It’s been a good few weeks for Henry Golding. The British-Malaysian actor, previously best known as a correspondent on the BBC’s The Travel Show, has appeared at the centre of two hugely successful Hollywood movies. His leading role as Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians has seen him at the forefront of a global phenomenon that has grossed more than $200m worldwide to date and is the most successful romcom in America since The Proposal in 2009. Meanwhile, he also shared the screen with the luminous, charismatic presences of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in twisty thriller A Simple Favour. That’s two massive opportunities for a performer who had never appeared in a movie before this year.
Golding is far from the only British actor of East Asian descent to shine in Hollywood this year. He was joined in Crazy Rich Asians by Gemma Chan, who also appeared in Channel 4 sci-fi series Humans, while her fellow British-Chinese actor Benedict Wong took centre stage for several scenes in the multi-billion dollar blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War, as Doctor Strange’s key sorcerer ally. Chan herself will join the Marvel Cinematic Universe next year with a role in Captain Marvel.
Tellingly, though, all three of these British actors have been forced to look stateside for the plum roles they deserve. It seems that the UK film industry has very little room to represent the East Asian portion of the population, despite its rapid growth. A 2014 report from the Foreign Office suggested that the South East Asian diaspora alone – which excludes people of Chinese and Japanese origin – has doubled in size since the 2001 census.
British-Chinese actor Lucy Sheen says representation of British East Asian characters as a normal part of society is “seldom seen” in the UK film industry. Her debut movie role was in the 1986 film Ping Pong, directed by Po-Chih Leong, which received strong reviews on the festival circuit and was championed at home by critic Alexander Walker. Despite strong notices, Sheen says the movie was “ignored” in the UK in comparison with a movie like My Beautiful Laundrette, which was released the previous year, and also focused on (South) Asian life in Britain.
Sheen adds: “You catch glimpses of East Asians in TV, say in Bodyguard recently on BBC or Killing Eve, but in film it’s almost invisible. British East Asians don’t exist except as ciphers, racial tropes or representations of ‘the other’.
“I think in the mainstream, among producers, commissioners, white writers and casting directors, East Asians are still not perceived as being part of British society, and therefore East Asians can’t speak in English regional accents or in RP. We’re still stuck in takeaways, restaurants or as illegal immigrants, sex slaves, drug dealers or triad members. We appear heavily accented, with the males emasculated and desexualised and females as lotus blossoms or sexual slaves, oppressed and abused.”
It’s into this climate that Crazy Rich Asians arrives, with its colourful depiction of East Asian culture – at least as it pertains to the ultra-rich. More important than the movie itself, though, and the cartoonish opulence it depicts, is the visibility it creates for actors of East Asian descent who, in most cases, have not been able to break through in mainstream movies.
Katherine Kim, programme manager of the London East Asia Film Festival, says the blockbuster success that Crazy Rich Asians has brought for Warner Bros might lead to a turning of the tide on both sides of the Atlantic for East Asian representation.
She says: “We will see more visibility because now the people who make the big decisions are finally realising that there is a demand for such films, and such representation and will be more willing to bring visibility to this community and culture. I know there’s a lot of people who are against Crazy Rich Asians because it’s not an honest or truthful representation, but I think the most important thing out of this is that the attention is on Asia and the commercial success out of it will bring more opportunities. That’s why this film is so crucial to us at this point.”
It remains to be seen whether Crazy Rich Asians will have a positive impact on the representation of East Asian culture in global cinema, and whether the film’s success on American soil will trigger a similar reckoning in the arena of British cinema. However, in a year that has seen a number of British-East Asian actors increase their profile to the level of bona fide star names, it would take an entire industry looking the other way not to realise that, beyond the duty of art to represent society in all of its colours and creeds, there’s a sizeable amount of money to be made.