The APAHM Project 2023 Day 6: Crazy Rich Asians
Updated: May 11
Film: Crazy Rich Asians
Director: John M. Chu
Where to Watch: HBOMax or Tubi (Free)
Wanna Skip? Pick a Movie from APAHM Project 2022, 2021, 2020
Today's movie was chosen by our first guest of 2023, Dr. SunAh Laybourn! Although Crazy Rich Asians was part of the 202o APAHM Project, I was happy to include it again because I could talk about this movie and its impact for hours. This was a great opportunity to get another perspective on this instant classic!
Dr. SunAh Laybourn is an Assistant Professor in the University of Memphis’ Sociology Department. Her areas of expertise are race and ethnicity, identity formation, and Asian America. She is the co-author of Diversity in Black-Greek Letter Organizations: Breaking the Line (Routledge 2018). Her next book is Out of Place: The Lives of Korean Adoptee Immigrants (New York University Press, January 2024).
Dr. Laybourn also hosts WYXR 91.7FM’s Let’s Grab Coffee, a weekly interview-style radio show with expert guests from across the nation. She is the organizer of Memphis’s first month-long celebration honoring Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
When I first heard of the Memphis AAPI Heritage Month, I was so excited and happy that our community was coming together to celebrate the AAPI people of Memphis. Having lived here my whole life, I felt like I was mostly connected to the older generation who kept to their traditions and to themselves. I mean, most of my weekends are booked playing Mah-Jong with my grandmother. I wasn't as in touch with Asian people my age outside of my cousins and a handful of friends. We sometimes talked of forming a social group for the next generation, but nothing came of it. So when SunAh and Erin (Ink and Kimchi) reached out to me about an AAPI Heritage Month x APAHM Project collaboration, I was honored and thrilled to partake in my city's historical event!
To my fellow Memphians, be sure to check out the AAPI Heritage Month Memphis website, where you can find a list of all the events happening this month and give their Instagram a follow! Most events are free and this is an exciting opportunity to connect with other AAPI Memphians (including SunAh and myself!) The month has already kicked off with a historic proclamation at City Hall and there is a happy hour at Good Fortune Co. (owned by AAPI-Memphian and my long-time friend, Sarah Cai) on Tuesday!
Read on for my interview with SunAh and how AAPI Heritage Month Memphis came to be!
Tell us about yourself! What is your profession, where are you from, what is your favorite snack, hobbies, etc.
Hi! My name is SunAh Laybourn. I’m a professor at the University of Memphis in the sociology department. I also have a radio show, “Let’s Grab Coffee,” on WYXR 91.7FM Memphis also wyxr.org where I interview different experts from around the world about pressing social issues and common curiosities. And, I’m the organizer for Memphis’s first full month celebration honoring Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month! I grew up here in Memphis and I don’t know that we’ve ever truly acknowledged AAPI Month. It was time.
I am so excited that you chose Crazy Rich Asians (CRA) to discuss today! What made you choose this film?
I remember when this film came out. I was so excited to see a movie with a full Asian American cast. Not to mention a love story!! Seeing Asian American characters as desirable – but not as a fetish, not through a White lens – was so refreshing and empowering!
When was the first time you heard about CRA? Did you read the book? How did you feel the first time you watched it?
I didn’t know anything about Crazy Rich Asians prior to the movie, but the trailer sold me! And then seeing Rachel and Nick’s story unfold, I was completely swept away. The way they were both individually creating the lives they wanted and defying expectations – sometimes at personal cost – in the process. I think that was a theme throughout the movie that really resonated with me… many of the characters defied expectations in order to be true to themselves and live their life on their terms.
SunAh, you are a published author and an assistant professor at The University of Memphis specializing in sociology. Is it safe to assume that these similarities allow you to see yourself in Rachel’s character? In what other not-so-obvious ways do you relate to Rachel or any of the other characters from the movie?
I thought it was so cool that Rachel was a professor but the character I identified with most was Astrid. The way Astrid creates her own destiny and “crowns” herself, stepping into her own power. That truly spoke to me as I have many many times had to make difficult decisions that shaped my future and had to rely on my own intuition, my own belief in myself. Not needing someone else’s “okay” or approval is so key.
