After 'Crazy Rich Asians,' is Singapore ready for its close-up?

The Singaporean cast members of"Crazy Rich Asians."
The Singaporean cast members of"Crazy Rich Asians." Photo Credit: Courtesy of Singapore Tourism Board
Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon

Fancy going beyond a "Crazy Rich Asians" experience of Singapore?

Well, Singapore's certainly got a lot of global attention of late. First there was the Trump-Kim Peace Summit, which saw the whole world go gaga over two men who most thought were gaga in the first place.

That event, said Singapore authorities, generated more than $513 million worth of publicity for the Little Red Dot with big ambitions.

Now there's "Crazy Rich Asians," the Hollywood blockbuster that's being hailed as "a movement, not just a movie" on account of it being the first Hollywood production in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast.

That's what the cast said at the film's premiere in Singapore on Aug. 21. But I can't recall the movie from 25 years before, can you? And I wonder if anyone will recall "CRA" 25 years hence. (We in Singapore love acronyms, so "CRA" will be the movie's name here from now on).

For now, it's being likened to the "Black Panther" of Hollywood, in that it will open the floodgates to Asians being featured in leading roles rather than stereotyped parts. And as far as tourism is concerned, hopes are high that it will do for Singapore what "The Lord of the Rings" did for New Zealand.

Personally, I'm not sure of the success it will have in breaking stereotypes -- the movie is riddled with them -- but I guess stereotypes are OK if you are making them about yourselves.

What I am sure of is the success the movie will have as a destination marketing campaign, especially one that positions Singapore as a playground for the wealthy.

In an interview with my website, Web in Travel, Lynette Pang, assistant chief executive, marketing group at the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), said the film is "a natural opening to get the conversation going about the real Singapore and pique interest in visiting the country, ... especially in the North American markets."

Though I suspect the conversation will start from a more basic footing -- director Jon Chu's liberal use of maps in the first part of the movie is clearly intended to give North Americans a geography lesson on exactly where Singapore is -- it is a good start.

And when Chu thanked the list of Singapore agencies that supported the $30 million movie at the premiere, it was definitely longer than an acceptance speech at the Oscars.

The movie shows Singapore in its best possible superficial light as a thriving, dynamic metropolis with almost every attraction ticked off: the Singapore River, Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay, Raffles Hotel and, of course, lots of food.

Singapore Airlines was conspicuously missing as the airline that flew the protagonists in from New York, but the movie is great timing for the carrier, which is soon launching direct flights from New York and Los Angeles to Singapore.

To ride on the movie's frenzy, the STB plans to initiate marketing initiatives in collaboration with Warner Bros. across other markets beyond the U.S., including Australia, Japan and Southeast Asia.

Already visitor numbers from North America have been healthy. In 2017, Singapore received 565,000 visitors from North America, a record high and an increase from 2016's 516,000. The U.S. is also the STB's top longhaul market in 2017.

"CRA" has, of course, sparked a lot of debate about how it is a misrepresentation of Singapore, how the city-state is not an all-Chinese place, as portrayed in the movie, and how "crazy rich" only describes a sliver of the population; the majority of Singaporeans live in public housing.

But that such debate has been sparked at all is healthy. On the one hand, it has roused national pride among Singaporeans and Malaysians, and on the other, it has roused passions among those who felt indignant that their country was portrayed in such a superficial manner.

The STB's new marketing campaign is, after all, built around the premise of "Passion Made Possible," and while some critics say the movie's core theme of "how a good son should do his family duty rather than follow his passion" runs counter to that message, there's no denying passion aroused, whatever its cause, is a good thing.

In fact, right after the movie, I got a message from an investor who said he wants to create a Trojan horse "Crazy Rich Asian" experience, one that shows the other side of Singapore and gives the place context.

"My idea is you don't just gawk at the locations, but we set the record straight and explain the socioeconomic realities of Singapore: part movie tour, part understanding of the complexities of Singapore."

He added: "So the movie is Singapore 101; the experience is your post-grad degree."

Any takers?


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