In 'Crazy Rich Asians,' Mahjong Means More Than You Know
The pivotal scene, which clearly excludes non-Asian audience members, felt even more meaningful and rare than seeing an all-Asian cast.
Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians.
As a kid growing up in Hawai’i, I spent a lot of time playing mahjong with my family. We had this old set with yellowed tiles that all fit neatly into a weathered faux leather briefcase. With my head barely above the table, I would watch my mother’s long fingers as she mixed the tiles together to shuffle, then would help stack them into little walls, relishing the satisfying clack of the game pieces. There was something enchantingly traditional seeming about playing a family game that wasn’t made out of cardboard; I was always rapt. First, I watched my siblings and parents play, then I learned to play myself.
Mahjong has been around for centuries, and—as you should know—comes from China. I’m only a tiny bit Chinese (about 15 percent, if you’re into that kind of math), but my mother is from the Philippines, where mahjong has long been a favorite past time (albeit with slightly looser rules), keeping aunties up throwing tiles far past midnight.
In school, it felt sophisticated to know how to play a game that most of my peers knew nothing about, like I was in on an ancient secret. I was an absolute amateur (I still am) but I fancied myself smart for even having memorized the complicated rules and the meanings of each tile’s symbols—for being able to competitively converse in this visual language that none of my friends could understand. Sure, on some days, certain kids would call my mom a “maid” (in Hawai’i, as in many Asian countries, domestic workers are largely Filipino immigrants) or ask if I ate dog. But mahjong was something we had that was cool.
That sense of insider privilege was stirred up in me as I walked out of Crazy Rich Asians this past weekend: My companions immediately admitted that they had little sense of what was going on game-wise during the movie’s climactic mahjong scene. It was small moment, but having been one of those ungrateful Asian Americans who entered the movie already wary of the weight it’s been prescribed in terms of representation politics, I took note of the surprising pleasure that knowledge gave me.
Crazy Rich Asians, directed by Jon M. Chu and adapted from Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel, is the first big-budget Hollywood movie to feature an all Asian and Asian-American cast since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago. And partially because of that, it’s a big deal; for many, it feels like a test to see if Hollywood is ready to consider our stories worth telling. This particular story is of an Asian-American named Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu), who falls in love with a Singaporean named Nick Young (Henry Golding) without realizing that he is part of one of the richest families in Singapore. That is, until she flies there for a wedding, gets thrown into an opulent family drama, and has to prove herself to Nick’s impossible mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).
All of that you probably already know, but if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you likely don’t know what follows here. Consider this your spoiler alert.
The mahjong scene goes down, abruptly, after Nick asks Rachel to marry him toward the end of the film. The proposal is cut short, so we don’t know Rachel’s response. Instead, we’re thrown into a mahjong hall filled with old women gambling, where we learn that Rachel has asked Eleanor to meet her. Then, following the film’s general tactic of putting Hollywood movie tropes and stock characters through an Asian filter, we get a riveting mahjong showdown akin to a classic scene of a chess game accompanied by a Serious Conversation. (This scene didn't happen in the book, by the way.)
The women start stacking tiles with elegant aggressiveness. Meanwhile, Rachel reveals that Nick asked her to marry him, and even said he would be willing to leave behind his family and global business to do so. Eleanor immediately starts racking up points, and tells Rachel that she’s simply not their “kind of people.” Then, after picking up a tile that would complete her hand—leading her to win the game—Rachel unexpectedly decides to discard it, instead letting Eleanor use it to complete her own hand. As she does so, she explains that she turned Nick down, saying that when he takes over the family’s business and finds a wife that Eleanor approves of, it will only be because of “a poor, raised by a single mother, low-class immigrant nobody.”
For those who understand the game, the metaphor at the foundation of the scene is pretty heavy-handed—but it’s fun to watch, weaving in the exciting soundtrack of clacking tiles and the suspense of knowing your discard may cause someone else to win. Among Asian-American critics, it’s been widely deemed the most memorable scene of the movie. There’s also a consensus that most savvy moviegoers who aren’t familiar with mahjong will still basically understand what’s unfolding during the game, but it’s undeniable that, in order to appreciate the full drama of the pivotal moment, one would have to be privy to the game’s rules.
The scene’s masterful execution, at least for me, was made even more exciting by the selfish thrill of knowing that it’s partially conveyed in a visual code only some understand; in other words, that in that moment, the movie was explicitly speaking to an Asian and Asian-American audience without worrying what would be lost to others. That, even more than seeing an all-Asian cast in a blockbuster movie, felt meaningful and rare. It’s a bold move to make something with Asians, but it’s bolder still to make something for Asians.
It’s a bold move to make something with Asians, but it’s bolder still to make something for Asians.
Although the mahjong scene is the most explicit example of the ways the film prioritizes Asian viewers, many critics have pointed out how even the subtler details made them feel seen. As Hua Hsu wrote for the New Yorker, “I found myself moved by moments when very little was happening, the kinds of everyday moments that I’ve always wanted to see onscreen: friends eating at the night market, an elder slowly studying the face of a newcomer, the pained but sympathetic expression of a native speaker trying to decipher another’s rusty Mandarin.”
For the Atlantic, Emily Jan praised “the bustling street market, Weibo and WeChat icons flitting across the screen, the various a-yi mannerisms and phrases—all presented without explanatory commas.”
Aside from the mahjong scene, my own favorite detail is when comedic supporter Ken Jeong, playing Rachel’s friend’s ridiculous father, introduces himself to Rachel with a cringe-worthy stereotypical Asian accent, then a minute later cracks up and reveals he actually doesn't have much of an accent (beyond American) at all. It’s a silly gag, but one that succinctly speaks to the history of Asian-American actors—including Jeong, in most of his prior roles—being confined to very specific, and often offensive, ideas of Asianness in Hollywood films. What Crazy Rich Asians gives us, though, is a movie in which Asianness is not a defining character trait. We get to see the hunky guy, the silly sidekick, the evil mother-in-law, the kind best man, and all those other familiar people all played by great Asian actors.
What the movie’s mahjong scene and other cultural coding makes me yearn for, though, is movies in which Asianness is a core character trait—but in a way that feels authentic rather than prescribed. In other words, not just a Hollywood that places Asian-American actors equally in the existing plot formulas and cookie-cutter characters that make up most of our movies, but a kind of cinema that is itself distinctly Asian-American, with our own familiar formulas and stock characters that aren’t tied to whiteness (or white ideas of Blackness, as has been argued to be the foundation of Awkwafina’s character in the film). In Crazy Rich Asians, there are moments and characters that come close to that, but I kept wanting for Rachel to dig into her identity just a little bit more and give us a deeper sense of what it’s like to be an American of Asian diaspora—the painful cultural gaps, the lack of a sense of home both in Asia and the US. This movie gave me a taste of that, and I want more.
Perhaps that’s an unreasonably ambitious request. I appreciate that, as a rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians did what it set out to do, and in a highly entertaining way. I came away from the film, though, hoping that we don't stop at hiring Asian and Asian-American casts, but instead go on to further our prioritization of Asian-American audiences. Because once we move beyond the economy of actual bodies on screens, we can focus on the ability to tap into a new level of affect and poeticism that Asian Americans have barely been offered cinematically. I’m excited now, but I’ll be even more excited then.