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Crazy Rich Asians star Gemma Chan on 'white-washing' controversies

Crazy Rich Asians is the first Hollywood film in over 25 years with a majority Asian-American cast. Star Gemma Chan talks to Laura Harding about what its success means for the white-washing controversies that have grabbed headlines

Rising star: Gemma Chan as Astrid in Crazy Rich Asians
Rising star: Gemma Chan as Astrid in Crazy Rich Asians
Gemma Chan

There is an old Chinese song that plays in the middle of the box-office juggernaut Crazy Rich Asians. It's a song that Gemma Chan's mother had not heard since her childhood, when her own mother used to sing it to her.

Watching a film starring her daughter and hearing a song that evoked so many memories about her family made Chan's mother tear up.

"My mum started crying really early on," Chan says. "My gran and granddad have both passed away now and she never expected to hear that song in a Hollywood film."

That same Hollywood film, the first to have a majority Asian-American cast since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago, is making serious waves, earning well over $160m worldwide before it has even been released in the UK.

"I've been hearing the reactions of people who are really moved by it, saying, 'It's amazing to see people on screen that look like me, that look like my family'," Chan says.

"It's often the case that you don't realise how much you've missed something until you see it and you realise the lack of representation that has gone before.

"When I first watched the film, I was really moved - I didn't know what I was feeling. I think it was just seeing the food of my parents' culture, seeing people that look like my gran and granddad on screen."

The film, an adaptation of Kevin Kwan's book of the same name, tells the story of Chinese-American university professor Rachel, played by the Fresh Off The Boat star Constance Wu, who falls in love with Nick, played by Henry Golding, unaware that he comes from one of the wealthiest families in Singapore.

She only learns the truth when she travels to his home for a friend's wedding and meets his fiercely disapproving mother, played by Michelle Yeoh, as well as the rest of his family and friends.

Chan, who is best known for her role in Channel 4's Humans, plays Nick's impossibly glamorous cousin, Astrid, whose marriage is falling apart.

The film has clearly struck a nerve in the US, where it became the most successful studio romantic comedy in nine years at the box office.

Gemma Chan

"I certainly felt that the film had the potential to be significant," Chan says. "I felt it was something special when we were making it, but you just don't know if people are going to agree and then show up to the cinema to see it."

It is astonishing to the 35-year-old British actor that 25 years have passed since Hollywood made a film with an Asian-American cast.

"It's mad. That's a whole generation, isn't it? This film has proven, not for the first time, that diversity does pay off at the box office," she says.

"It feels like audiences really want diverse and authentic storytelling, and it just goes to show you can be specific in your storytelling, but it can have this broad appeal."

It feels all the more pertinent because the release of Crazy Rich Asians comes hot on the heels of a number of 'white-washing' controversies. There was uproar after Scarlett Johansson was cast as cyborg soldier Mira Killian/Major Kusanagi in Ghost In The Shell - a role originally written as east Asian - and Emma Stone faced backlash for her role as Allison Ng in Aloha, who is described as having a father of half-Chinese and half-Native Hawaiian descent.

"I think we are disproving a lot of so-called received wisdoms in Hollywood," Chan says.

"For example, if you have non-white leads that the film won't sell abroad or that it won't do well enough at the box office.

"We have just shown that it's nonsense and, in fact, if your film is good, if your script is great, you don't even have to have crazy huge stars necessarily."

But it is notable that while Chan and Golding are British, they have still found the opportunity for these kind of star-making performances in Hollywood, rather than in homegrown material.

"I think just the size of the industry there is bigger, so there is more opportunity in that sense," Chan says.

"I don't think you necessarily have to live out there - I'm still based in London, and things cast internationally now - but I think for a long time a lot of the UK's output was period film and that is a particular thing, or used to be a particular thing, in the past.

"It feels like things have shifted somewhat now. People are much more accepting of people casting outside of the box."

Chan is not the first star to suggest that Britain's love of period dramas might be part of the reason that actors from diverse backgrounds don't get the same opportunities as their white counterparts.

"I think it's an interesting thing, period dramas," she says. "We have an idea that we have got from other films of what the past was like, which isn't necessarily accurate - the idea of what the demographics of the country were like.

"Actually, people of colour have been here for a long time, but when your art and your culture and storytelling doesn't reflect that, the public gets a skewed version of their own history."

She cites the example of the 140,000 Chinese personnel who were part of the Allied war effort during the First World War.

"I studied the First World War about three times in school. Over and over again we learned it, and I never heard about that - it's crazy."

But now she believes the tide is turning.

"I think people are a lot more aware now than they were before and they will call bull**** on stuff that is clearly not right or feels off or inauthentic, so I think we just need to keep that conversation going."

Crazy Rich Asians is released in UK cinemas today

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