When was the first time you felt represented on screen?
Christina Yang. Grey’s Anatomy. Played by Sandra Oh. Even though there were other Asian Americans in media before seeing her phenomenal character, in Christina Yang I saw myself represented – a fierce Asian American woman who was relentless in her pursuit of her career but also who had boyfriend drama and deep friendship with another dynamic woman. Her character wasn’t the stereotypical Asian American woman. I loved seeing it.
I wanted to touch on a more subtle theme in CRA. I have seen this movie more times than I can count, but never thought in-depth about the theme of feminism and sisterhood. There are several details that lend to this: Rachel is introduced as being NYU’s youngest faculty member, Eleanor describes Rachel’s mom as a “self-made woman” for getting her real estate license after immigrating to New York, Astrid has stifled her own success at the expense of keeping her husband’s ego intact, etc. Although we have never met, just from reading your bio you seem like an ambitious and successful woman. How has your experience been as not only a woman, but an Asian woman? Do you often find yourself fighting against both the glass and bamboo ceilings? What are some examples of challenges you’ve had to overcome to achieve your goals?
I love all the strong Asian women in this film!! This is why I had to chat about it with you! It’s interesting because people are often viewing me through their lens of what it means to be an Asian American woman, or more precisely what they think Asian American women are, our capabilities, our personalities, our leadership styles. So I think one of the biggest challenges has been having people actually see me and not their projections or assumptions. But I also understand that I can’t necessarily change people’s minds. I can only show you who I am.
When we first meet Astrid, she purchases a pair of earrings that were worn by Queen Supayalat for her self-anointed coronation. I love this foreshadowing to Astrid eventually taking control of her own life. SunAh, you are the organizer of Memphis’ first city-wide AAPI Heritage month. In your interview with The Daily Memphian, you state that you decided to organize these events because, for lack of better words, no one else was. What was the process like for you to take charge of this event and how did it evolve from an idea to a reality?
It was simply a matter of doing the work. I had a vision for what I wanted to offer the city, and that’s what I did. I knew I had to have an art exhibition showcasing Asian American artists from the South because one big motivation for putting the month-long celebration together was the backlash Tommy Kha’s artwork at the Memphis airport received. And, I knew I wanted events that were fun and would attract folks regardless of if they were interested in AAPI Heritage Month or even knew it was a thing. There’s the art show, movie screening of Everything Everywhere All at Once, happy hour, documentary screening of Nailed It, which really answers a question folks may have but never were able to ask – why are so many nail salons Asian owned?
People want to see your commitment to doing the work. Ideas are great but everyone has ideas, few actually do what’s necessary to see them come to life. For the past year, when people asked what I do or what I’m working on, the first thing I would say is, “I’m organizing events for Asian American Heritage Month.” Because it had never been done in Memphis, so people didn’t have a reference point, there was maybe some skepticism initially. But now that folks see the month’s lineup, they’re excited and more people have come on board.
Is there a particular event you are most excited for?
I’m excited for all of them!! But the art show is maybe the one that I’m most excited for since that is very directly related to my initial impetus for organizing the month of events.
I noticed you have a couple of events that relate back to reading and/or the library. Do you have any favorite AAPI authors or books?
Definitely had to include some book-related events! I love reading and reading work by Asian American authors has been such a game changer. Being able to see myself in the characters has contributed to feeling more seen in general. I like Celeste Ng – she wrote Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere. I haven’t gotten a chance to read her latest book yet – Our Missing Hearts. I also loved reading Home Fire and The Buddha in the Attic. I have to mention Pachinko; I’m a big fan of historical fiction and Min Jin Lee’s book was so good! And of course, Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. That book put into words my thoughts and experiences I’ve had as an Asian American. It came out right at the moment when I think a lot of us as Asian Americans really needed to see our experience reflected back to us and to embrace our own space and place and emotional responses.
