What I Learned From Watching 'Crazy Rich Asians' With A Theater Full Of Asians In SGV

Poster for the film "Crazy Rich Asians."

There's something special about getting to see Crazy Rich Asians. It's not just that it's a movie starring an all-Asian cast. It's not just because people are calling it a landmark moment for Asian Americans in Hollywood. And it's not just because it feels good to see stories that reflect my identities and experiences.

For me, Crazy Rich Asians is special for a far simpler reason: it's an opportunity to share the experience. For once, sitting in AMC Atlantic Times Square in Monterey Park, I could see a movie starring people who look like me with other people who look like me in a regular theater.

I'm lucky enough to come from a vibrant Asian American arts community here in Los Angeles. I've spent 10 years helping to produce Tuesday Night Cafe, a free Asian American arts and performance series in downtown L.A., now in its 20th year. My first internship in 2006 was at East West Players, the nation's premiere Asian American theatre company. I'm friends with the comedians at Upright Citizens Brigade's show Asian AF. My podcast Asian Americana is a founding member of Potluck: an Asian American podcast collective. I even had the opportunity to help program the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in 2016. I get to experience Asian American art and stories.

But despite being part of all those spaces, I still had to go out of my way to watch films that reflected my community. I had to attend special festival venues like the Downtown Independent or the Aratani Theatre, or know where to look for DVDs or streaming distribution. Not everyone has that same kind of access.

To watch Crazy Rich Asians, all I had to do was drive 10 minutes down Atlantic Boulevard to an AMC. I was even able to use gift passes.

Crowds excitedly line up for an early screening of 'Crazy Rich Asians' at AMC Atlantic Times Square in Monterey Park.

I arrived at the theater an hour early to find an already long line snaking on itself. While I saw a few friends who were fellow artists and creatives, most of the crowd were just normal folks — people from an Asian American neighborhood getting to see a movie that looked a little bit more like them.

Despite ostensibly being about the mega-wealthy in Asia, the movie's scenes and dialogue still appealed to a sense of familiarity instead of foreignness. References to red laisee envelopes, street food hawker stalls, the code-switching between Mandarin, Cantonese, and English, and seeing the Singaporean phrases "wah" and "lah" typed out in gossipy text messages all elicited knowing laughter from the audience.

It was laughter driven by recognition, more than comedic timing — the kind of laughter you only get when you're with others who understand the references without explanation.

Cheers erupted when Awkwafina and Ken Jeong appeared on screen. I even heard gasps at the cameo appearances by Asian American YouTube and TV fan-favorites. Each reaction seemed to say, "We're already fans of these people. These are our stars we're cheering for. These are our own."

At one point in the film, they explain the term "ka ki lang" in Hokkien (a word I know as "gaginang" in Teochew). It means "our own people." My friend and I excitedly turned to each other and pointed in shared recognition. These were the same words we used whenever we ran into each other.

It was these moments in the movie that signaled to me, "We understand each other. You belong."

As the credits rolled, we filtered back out into the theater lobby. Different groups of friends — including mine — took turns taking pictures of each other in front of the movie poster. We all wanted to memorialize this night.

Quincy Surasmith (third from the left) and friends pose by the 'Crazy Rich Asians' poster after an early screening.

My group left the theater and walked around the corner to grab some late night Hong Kong-style eats at OK Cafe, chatting about how the movie inspired all sorts of new projects we wanted to work on next.

But Crazy Rich Asians doesn't have to be about "nexts" or "firsts" in order to make a difference. It doesn't have to break box office records as an Asian American Black Panther or mark a historic casting like The Joy Luck Club.

Crazy Rich Asians can just be Crazy Rich Asians — a movie we can experience together — and maybe that in itself is worth sharing.


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