As a Singaporean, I had mixed feelings about the Movie Crazy Rich Asians. A friend gave me a copy of the book when it first came out. Crazy Rich Asians Singapore! I thought the book and movie would portray Singapore as a place where everyone was rich. And, I did not want people to think that.
My partner Sue, who’s been to Singapore with me many times, read and enjoyed the book and wanted to see the movie. At first, I said no. But then my friends started to see the movie and asked me what I thought about it. I decided I’d better read the book and then go see the movie.
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First Impressions Crazy Rich Asians Singapore
It was fun to see Singapore on the big screen and a movie with an Asian cast.
Singapore’s Changi airport IS the best airport in the world. When my parents were alive, they used to insist on sending me off whenever I was traveling as they really wanted to go to the airport as a family outing. There really is a butterfly park and a sunflower garden! And, shopping and restaurants. You can spend the whole day there.
Hawker centers, Orchard Road, Sentosa. The sounds of Singlish. The foods—nasi lemak, satay, char kway teow, prawn noodles and arguments about which hawker centers served the best satay. They all brought me back home.
Radio 1 Asia also made me laugh. Every family has their own Radio 1 Asia for spreading news or gossip.
Filial piety and respect for the elders was also familiar and ingrained in all of us as children.
Also familiar was the emotionality (or lack thereof), keeping face, and respecting elders.
Old Money, New Money and No Money
One thing I want to make clear—there is poverty in Singapore. As a visitor you will not see it at all. And, certainly it is nonexistent in the movie. There are a lot of people doing well, but not uber rich like the Youngs, the Leongs, the Khoos and the Gohs. Most people live in and own their apartments in HDB (Housing Development Board) flats. HDB Flats are built and sold by the government. Landed property (a house with any amount of land) is very rare and very expensive.
I was taught to be circumspect about money and we did not have much of it. It’s not considered good form to boast about your wealth. On the other hand, buying a new car every year and joining a country club is a way to show without announcing how much money you have in the bank. Similar to Astrid’s and Eleanor’s penchant for buying jewelry.
The Youngs and the Gohs live in separate worlds. And, families like mine and most Singaporeans live in HDB flats and are in another world entirely.
ABCs, Mainland China and Singapore
American Born Chinese. There are certainly dynamics between those of us born in Asia and those of us born in the US. I thought that Rachel’s mother did a good job of explaining some of the differences in ways of thinking and being.
There are also differences among Singaporeans and Chinese from mainland, Indonesian Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kongers. We are as varied and different as people from the United States or Europe.
In particular, there are lots of differences between mainland Chinese and Singaporeans. Most of the Singaporeans I know are 2nd generation born in Singapore. We identify, first and foremost, as Singaporeans. Our grandparents may have come from China or through Malaysia to Singapore. But we are not Chinese.
The Chinese feel differently. They think Singapore should be part of China. In fact, a Chinese government official was heard to say:
“Hong Kong is the good child, you have to love her back.
Taiwan is the bad child, you have to force her back.
Singapore is the clever child, you have to trick her back.”
But Singapore is an independent country. We are not part of China in the way that Hong Kong and Taiwan are.
When I travelled in China, I was often berated for not being Chinese enough and not speaking Mandarin. I grew up speaking English—Singapore was a British colony until shortly before I was born. I had to study Mandarin in school and I spoke Cantonese with my mother, but Mandarin is not my mother tongue.
Singaporeans are Foodies
Singaporeans are self-proclaimed foodies. In the movie and in “real life,” there are heated debates about which hawker centers have the best laksa, the best hokkien mee, the best satay. And, we find any opportunity to eat including the midnight supper! What better way to fill your tummy at 3am after many hours of dancing to the pulsing beat in a club? Singapore is literally open 24 hours a day. I once had a client who loved chocolate cake. We were in between press okays and it was 4am. He asked me to bring him somewhere where we could get chocolate cake and coffee. Obviously I knew where to take him.
