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Crazy, Rich and Asian

When the creators of “Crazy Rich Asians” were shopping the film around Hollywood, one prospective producer suggested they cast a white actor for the lead. That didn’t happen and the romantic comedy, based on the best-selling book by Singapore-American Kevin Kwan became the first all-Asian Hollywood studio movie since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993 (a uniquely Chinese-American tale that would have been impossible to cast otherwise).

The 2018 film, a Cinderella story about an Asian-American woman meeting her boy­friend’s colorful and fabulously rich family in Singapore, succeeded stupendously at the box office: nearly $175 million in North America and $64 million internationally, despite the doubts in some quarters about the commercial viability of an all-Asian cast.

Hollywood has had a long history of whitewashing. Emma Stone was cast (to much critical derision) as a Hawaiian-Chinese character in the 2015 film “Aloha”. Scarlett Johansson played a role created for a Japanese woman in the 2017 film “Ghost in the Shell”. This, despite the fact a sizeable 6 percent of the U.S. population is of Asian origin.

Any doubts about the viability of an Asian cast in Hollywood had to have been utterly smashed by the historic success of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” which took crazy and raised it multiple universes. The bewildering film about a Chinese American family working out their problems in multiple dimensions won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and seven awards in all, including three of the four acting Oscars.

If nothing else, the two films showed these can be money makers.

“When Hollywood sees something that works, every studio in town will try the same formula,” my former colleague, Reuters Hollywood correspondent Lisa Richwine, told me.

Michelle Yeoh, who took the best actress award, also starred in “Crazy Rich Asians”.

“It’s a pivotal moment in Hollywood, accepting Asians as leads. It’s going to become easier and easier,” Richwine said.

Hollywood, which generally leans left anyway, has been under pressure to diversify both on screen and behind the camera, particularly since the #MeToo movement and the more recent Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives.

The UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report found that in 2021 (the most recent) actors of Asian descent played 6.4% of all roles in the top 200 box-office-grossing English-language films in 2020 – approximating the Asian share of the U.S. population – and a steady rise from 4.7 % in 2017.

The report’s data suggests “that America’s increasingly diverse audiences prefer diverse film content”, though it also notes roles for Hispanics lag well behind their share of the U.S. population as do minority representation for jobs behind the camera.

The globalization of the film industry is a big part of this. Hollywood is putting more movies on streaming services so they can become successful around the world.

The success of Korean TV dramas like "Squid" and movies like “Parasite,” which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2019, have shown the way. Netflix’s market in the US has matured and its drive to find new subscribers will increasingly be focused on the lucrative Asian markets.

Disney has a new streaming show coming out in May that fits this bill, “American-born Chinese”. It stars Malaysian Chinese actress Michelle Yeoh and American-Chinese actor Ke Huy Quan - both of whom won acting Oscars for Everything Everywhere.