There’s one romantic comedy trope I’m really glad Crazy Rich Asians gave us: Your man is so hot, you have to have sex with him even if you’re running late.
This scene happens early on in the movie, the morning after Nick (Henry Golding) and Rachel (Constance Wu) land in Singapore. There’s some conversation happening, but it’s hard to focus for Rachel (and the viewer) because Nick is wandering around with his shirt off. She puts on her glasses for a better look at those chiseled abs. The scene is short, but the audience leaves thirsty. We’re not worried, though. We know there are many more beautiful abs coming right up.
This past weekend, Crazy Rich Asians opened to an expectations-busting $34 million box office. It was a relief, in many ways. Now, the discussion around the movie has gone beyond the blanket praise leading up to the film’s release to a more critical examination of some deeper (or at least different) questions beyond the party line that the movie is unquestionably a good thing for Asian Americans. But I posit that there’s one aspect of the movie that we can all agree on: I’m talking about the abs. All one thousand of them.
Serving up male bodies to gawk at is one of the oldest tropes of the rom-com genre. These movies are made for swooning, and swoon we did. Have you ever seen so many Asian Adonises who have misplaced their tops in one movie? Singapore is known for its tropical climate, but is it codified that a man must spend half of his waking hours (and 100% of his sleeping ones) airing out his upper half?
It’s not superficial, either. This display of Asian male beauty is fighting a decades-old narrative in America, a racist one where Asian male bodies were either portrayed as made for kung-fu or made for being laughed at. If you know the history, you might end seeing the abs in Crazy Rich Asians in a slightly sharper light.
Although I’m American, I spent eight years of my childhood, a handful of summers during high school and college, and three years after college living in Hong Kong. As a kid, I collected sparkle cards of Asian pop idols that came out of a machine at the convenience store. My favorites included Leon Lai (one of the four “Heavenly Kings” pop stars), Aaron Kwok (a dancer turned pop idol), and Takuya Kimura (of the Japanese boy pop band SMAP). I put their cards in a little shrine in my room because they were my favorites.
For anyone who’s spent a lot of time in Asia, especially immersed in any of the pop cultures of any Asian country, the idea that Asian men can sell sex in the entertainment industry is not a novelty — it’s just a given. There are the smoldering actors, the young pop idols, the sweethearts, the ripped dudes, the hunky nerds, the models, the actors who inspire your mom to shush everyone else in the room so everyone is properly reverent of said handsome man’s insane handsomeness — take your pick.
This has hardly been the case in America.
Before the 1900s, Asian males were often portrayed as dangerous to Western society. In the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Yellow Peril, Asian men were depicted as cartoonishly cold-hearted villains. Anxieties that Asian men may marry white American women led to racist portrayals of Asian men as evil, feminine, and generally undesirable. “The Asian male figure was conjured as an Other who is threatening and dangerous at worst, and distasteful and dismissible at best,” said L.S. Kim, an associate professor of film and digital media at UC Santa Cruz, of that era.
There were some exceptions along the way, most notably James Shigeta, who managed to snag three starring roles in Hollywood’s golden age as the masculine, romantic leading man. The most well-known of the three is 1959’s The Crimson Kimono, directed by Samuel Fuller, in which Shigeta plays a suit-wearing, cigarette-smoking hard-boiled LAPD detective who fights his own partner for the affections of an intelligent young blonde — and wins.
By the 1970s, a new vision of the Asian male hit American popular culture. The phenomenon of Bruce Lee ushered in an era of Asian male bodies seen in popular American culture as the martial arts tough guy. The man became an international sex symbol (an obvious outcome, as Bruce Lee is 90% abs). But, he was followed by Jet Li and Jackie Chan — heroic and strong, but sort of in a dad (not daddy) way. And the dads we do see, like Randall Park’s Louis Huang in Fresh Off The Boat, are not manly or sexy. They work hard and make ends meet. On the other end of the spectrum, comedians like Ken Jeong willingly dole out jokes about how small their penises are.
For a time, it was all an Asian crossover actor could hope for: You could be the martial arts guy, or the meek scientist, tech genius, or doctor guy — but you’d be on TV.