Many Languages and Accents
Singapore has four official languages—English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. The fifth is Singlish and not everyone speaks it. Singlish is a mix of English, Chinese and Malay with a dash of Hokkien (another Chinese dialect).
Class differences can be discerned by languages and accents. The British accent is generally considered upper class. Singlish is lower class (or nouveau riche as in the Gohs in the movie). People always ask about where you went to school (whether you studied abroad or in Singapore), where you live and what do you do for a living.
When I went to college, the National University of Singapore (NUS) was the only university in Singapore and getting in was a big deal. My family was very excited when I got in and graduated from NUS. In my generation, if your family was wealthy and your grades weren’t good enough to get into NUS, you were sent abroad.
You probably heard the word “Alamak” during the Crazy Rich Asians movie. This is an example of Singlish and means “oh dear.” You also heard “Lah” used at the end of sentences. Okay Lah means it’s ok. Both of these phrases derive from Malay words. Singlish was spoken by the Gohs which indicated that they were newly rich, not old money.
Keep it Short: Synonyms and Abbreviations
You may notice the wide use of synonyms and abbreviations in the movie. This is a reflection of the way Singaporeans are: efficient and to the point. There are no excesses, even in the spoken word. Most everything is initials—HDB (Housing Development Board), CPF (Central Provident Fund), PAP (People’s Action Party) and so on.
Why are Cars so Expensive in Singapore?
The majority of Singaporeans travel around the island via the very efficient Mass Rapid Transport (MRT) system. I mentioned earlier buying a new car every year as a sign of wealth – that is because it costs 5x as much to buy a car in Singapore as in the US. First, you have to obtain a COE (Certificate of Entitlement) to purchase a car. The car is taxed at 275%. It can cost upwards of $150,000 to own a car. And, after a car is 10 years old, it is retired and can no longer be driven. And yes, we have congestion pricing in Singapore. There are tolls for driving during the peak hours.
What were the Crazy Rich Asians Singapore Eating?
As I said earlier, we are foodies. Some of the foods in the movie were:
Nasi lemak – coconut rice wrapped in pandan leaf with fried anchovies, roasted peanuts, curry, half a hard boiled egg, cucumber slices and sambal. Usually eaten for breakfast.
Satay – grilled skewered chicken, mutton or beef seasoned in honey and spices, eaten with pressed rice, cucumber and onions, dipped in peanut sauce
My favorites include: Char Kway Teow—rice noodles with eggs fried in sweet black sauce, usually with thin slices of Chinese sausage. Sometimes this dish has cockles and bean sprouts.
Roti Prata or Canai—Indian flatbread served with chicken and potato curry for dipping.
Carrot cake which is steamed daikon radish cake fried with eggs.
Sue loves Chili Crab which is one of the national dishes. It is crab served in a spicy red sauce with mantou (fried bread) for dipping.
She’s also a big fan of kaya toast. Kaya is an egg custard/jam. We often eat kaya toast with soft boiled eggs (with a splash of soy sauce) for breakfast when we are in Singapore.
For more on Hawker Centers in Singapore, read Sue’s post A Tasty Delight on Every Corner.
If you happen to live in or visit NYC, my favorite place for Singapore food is a Malaysian restaurant called Rasa (25 W. 8th Street in the Village, Manhattan).
Where Can I find the Places in Crazy Rich Asians Singapore?
Ah Ma’s house and gardens, there is no such park, just a road next to botanic gardens the Singapore Botanic Gardens (1 Cluny Road, take the MRT to the Botanic Gardens Stop)
One Cairnhill Road
One Cairnhill Road is behind Orchard Road near the popular Robinsons Mall
Nassimis also known as Embassy Row and is near the Botanic Gardens (Orchard Road MRT stop)
First Methodist Church
First Methodist Church does not exist in Singapore. This was probably modeled after Wesley Methodist Church (5 Fort Canning Road, nearest MRT stop is Dhoby Ghaut MRT) since it is the nearest to Fort Canning Park.