You informed me of the interesting statistic that Asians make up only 2% of Memphis’ population. What was it like for you growing up in Memphis? I know personally, living in a city that does not always recognize the Asian community can feel lonely at times. How have you been able to build your own personal community and feel more connected to your roots (i.e. are you a part of any AAPI organizations, clubs, churches, etc.?)
Growing up in Memphis was isolating in many ways. Because even though I felt loved by friends and family, I was missing that strong city-wide Asian American community.
AAPI Heritage Month Memphis is that effort to create a community of Asian Americans in Memphis and to make ourselves more visible to one another within the Asian American community here but also more visible to our Memphis community as a whole.
When we were discussing which movie you wanted to talk about, your other choice was Raya and the Last Dragon (co-written by CRA's Adele Lim). I am curious why you chose this movie and would love to hear some of your thoughts on it as well!
I just loved this movie so much! The themes of friendship, trust, grief, love, overcoming prejudice or assumptions, making family. In the film one key point is that Raya has to learn to trust others and to work as a team in order to successfully fight against the dark spirit threatening their world, and she has to show vulnerability in order to do that. I think that’s a message for us all. Plus, another movie with strong, fierce women. I love to see it!
(Editor's note: you can listen to my 2021 interview on Raya with Jenny Lam here!)
In your opinion, is Asian Representation in Hollywood getting better? Do we need more? Are there specifics that they should include (i.e. more Southeast Asians, Asians with disabilities, Thai people playing ethnically Thai characters instead of Chinese actors, etc.)
It is definitely getting better but it can always continue to get better. I want to continue to see a variety of Asian American stories being told and Asian American actors/actresses playing the full range of roles, both in terms of leading roles and types of characters, villains, heroes, superheroes, love interests.
This year’s APAHM Project over-arching theme is self-identity. Sometimes, when people ask “Who are you?”, one of my first answers is my racial identity. Although that is a big part of who we are, it is not all we are. What would you like people to know about you once they are able to look beyond your ethnic background?
I believe we must be what we want to see in the world. If we want a kinder, gentler, more affirming world, a world where people feel seen, supported, and valued – which is what I want – then we have to do that work in our personal lives and in our public contributions. The work never comes back void – AAPI Heritage Month Memphis is proof. Besides that, I think it’s important to know that I’m a plant person! lol I have almost 40 plants. I also love a good coffee and I’m always down for a food adventure!
What does being “Asian American” mean to you?
I have this saying, “you can’t have a group identity by yourself.” For a very long time, even though I knew I was Asian American, I didn’t really know what it meant. I grew up in Memphis, a city whose Asian American population is currently a little less than 2 percent, and when I was growing up it was less than 1 percent. I always felt like in Memphis you were either Black or White. There was nothing else, because there wasn’t a critical mass of anyone else that was visible or included throughout the city. But after going to graduate school in the DMV (DC-Maryland-Virginia) and being in an area with a much larger and more visible Asian American community, communities, Asian American has much more meaning and feeling. And I think that is what being Asian American means to me – to create your place, community and belonging in spaces where you may be few in number or where you may be misunderstood because of the historic lack of representation of Asian Americans and because of the minimal knowledge of Asian Americans past and present.
Are there an Asian-owned businesses, influencers, artists, etc. that you would like to give a shout-out to?
I have to give a big shout-out to Erin Kim Shiao, Ink and Kimchi. Her artwork is absolutely stunning! She created the graphics for AAPI Heritage Month Memphis and was able to truly capture the feel of the month. I love what Patrick Armstrong is doing in terms of vocalizing Asian American issues as well as other social justice issues. He’s @patrickintheworld on IG. And because I love to have my nails done, I have to shout out Blank Beauty. They make custom nail polish colors! (Editor's note: one of the part-owners of Blank Beauty is Chinese-American. Its founders are not of Asian descent)
Where can readers find you and keep up with all the amazing things you do for both the AAPI and Memphis community?
You can find me on Instagram at @sunahmarieonly
More about me professionally can be found at www.sunahmlaybourn.com
Let’s stay in touch!
Thank you so much to our first guest, SunAh! I so enjoyed discussing CRA with her for this year's APAHM Project! Be sure to support AAPI Heritage Month and say hello if you see me there!