I interviewed the gorgeous and exquisite GEMMA CHAN back in early August at the CRAZY RICH ASIANS press junket in Los Angeles. But I have kept a lot of the interview under wraps until now considering the UK official release date of CRAZY RICH ASIANS is on 14th September, and a number of pre and advance screenings have already happened. One thing I would like to share is that at the interview, Chan was so poised, yet she exuded so much humility and I could sense how passionate and proud she is of her British Chinese identity.
I felt this was something we had in common, myself identifying as a proud Chinese Australian, and knowing that the buzz around CRAZY RICH ASIANS has been really “American” centered when the narrative has a further reach beyond the confines of America. Our interview was not rushed and I even had an opportunity to have an informal chat with her where I shared some of my experiences being Chinese Australian and growing up with severe internalized racism. I think it is these experiences in all our childhoods which interlinks all Western/European born and/or raised Asians in that most if not all of us go through that identity crisis and the internalizing of our self hatred. Chan was very forthcoming with all her answers and the interview really took a life of its own.
Chan plays ASTRID LEONG, cousin of NICK YOUNG ( played by HENRY GOLDING). Astrid exudes extreme beauty, class and exquisiteness who can make any piece of jewelry, accessory or item of clothing famous just by her wearing it out in public. But under all that glitz and glamour, Astrid is a very deep, layered and complex character – which is always why her character from the novel was always one of my favorites. In saying that, Chan was so perfect for the role and you can literally see her as a real life Astrid from the book. I asked Chan about playing this character and whether any part of Astrid reflects the real Gemma Chan:
CHAN: Absolutely I can identify with Astrid. I fell in love with her character when I read the books, and you are right when you said people believe she has this perfect existence but really, deep down she is a woman of complexity and depth. There is so much going on underneath all that expensive clothes, make up and jewelry. And that is where Astrid Leong’s life is like mine. On the outside I know I am very fortunate with all the opportunities I have, but no one knows what is going on underneath and all the chaos that is going on behind the scenes. This is why she is an interesting character to play because she is a person and a woman with layers. Very few people from Nick Young’s family are like that and Astrid is one who is real and humble. She is not fooled by the trappings of wealth and doesn’t need to show off or be ostentatious. She buys things for the love, not because it shows she is extremely wealthy. I loved getting under her skin and really feel what it is like being Astrid for these reasons.
Chan and I spoke at length about diversity and representation in the media and how this can extend beyond the parameters of the US and what it is like being outside of identifying as Asian/Chinese American:
CHAN: For me, we talk a lot about representation nowadays and why it is important, but my personal experience is when you don’t have representation in the mainstream and in pop culture and when you are a minority in pop culture, that directly impacts on how you are treated as a minority in everyday life. It determines whether you are normalized or otherized. I felt growing up in the UK, I hardly saw anyone who looked like me or my mom and dad, not just in the media but on any aspect of UK society. You end up internalizing these feelings of resentment because there are always question marks even though you are told constantly to believe in yourself. Sometimes I feel like an impostor because I would ask myself whether I have the right to be here and to have a voice on a global scale. And I guess a lot of us will raise our voices on the platforms we have in the hope for young kids who see the film ( both Asian and non Asian) will have the belief that they can be at the center of their own narrative and that they are all worthwhile.
Chan also spoke to me about how it felt filming on location in Singapore, particularly working under all the heat and humidity:
CHAN: I absolutely love it and it was such an amazing experience. We were so lucky to be there. This really is not a film which could have been shot on a lot in LA because to make the film work, we had to be immersed in the sounds, the heat, the humidity, the food and the culture of Singapore. Singapore really was its own character in the film. But yeah, the heat and humidity was challenging and when you add in the lights on set blaring on you, it definitely was not easy so to speak because it was crazy hot. But that never deterred how much I loved filming in Singapore and how much I have fallen in love with the country.
After all these questions, we went more specific into who Gemma Chan was and what were her direct experiences and journey as a British East Asian actress. We first discussed the issues of representation and visibility for British East Asians:
CHAN: I think in many ways the visibility problem is more pronounced for British East Asians and Asians in general in the UK than it is in the US. There is are many Asian/POC American organizations and advocacy in the US that perhaps we in the UK are slightly behind. This is not to say we don’t have anything, because there are so many British East Asian and Asian actors and activists in the UK fighting for more visibility everyday, so in thinking about this I do feel things are changing for the better, but there is definitely more work to be done in the UK.
And how about Chan herself? Who is she and how has her career transformed since her start in the industry when she was a model. Has she faced racism whilst attending auditions?
CHAN: Gosh, well I did modelling for a year to save up for drama school and really it was a means to an end. And in general and particularly at that time ( 10 years ago or so) the fashion industry was tough and models were not treated well. It was really hard. To be honest, I can’t say that I really loved it. I do feel I was always treated differently because of my race and I know at the beginning of my acting career there were certain parts that I wouldn’t even have a look in for, be invited to audition or get a chance to show what I can do. It really is an emotionally draining and hurtful experience. I do think though things have changed. My experiences were like 10 years ago, and even 5 years ago I would say things have definitely changed. People are more willing to think outside the box and be open to more diverse and inclusive casting. Acting should reflect life and life is about all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds, and I think that should always be reflected in our story telling.
Lastly we went back to the discussion about representation and visibility for Asians in Western mainstream media. I asked Chan whether she felt CRAZY RICH ASIANS is the start of this or whether it is an extension of what has already been achieved? Is one more important than the other or are they both equally important.
CHAN: I think they are interlinked and both as equally important as each other. I am so glad that CRAZY RICH ASIANS has come out as a hopefully successful fictional romcom. I also think we should be not just talking about representation and visibility but also talking about the history we are taught and the history that we learn in the West. I recently took part in a documentary in the UK which talked about the 140,000 Chinese who came to the UK to be part of the allied war effort during World War 1. This is something I do not ever remember being taught in the UK when learning about World War 1, and I learned about the war effort so many times in school. It was literally erased from our history books – the Chinese labour corp. There was actually a huge mural painted in Paris to celebrate the allied war effort, and when the Americans joined the war they had to make space on the mural for the Americans, so they literally painted over the Chinese workers and hence erased that entire history.
One must remember, the Chinese lost so many lives because during World War 1, they did some of the most dangerous jobs – they cleared the dead bodies on the war fields and did all the dirty jobs that no one else wanted to do. I was so moved when I heard about this because it shows how our histories are so interlinked more than we think and these are the things we are never taught in our schooling. Learning about this is extremely important because when someone tells any of us to “go back where we came from”, we now have more of a backbone to reclaim our culture, our life and our identity by understanding our histories. I actually spoke recently to my mom about this and she said that she has heard stories from her home village back in China where young Chinese men joined the World War 1 war effort in these jobs and never returned home. We need to be a lot more vigilant and forefront on saying what went on in our history as comebacks from those who want to be racist towards us.
Well that’s the entire and unabridged interview with the elusive GEMMA CHAN. I am glad that I left so much of the details till now so that I can release it prior to the official opening of CRAZY RICH ASIANS in the UK. Also, Chan;s next thing is starring in CAPTAIN MARVEL as MINN-ERVA – so check it out when this is released!
FYI there have been pre and advanced screenings already but the official opening weekend starts on 14th September, so UK peeps go out and support this film – make it a #GOLDOPEN!