Adele Lim and Crazy Rich Asians: Seeking Our Own Riches

When the trailer for Crazy Rich Asians dropped last year, I wept genuine tears at two minutes of a romantic comedy. When the movie finally dropped that August, I enlisted my entire Vietnamese extended family to support a Gold Open in our corner of the Greater Toronto Area: we went to a VIP 19+ only theatre and the machine rolled eight tickets into my hands. My seven aunts and uncles bought alcoholic drinks and popcorn, and in a packed theatre full of other Asians, we laughed and cried (mostly I cried). We ogled the bodies of Henry Golding and Pierre Png and marvelled at a makeover montage featuring the incredible comedic talents of Awkwafina and Ken Jeong, with Constance Wu at its centre. 

She was not the token Asian friend of a girl whisked off to an exotic locale by a rich boyfriend. Wu was the girl. She was not in the cheering background as our heroine emerged from a climactic confrontation in triumph. She was our heroine; she was our triumph. I was 26 and I didn’t think I would ever see the day. As any cultural piece from last summer and beyond can tell you, Crazy Rich Asians isn’t just about the Young family fortune and all the crazy people involved, but about the true richness of the Asian story and the breadth of our diaspora: from our lucky colours to a shared experience in cooking and the creed of family honour and respect above all things.

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A white author could not have told that story; Kevin Kwan did. A white director could not have brought that story to the big screen; John M. Chu did. A white screenwriter alone could not have translated the novel into a screenplay; Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli share writing credits. But now, a year after the blockbuster that changed cultural perception of the so-called model minority in media, Adele Lim has left the CRA sequels over the issue of pay. According a story broken by the Hollywood Reporter, Lim was seeking parity with Chiarelli, who is “more established” as a screenwriter for feature films and therefore set to earn upwards of a million dollars while Lim was reportedly only offered 110,000. Lim rejected the deal, and another that had Chiarelli effectively splitting his fee with her for “near parity”. Which, while very nice of him, is slightly besides the point. 

Lim points out the two main intersections of the problems at stake. The first is cultural, and contained in a metaphor of soy sauce: the idea that women and POC writers are only hired to “sprinkle cultural specificity” instead of being given credit for the bulk of a story. The mere idea that the studio immediately went looking for “other writers of Asian descent” only reinforces the deeply offensive stereotype that Asians and Asian-Americans (-Canadians, etc.) are interchangeable and therefore somehow easily replaceable, and so Lim’s contributions to the screenplay (however major or minor) could simply be replicated by another Asian writer. 

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The second intersection is where gender and race meet economic gain, and arguably where television meets film. I have no issue with the tradition that more experienced professionals are paid more than those just starting out. That was the case when I first began teaching, and it will be the case in my first job in the media industry. By the HR’s own admission, Lim is a “veteran TV writer,” but her wealth of experience is somehow inconsequential to her partner Chiarelli, who has been writing films since 2009. But let’s be honest: a seven hundred thousand dollar pay gap is just ridiculous. I don’t think television and film are fundamentally different medias. I believe Lim proved her skill as a writer on the original Crazy Rich Asians film; I don’t think asking for parity with her fellow writer is a bad thing. It is not unreasonable, though maybe unrealistic given a system that is structured to benefit and give opportunity to the white man before all others. 

Establishing one’s self, to the tune of nearly a million dollars, is going to be difficult given that the mere presence of skilled women and people of colour in the industry is now something of a hot button social issue for professionals and the public to use as water-cooler talk, (or in my case, build a master’s degree on) instead of the reality of an industry that shapes so much of how we view and understand the world. But Lim is not at fault for asking. She’s not demanding too much. After all, if she – co-writer of a film that sparked an entire movement – did not ask, she would never get it. Then what hope is there for the rest of us? 

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If Hollywood expects to maintain a system of paying one’s dues and climbing the proverbial industry ladder to financial success and critical acclaim, then as Lim rightly points out, equal opportunity at each rung must be given to all. We cannot pay lip service to this problem, develop mentorship and development programs of all kinds for new talent, and then yank away the view at the very top of the mountain after years of the arduous climb. And what of the gap? While we’ve struggled to scale even the first peak, those already “established” can continue to ask for and receive that much more for their work. Chiarelli should not have had to sacrifice part of his pay to bring Lim up with him, as though playing the role of the white hero. Warner Brothers should have offered Lim much more, close to if not perfectly at parity with her co-writer from the get go, if industry standards were truly their excuse. 

Crazy Rich Asians would not have had the same success without Lim, of that I am sure. And as disheartening and valid as the soy sauce metaphor is, I hope to remind her that it is the backbone and heart of so much of our shared Asian culinary culture. Dishes are made or broken by its presence (looking at you, plain white rice); we are not the same without it. Speaking of cultural specificity and its importance to – you know – the entire Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, I told myself I wouldn’t yell, but Lim wrote the entire Majong scene, for God’s sake! What more proof of her contributions do you need? What other visceral, powerful display of talent and skill would be required of her? Because I can’t think of one. 

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As saddened as I am by this news, I stand with Adele Lim. I wish her all the best in the future and I’m very excited to see her new film Raya and the Last Dragon with Disney. I’m sure it’s going to be amazing, and she better be getting the big bucks. She deserves it. And because of incredible writers, pioneers, and trailblazers like Adele Lim, or Canadian actor turned Marvel superhero Simu Liu, I stare up at the peak of a mountain. I’m grabbing the first rung and taking the first step, because of how much she and all creatives like her inspire me to reach higher. Because I deserve to see the view from the top, too. 

What do you think of this Crazy Rich Asians news? Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below!

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