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Michael Gerson: The crazy-rich Asian experience

The breakthrough Hollywood film about the Asian experience, told from an Asian perspective, featuring an Asian cast, could have been about the cruel exploitation of Chinese workers in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. It could have been about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from the U.S. for a decade and denied citizenship to Chinese already here. It could have been about the forced removal of more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry to internment camps during World War II.

It says something that “Crazy, Rich Asians” — called a “landmark” and the Asian “Black Panther” — is a romantic comedy, concerned more with class than race. Its plot is closer to “The Philadelphia Story” than to the immigrant struggles of “The Joy Luck Club.” This has been a source of criticism in some quarters. But it is not a flaw but a feature.

The story of “Crazy, Rich Asians” is propelled by the interaction of three ethnically Chinese groups. There are the overseas Chinese, who left China (often because of conflict and famine) in the 19th and 20th centuries and came to dominate the economies of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and — the main setting for the movie — Singapore. By one estimate they make up about 6 percent of the combined population of those countries and hold about 60 percent of their corporate wealth. Like in Renaissance Italy or 19th-century New York City, a few fabulously wealthy families constitute dynasties, setting the terms of social welcome or exclusion. The male lead, played by Henry Golding, is a scion of one of those families.

Then there is the nouveau riche, whose growth in wealth has far outstripped their growth in taste. This group provides the protagonist’s best friend, played by Awkwafina, who dominates every scene she enters with a manic glee.

Finally, there are the Asian-Americans, who are viewed with suspicion by the Chinese dynastic families, particularly for their tendency to prefer choice and self-expression to filial responsibilities. The American interloper, played charmingly by Constance Wu, was raised by a single mother, became an economics professor at NYU and innocently enters the buzz saw of Singaporean high society.

Without providing any spoilers, the product of the American immigrant experience proves every bit as tough and resourceful as the matriarch of the grand Chinese family and love prevails across the division of class (unlike in “The Philadelphia Story,” in which class ties win out).

No film can really encompass the Asian experience, in part because the term “Asian” is absurdly broad. Part of the context for “Crazy, Rich Asians” is the cultural self-confidence of the overseas Chinese, captured at one point in the movie when a father urges a child to clear his plate with the admonition: “Think of all the starving children in America.” This is an ethnic group that fully expects to own the future.

The other context for the movie is a particular phenomenon — the extraordinary success of Chinese and other East Asian immigrants in America. The general outlook of this group is conditioned by the fact that the American dream worked as promised for many of them. The median family income of Asians in America is significantly higher than that of whites. One of their main concerns is the accusation that Harvard stoops to race-conscious admissions practices that artificially lower its number of Asian students.

I’ve seen some of these trends at the micro level. My wife is Korean. She came to America through international adoption — an immigrant experience, not as a tolerated stranger, but as a much-loved member of a family. Growing up in a fundamentalist community, in a nearly all-white suburb, she can recall only two instances of prejudice. Our marriage did not cause controversy.

Intermarriage is in the process of scrambling a lot of simple ethnic stories. According to a Pew Research Center study, 29 percent of Asian-American newlyweds in 2015 married someone from a different race or ethnicity. My children — thanks to the low-cost proliferation of genetic testing — know their background is East Asian, West European, South European and European Jewish, with a hint of Irish, Scottish and Welsh.

People with this kind of background — and Asian-Americans more generally — are likely to be proud of their heritage, but not defined by its divisions and resentments. And they are seeing their story reflected, not in a tragedy, but in a brilliant comedy of class and manners.

Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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