In the movie, CHIJMES (30 Victoria Street near the City Hall MRT Stop) was used to film the wedding scene of Colin and Araminta. CHIJMES used to be the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, middle education school, a former convent and secondary school for catholic girls. Today it is a popular venue with restaurants and bars.
Fort Canning Park
Fort Canning Park is a 150 acres park and nature reserve at the highest elevation in the center of the island. A fort was built on the site in 1861. Today you will still find the 9lb cannon. As a kid I used to play in the park and around the cannon. I recalled the old Van Kleef aquarium and National Theatre was located at one end of the park, and back then, families used to picnic there. There was also the YWCA where I had learned karate when I was 19. (Fort Canning Station (Exit B), Clarke Quay Station (Exit E) or Dhoby Ghaut Station (Exit B)
Sentosa Cove is on Sentosa Island which is now a Disneyish resort with a butterfly park and aviary, a few beaches with man-made lagoons. A monorail takes you to some of the attractions like SEA aquarium, Today part of the island features private residences of multi-million dollar homes with their own docks. During WWII, the island was used as a military fortress. After the Japanese invasion, a POW camp was set up and is where Singapore surrendered to the Japanese.
Orchard Road is the main shopping and entertainment drag of the country/island, it stretches 2.5 km (1.5 miles). You can find ultra-high end boutiques, inexpensive shops, restaurants and everything in between.
Newton Road Hawker Centre
Newton Road Hawker Centre is very popular with tourists. There are individual stalls with different kinds of foods like noodles, meat dishes, seafood. It is best visited at night as the temperature can be cooler then. (Nearest MRT stop is Newton)
Lau Pa Sat
Lau Pa Sat (aka Telok Ayer market) is located in the middle of the Central Business District (CBD). It is very popular with the office crowd for lunch and party goers looking for a midnight snack. A National monument built in the 19th century, the architecture has distinctive octagonal style with soaring arches. This place reminds me of the souks in Morocco but instead of shops, you will find stalls selling food. (Nearest MRT 18 Raffle Quay)
The Churchill Club does not exist in Singapore. It was probably modeled after the Singapore Cricket Club located on the Padang (where Michael Teo played soccer growing up). The Club was established in 1852. (Connaught Drive Singapore. Nearest MRT Raffles Place).
Changi Airport has 4 terminals and is an internationally acclaimed destination unto itself complete with shops, restaurants, hotels, sunflower garden, butterfly and waterfall park. Next year there will be a 5-story rain vortex.
Marina Bay Sands
Marina Bay Sands is a hotel resort with over 2500 rooms featuring Sands Sky Park’s infinity pool on top of hotel (add Art/Science Museum, theatre, shops, casinos and restaurants). Nearest MRT Bayfront
Gardens by the Bay
Gardens by the Bay – sitting on over 250 acres of reclaimed land featuring hanging gardens, flower domes, cloud forest and the 160’ Supertrees connected via several walkways. Sue loves the Supertrees. They are best viewed at night as the trees are lit and the evening breezes chase the heat off.
Read the Books
If you liked the movie, I recommend that you read the books. There are more details in the books about Singapore and the dynamics within the family. It’s a light read and there’s no deep analysis of poverty or wealthy, but I enjoyed reading a book set in Singapore and New York–the two places that I call home. The author, Kevin Kwan, was born in Singapore and moved to the United States when he was 11.
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Singapore is a fantastic place to visit whether you saw Crazy Rich Asians or not. There is a lot more to do than eat and shop. There are museums (the ArtScience Museum is Sue’s favorite) and islands for day trips. The Singapore Botanic Garden is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. English is widely spoken; the mass transit is efficient and easy to navigate. It is well positioned as the gateway to all of Asia.
And the food… well I am a foodie and a Singaporean so don’t get me started.
Planning a Trip to Singapore? See our Singapore Itinerary 4 Days.
Wondering How You’ll Survive the 21 Hour Flight? You’ll want to read Cheapest Business Class to Singapore for a guide to getting the best airfare and how to survive the flight.
Did you See Crazy Rich Asians? What do you think about the Movie?
You Might also like the Lonely Planet Singapore Guide
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