Here’s how an international bestseller got a grand Malaysian treatment.
IF all goes well, our unique Malaysian (slash Singaporean) accent will be all over a major Hollywood production.
And who should be speaking it on our behalf? None other than Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh in the upcoming Warner Brothers film, Crazy Rich Asians (CRA).
For those who haven’t cottoned on, CRA is the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan set in Singapore about, well, crazy rich Singaporeans. The film version is currently being filmed in ... drum roll please ...Malaysia.
“Because the family home of the lead character, Nick Young, is palatial and we couldn’t find such a place in Singapore,” Adele Lim tells me.
And who is Adele?
She is the scriptwriter for the movie and the only Malaysian-born TV writer in Hollywood. I couldn’t be prouder.
Why am I proud?
Because Adele used to write for me. Or more specifically, she wrote a column called Life! in Section 2 (now Star2) as a teenager and undergraduate, when I was the editor.
The young woman I knew more than 20 years ago has certainly grown up and very nicely too.
She was our youngest columnist and even at that age, she had a gift with words. After she graduated, she headed for Hollywood to get into TV work.
She got her break as a writer’s assistant, which is an entry-level position, on Xena Warrior Princess and went on to work her way up the very competitive pecking order of TV writing and production. (Google her to find out more of her amazing success story.)
At 42, she is now a bona fide Hollywood TV writer of 16 years. CRA is her first feature film and it was Jon Chu, the director, who got her on board.
“I had developed a TV show with Jon. Although that didn’t materialise, we had a good working experience,” says Adele.
“A year ago, he called me asking if I had read the book, Crazy Rich Asians. I had heard about it because my mum and aunties had also urged me to read it.
“After Jon’s call, I finally read it and understood why they liked it so much.”
CRA is about American-born Rachel Chu following her boyfriend Nick, an NYU history professor, to Singapore to attend his best friend’s wedding, only to find that Nick’s family is fabulously rich, something he failed to tell her.
And as the blurb on the book puts it, “Her relaxed vacation turns into an obstacle course of old money, new money, nosy relatives and scheming social climbers”, not to mention Nick’s formidable and domineering mother, Eleanor.
“It’s a joyful, fun story and the culture, specifically of the Chinese in South-East Asia, appealed to me,” says Adele.
Funnily enough, she says Chu, an American-born Chinese with several films under his belt, didn’t even know she was from Malaysia. “I might have mentioned it but he didn’t remember.”
Chu says in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that he knew the producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson from Color Force (same company that did the Hunger Games series) and asked for the script.
He read it, loved it and “knew in my heart I had to do it.”
“Obviously, while you’re reading a script you’re going, ‘How are they going to translate this?’... and I knew we could bring it to another level,” he says.
Chu says Adele came in and “did an amazing job adding all the extra touches.”
“As a woman, she has a very strong (connection) with the female characters Rachel and Eleanor and all these different philosophies of life and family and their lives colliding into one intersection. She brought on all these other elements which is really great.”
Just as Chu could relate to the book because “all the struggles I’ve experienced are in this book in a fun way”, so too Adele.
“I felt I had something to offer as I could draw loose parallels. My family isn’t crazy rich but I have an extended family of aunties who are deeply concerned about their children and have a lot of opinions.”
As for the strong thread of wealth and materialism in the plot, Adele says while the western concept of materialism can be superficial, for Asians, who are not shy about talking about wealth: “It shows you are trying hard and it’s a way to show love, how you take care of family.”
CRA also appealed to Adele for being different from the kind of writing by and about Asians.
“There is a lot of Asian literature which is super serious – about escaping the Cultural Revolution, the hard life and eating bitterness every day,” she says.
And while she readily acknowledges these are valid, amazing stories that should be told, they aren’t what she can relate to.
Kwan’s book is just the opposite; Adele describes it as “a very vibrant and affectionate, laugh-at-ourselves portrait” of overseas Chinese in this corner of the world.
Her script reflects the society and culture as we know it and is peppered with Malay, Hokkien and Cantonese terms and references.
Rachel is played by American-Chinese TV actress Constance Wu of Fresh off the Boat fame.
Playing Nick is Henry Golding who is of British and Iban descent.
Adele says Chu auditioned many actors before deciding on the Singapore-based TV travel show host.
“Jon saw a video of Henry doing his travel shows and he was just so charming and engaging. We wanted girls to look at him and say ‘I want him for my boyfriend’.”
Yeoh plays Eleanor, a role Adele and I both agree is made for our Tan Sri.
“She embodies the role as Eleanor is regal and someone you don’t mess with. She switches between English and Cantonese so it’s a role that is perfect for Michelle,” says Adele.
And that’s why I say we can finally enjoy the full measure of Yeoh’s Malaysian accent in a Hollywood movie. Best!
Another cool factor which Malaysians and Singaporeans will appreciate is hearing Hokkien in a Hollywood movie, a fact that tickles Adele as she thinks that’s a first.
What tickles me is how KL is standing in for Singapore and even New York City, although some shooting will take place down south – I suppose, they will need a couple of establishing shots of the Lion City’s skyline.
For all these reasons, I am rooting for Crazy Rich Asians, the first major Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast since Joy Luck Club in 1993 and Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005, written by a Malaysian, starring a Malaysian (and a half) and filmed in Malaysia.
So here’s hoping Crazy Rich Asians’ over-the-top, funny but with heart plot does crazy well with critics and audiences when it’s released next year.
Aunty is not supposed to reveal which majestic building in KL is the stand-in for Nick’s palatial home. But here’s a hint: it’s up on a hill in the heart of the city. Feedback welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org