What You Need To Know About That Mahjong Scene In 'Crazy Rich Asians'

Michelle Yeo as Eleanor Young in Crazy Rich Asians.

Crazy Rich Asians has scored big at the box office, and with Asian Americans — about 25 percent of ticket buyers last weekend were Asian-American, following an opening weekend with 38 percent.

With the movie's audience expanding, fewer audience members may get exactly what's going on with the big climactic mahjong game. Here are the key things you need to know.

The scene places viewers at a mahjong table with Rachel Chu, the film's protagonist, and Eleanor Young, the disapproving mother of Chu's boyfriend, as they engage in a loaded conversation about the meaning of family. The sequence isn't in Kevin Kwan's novel the movie's based on.

The wider your understanding of mahjong, the more likely you are to detect the nuanced messages in both this scene and the franchise as a whole.

No one has done a closer reading of the mahjong scene than Jeff Yang, CNN contributor and co-host of the podcast They Call Us Bruce, a candid update on what's happening in Asian America. Yang had seen Crazy Rich Asians five times when we talked with him.

HOW THE GAME WORKS

  1. "Four players at a time gather together facing one another in a cross shape — east, west, north, south."
  2. "And each of the players has tiles in their hand, 13 tiles that they're using to construct sets or sequences."
  3. "Either matched, identical, characters or symbols. Or sequential ones in order of a suit."

The scoring is where the game gets tricky.

"It is something you could actually do a Ph.D. on," Yang said. "There are so many different styles of scoring, so many different patterns that win, so many different modalities in which you can earn or lose points as the case may be, that it takes a lifetime to master. "

THE SCENE'S CHOREOGRAPHY

It's hard to register the game's complexities when watching the fluidness with which both Michelle Yeoh (who plays Eleanor Young) and Constance Wu (who plays Rachel Chu) assemble and reassemble their pieces. To master this, director Jon Chu actually hired a mahjong choreographer to ensure the hand would play out in a way that commented on what each woman is saying.

"This is a martial arts scene at its core. It was inspired by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There's this rooftop fight that Michelle Yeoh is part of in that movie, that Jon Chu has said in multiple interviews now was the inspiration for the way that scene flows, the pace of it. But it's not just the combat or the dialogue that really matters, it's the game plan."

WHERE THEY'RE SITTING

Much of the symbolism would be impossible to get if you didn't know the game.

"When Rachel is sitting down she's seated in what you call the West seat. And she invites Eleanor to sit down in the East seat, right? And of course we're talking here about Rachel representing the West — America — and Eleanor representing the East — Asia."

US VS. THEM STRATEGY

Two distinctly different strategies are going on between the two women.

"Eleanor is trying to assemble a set of matched sets, if you will, a hand in which matched characters are the winning victory. Her whole ethos is: we need to stick together as Asians, or as people, specifically of this set of wealthy — Chinese, Singaporians."

Young addresses this concept with a Hokkien phrase called 'kaki-lang,' which essentially means 'one of us.' While assembling her hand, she calmly stresses that Rachel is 'not one of us.' By trying to create matches, she's in essence trying to create 'kaki-lang.'

RACHEL'S STRATEGY

"Meanwhile, Rachel is trying to assemble a winning hand out of bamboo. Now the bamboo suit is really kind of unique in some ways, because it represents a plant that symbolizes prosperity and fortune in Chinese tradition. That's a moment when you realize that the conversation that's happening on the table is just as important as the conversation happening above it. "

Ultimately, the insights taken from the film's mahjong scene illustrate what many people consider to be the film's groundbreaking socio-cultural impact. When talking about the movie's relevance today, Yang stresses that everyone, not just Asian Americans, should go see it.

WHAT THE CASTING MEANS

"I think what Crazy Rich Asians does is it intersects these two tropes: this idea that Asian American actors are finally getting a chance to be seen, these two opportunities, but also that our stories are being told with a specificity that will not allow them to be re-written."

Rachel (Constance Wu) and Nick (Henry Golding) share a moment

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's The Frame.

Hollywood not only has a bad habit of not casting Asian actors in non-White roles, they also have a tendency to cast white actors in Asian roles, Yang said. Crazy Rich Asians wasn't exempt from the prejudice, and Jon Chu's team had to put a firm foot down to ensure they'd get their all-Asian cast.

"There were studios that only wanted to make this film if he would recast Rachel Chu as Rachel Smith, and put a white woman in that lead role, and they refused. This is what they got. They stood their ground, and I think everything is different now."

You can read more of Yang breaking down the scene and its minutiae for Vox.


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