film – the trailer for Crazy Rich Asians had three different Asian couples kissing on screen!
“It might not sound like a big deal but there has never been three Asian couples kissing in one trailer, like that is ridiculous,” he continues, the passion in his voice at its peak.
“So even that playing in cinemas has got to give people a sense of pride they’re included and that it’s okay to have that image.”
I ask Chris about his experience on the ruthless audition circuit in LA. Unfortunately little to my surprise, it’s been tough.
“There’s this crazy idea that when you go out for casting there’s two kinds of roles an ethnic minority can play/that’s on offer,” he explains.
“There’s roles that don’t specify any ethnicity and those are for white people. Then there’s the other type of roles that say open ethnicity or it says the ethnicity. So those character breakdowns come out and when you see that happen day in day out, it becomes a normality and you sort of desensitise to it.
“If it doesn’t say open ethnicity, you don’t even consider you’re allowed to audition for that. It’s just the world I’ve become accustomed to,” he reveals of the sad reality for him and other ethnic actors.
“It’s definitely happened to me where I’ve seen someone get cast and thought, ‘Well they’re not going to have two Asians in the show, that’s not going to work’.”
Then there’s Crazy Rich Asians, its entire cast being Asian and it serving as the ultimate talking point for diversity in cinema in 2018.
According to Chris, “It’s a dream of mine to be able to say I’m part of the conversation”.
But where does he go from here?
“I’m producing a film called Empty By Design. It’s my way of keeping this momentum going,” he reveals.
The momentum has already been thriving since the film released in the US in mid-August and in Australia just last Thursday.
And when I next catch up with Chris for a hearty meal, I hope to hear of more films he’s added to his showreel, less of a struggle for ethnic actors and most importantly, more stories about you and me on the big screen.
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