“Asian men on American TV are represented by extremes,” says Jun Okada, a professor of English and Film studies at SUNY Geneseo. “On the one hand, there are the non-aggressive, meek, domesticated characters … On the other extreme of this, television has used martial arts action vehicles to represent hypermasculine Asian and Asian American men.”
Pierre Png — who plays the character of Michael Teo, Astrid’s handsome outsider husband — says, though he’s Singaporean, he grew up with these American stereotypes, too. For a time, it was all an Asian crossover actor could hope for: You could be the martial arts guy, or the meek scientist, tech genius, or doctor guy — but you’d be on TV.
“I grew up watching those movies. Mostly Hong Kong fighting movies, [with] Donny Yuen, Jackie Chan. We all grew up watching Bruce Lee. Then came Jackie Chan, and Jet Li, and they were mostly the underdogs who could fight,” said Png.
Things started to shift in the 2010s: The example that most sticks in my mind is Sung Kang, who plays Han, a “chameleon” and driver in Dom’s crew in the Fast & Furious franchises. While Han is a popular supporting character (so much so he was brought back into the series despite it making no sense in some turns), he ends up in a romance with Gisele, an ex-Mossad agent turned drifter and thief played by Wonder Woman Gal Gadot.
Then came John Cho in Selfie, Vincent Rodriguez III in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Ki Hong Lee in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Manny Jacinto in The Good Place. While all these characters were objects of desire and viable romantic interests, they weren’t exactly presented as sex objects: Han is the cool guy; Henry the boss; Josh Chan and Dong are the sweeties; and Jason Mendoza the lovable dummy.
"It's new territory for an Asian actor to be in a Hollywood movie where he's a sex symbol."
Which leads us to Crazy Rich Asians, where Png’s Micheal Teo is introduced to the audience while he’s in the shower. Inevitably, he steps out. He’s naked, water cascading down his six pack, while his wife Astrid (Gemma Chan) awaits him in the bedroom.
Png says he didn’t think too hard about that scene. “Well, I must say, I don't usually get asked to take off my clothes or have my opening scene have me walking out of the shower. I think in Singapore it's still very much, I wouldn't say conservative exactly, but we're focused on other things like family, filial piety, and stories of the underdog. There hasn't really been much of a need to show off skin.”
“All I know is, for once, we [Asians] aren't the big triad boss or some prostitute. That on its own is really a great feat,” said Png. “It's pretty exciting, and it's new territory for an Asian actor to be in a Hollywood movie where he's a sex symbol.”
When asked about the abs, Png laughs. He explained that Jon Chu, the director of Crazy Rich Asians, didn’t ask for anything special (other than that he wear a G string during the shoot). No extra pullups, just Png as he was. In the landscape of portrayals of Asian males in Hollywood, now and in the decades past, Png does wonder about the significance of the shower scene.
“It's true, though, I don't recall a recent movie that showed an Asian man like that,” said Png. "I feel very honored. Am I the first Asian man to be portrayed like that? I'm excited and very nervous. The way it was shot, it wasn't very sexual. It was just like, hey I'm a husband who happens to have a great body.”
I asked Professor Kim at UC Santa Cruz before she saw Crazy Rich Asians what it would take for an Asian male to transcend the decades-long portrayals of meekness and kung-fu tough guyness, and this was her assessment: “When his character approximates Western notions of masculinity: (hetero)sexually dominant, having economic power, and often holding a demonstrable physique.”
This is exactly what Crazy Rich Asians gives us, whether you want to call it progress or not. It gives us not one, but a handful of rich, handsome men with abs so angular, you wonder how they don’t shred the $400 Turnbull & Asser shirts they’re wearing. It’s nice to think that Jon Chu’s inclinations to portray men this way came from an urge to be genre breaking, the conversations that led up to this moment where Asian men can be portrayed this way. By presenting Asian men not only as desirable romantic partners but as sexy AF on screen, it’s breaking a decades long racial-sexual hierarchy in American pop culture. So as I was saying all along, you really can’t argue with these abs.