When I was 14, I wrote and performed a speech to my class on diversity in Hollywood. I stood up in front of a white majority class and started my speech off with a scenario on how you have never related to a film or novel in your life, because you are not white. My speech may have fallen flat — it was, after all, a white majority class.
I’m now 17 years old, and those kids in my class? They all have countless more movies to add into their never-ending collection of films and novels which represent them. Whereas in the last 2 to 3 years, I have only gotten one film that remotely represents me. Seventeen years have passed and I only have one film and book series representing my culture to show for it. I refuse to let another seventeen go by without Southeast Asian representation.
I remember the absolute joy and excitement I had when I found out Crazy Rich Asians (2018) was coming to theatres. I remember the day well: I was at the cinema with my family and the trailer came on in the ads. I remember thinking “I have to see this!”
When I got home that day, I Googled the film and found out three things: the first being that it was based on a book series, and the second being that it was the first film to have an all Asian cast in 25 years. I also realised that it was set in Singapore — close to my family’s home country of Indonesia. I added the series to my shopping cart and have never hit ‘proceed to checkout’ so fast in my life.
Fast forward to a few weeks later and I could finally read the books! Reading about your culture, understanding the cultural phrases in a novel really makes you feel so… happy. I don’t really know how to explain it, but there’s no feeling like it. The joy I felt whenever I understood a phrase, the feeling of home I felt when I read about my favourite Southeast Asian foods — I felt seen and heard. I could finally culturally relate to fictional characters. It’s a feeling I’ve craved, a feeling I’ve yearned for every day since.
However. Reading the Crazy Rich Asians series incited another feeling in me — one of disgust. The stigmas in the series were not the best. Being Indonesian, I have darker skin. Throughout Crazy Rich Asians, I had to read about these people who believed darker skin was equal to being ‘lesser than’ or not as worthy. I know that in Indonesia and in other Asian countries, this is actually a stigma in society, but reading about it was distressing. Lots of Southeast Asian people have darker skin, and yes, the representation made me feel happy but we deserve to read about our culture and not be degraded.
This is why representation is so important! I want to feel like I’m being transported to my family’s home more often, and we deserve to have better representation. Crazy Rich Asians will always have a special place in my heart, but we deserve better than to have this one series that puts down people with darker skin.
I will always love Crazy Rich Asians (CRA), and I will always love novels such as To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (TATBILB), as they both were some of the first books I read with Asian culture in the story. They were some of the only series I’ve related to in my whole life. I loved CRA so much — I watched it twice. I loved TATBILB so much — I forced my friends to watch it with me on release day and watched it once a week for months afterward. But what both these series have in common is that they focus on East Asians and fair-skinned Asians. Southeast Asians are constantly excluded from the narrative. We are forced to sit on the side-line benches, when we so desperately yearn and deserve to be included.
Generally, Hollywood — and even the bookish community — still have great strides to take when it comes to diversity and representation. But for Southeast Asians, the strides we have to take to get to where we deserve (that’s right, deserve, not want) to be seem a lot larger than they are for some of the other people of color (POC). I say this because Crazy Rich Asians is the only series I’ve read that comes close to my culture. Which is crazy because it’s not even my culture. It’s very close, but I’m Indonesian, and Crazy Rich Asians is Singaporean/Malaysian. I know there are other Southeast Asian novels out there, such as the Malaysian novel, The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf, but there needs to be more.
Just this year. I messaged the brilliant team at @LitCelibrAsian asking for any Indonesian Own-Voices novels. The only novels they knew of were translated novels from years ago. These novels are so obscure that my libraries in New Zealand would not have them. I know people say ‘take what you can get’ and even ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ — well, I say that we shouldn’t have to be beggars. Southeast Asian readers deserve to see themselves in the books they read, whether they be teenagers, children, or adults. We all deserve to see ourselves represented.
Diversity and representation in entertainment is a growing movement, and it’s a process which still needs some work. Southeast Asians deserve to be a larger part of this movement. I hold novels such as Crazy Rich Asians close to my heart, but the sad truth is, it isn’t enough. There are so many novels focusing on white protagonists out there, and we all deserve to have as many novels about us as they do. If I can’t travel back to Indonesia, at least for now, then I want to see my culture in entertainment. I say it’s time Southeast Asians get off the bench and onto the playing field with everyone else.
Augvocate for the Day
Mel is an Asian blogger and bookstagrammer. She is an avid reader and an advocate for diverse and #ownvoices novels. You can find her at @theinfernalfangirlsheaven on Instagram.
This guest post is part of a month-long collaborative series called Augvocacy, which is shorthand for August with an advocacy. Essentially, this project aims to bring together like-minded individuals — be it bloggers, authors, or readers — in actively forwarding a particular advocacy. All contributors to this project are referred to as Augvocates — and each Augvocate will share their thoughts on my blog from the 1st day of August until the 28th. Find the rest of the Augvocacy 2019 posts here.
For this year, Augvocacy hopes to discuss and encourage the importance of amplifying Asian voices in books and in media. While this particular call brings attention to the oftentimes-ignored demand for more authentic Asian representation, it also aims to debunk the bigoted view that Asian cultures are a monolith and to shed light on the nuances of struggle, privilege, and identity within and across our own communities. Learn more about Augvocacy 2019 in this post.
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I’d love to hear from you!
🌻 Do you agree with Mel? Do you think Southeast Asians are oftentimes overlooked in terms of representation, with media greatly favoring fairer-skinned Asians?
🌻 Being a Southeast Asian — specifically, Filipino — myself, I share the same sentiments about Crazy Rich Asians. While I loved the film, it definitely did not escape my notice that, aside from white-passing Kris Aquino (who is so exceedingly privileged I won’t even count her as a representation of my heritage), all the Filipino actors were cast as domestic helpers. Which was a huge yikes, to be honest. What are your thoughts on the film?
🌻 What do you have to say about the Southeast Asian representation that’s currently available in books and in film? Do you think we need more stories from Southeast Asian cultures?