The (Asian) American Dream is alive and well
“We were PROUD to be together not hiding in the corner. And we were surrounded by people of ALL communities out to support us! How amazing is that?!! The greatness of America happening right in front of our eyes at our local movie theaters. It made me so emotional all weekend.”
Jon Chu, Director of Crazy Rich Asians
On July 13th, I was at a dinner with the creators of the movie Crazy Rich Asians, just over a month before it would eventually open. Great food, and even better company, paired with a steady serving of stories from filming on location in Singapore, to assembling the all-Asian cast (that director Jon Chu described as “the ‘Avengers’ of Asian actors”), to most importantly how the movie had come together in the first place.
Almost 2 years ago, Chu and author Kevin Kwan (who wrote the book the movie is based on), were at a crossroad with a critical decision: take a far more lucrative distribution deal from Netflix, or go the traditional studio route with Warner Bros who could give them a theatrical release. The safe choice would have been Netflix — guaranteed multi-million dollar payouts with no box office performance pressure.
But the pair decided to listen to their ideals, not their wallets, and opted to roll the dice on showing their film in movie theaters, where it had been 25 years since there had been a studio film featuring an all Asian American cast (The Joy Luck Club). As Kwan said in THR interview, “Jon and I both felt this sense of purpose. We needed this to be an old-fashioned cinematic experience.”
And the magnitude of that sense of purpose was not lost on anyone. As a Warner Bros studio exec told me that evening, “There are a half dozen Asian American projects being evaluated right now. If Crazy Rich Asians has a big opening weekend, all those projects go into development. If the movie doesn’t open, all those projects get shelved.”
5 weeks later on August 20th, the final box office tally from Crazy Rich Asian’s opening weekend were released: $26.5 million dollar gross, number one movie in the country, the biggest romantic comedy film in 3 years, and the realization of the (Asian) American Dream.
Asians in America
The past 2 decades have been a period of tremendous growth for Asians in this country. Since the year 2000, the US Asian population (including people from East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent) has grown more than 70% to over 20 million people, which is the fastest growth rate of any major ethnic group.
And in addition to a place to call home, America has also provided fantastic opportunities for Asian immigrants. According to a 2018 Nielsen report, Asian American high school graduates are 20% more likely to attend college, and then go on to earn a 28% higher income than the average American. That then translates to the average Asian American household spending 15% more than the average American household. Collectively, Asian Americans now have over $1 trillion in purchasing power, a number which has grown over 250% since 2000, which is the fastest rate of growth of all ethnic groups.
But while Asians are overall thriving in this great country, it’s not all positive news.
Asian Americans now have the most income inequality amongst any ethnicity, with those in the 90th percentile of income earning more than 10 times more than those in the 10th percentile. So while there are crazy rich Asians, there are also entire Asian subgroups that have poverty rates as high as 35%.
And even the successful Asian Americans face a different sort of challenge.
A few years ago, a popular study by Ascend Leadership took a look at Asian representation at 5 leading US technology companies: Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, LinkedIn, and Yahoo. The data showed that while Asians were overrepresented amongst the overall working population at 27% (more than 4 times the population average), only 14% were in executive roles.
There’s a similar story in the finance and legal industries. At 4 of the largest investment banks (Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan Chase), Asians make up 12% of all professionals, but only 5% of the executives. According to data collected by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, 11% of associates at law firms are Asian, but only 3% of partners were Asian.
To sum it up bluntly, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review called Asian Americans the “least likely group in the US to be promoted to management”.
Like with most situations, the state of Asians in America is complicated with both encouraging achievements and disappointing challenges to point to. But within those challenges, there also lies opportunity.
Asian American Entrepreneurship
“America is the greatest place. Any dream that you want can come true if you work hard and love what you do.”
Director Jon Chu
There’s a reason America is called the land of opportunity, and that’s because you can create your own, which is exactly what many Asian Americans have done as they’ve started businesses at a record pace. There are more than 2 million businesses owned by Asian Americans. Between 2007–2012, the number of Asian American founded businesses grew at 10 times the rate of the US as a whole. A staggering 39% of Asian American women are entrepreneurs. If you can’t get a promotion from the boss, then go become your own boss.
A specific sector of entrepreneurship where Asian Americans have made great strides is in the technology startup space that I’ve had the privilege to work in. Courtesy of Crunchbase, I queried the most recent 150 American unicorn startups (i.e. startups that have achieved a lofty $1 billion dollar valuation that were founded in the US). This list of 150 companies goes back to January of 2006 and includes iconic startups like Twitter, Square, Uber, DoorDash, and more.
I then divided this time sorted list into two equal halves: a group of the first 75 unicorns (which spanned from 2006 to 2009), and a second group of the most recent 75 unicorns (which spans from 2009 to today). In the first unicorn group, 5 of the 75 companies had an East or Southeast Asian founder, which is about the population rate. But in the second unicorn group, that representative number jumps an impressive 240% as 12 of the 75 most recent unicorns have an East or Southeast Asian founder.
Another interesting group to look at is the investors who funded these hit startups.
One measure of investor success is the annual Forbes Midas List, which is self described as a “data-driven ranking of the world’s 100 top venture capitalists based on all exits”. 10 years ago, the 2008 Forbes Midas List featured 3 US investors who were ethnically East or Southeast Asian. This year’s 2018 Forbes Midas List had 9 such investors, a 300% increase. And if you also include investors ethnically from the Indian subcontinent, an amazing 20% of the entire 2018 Forbes Midas List is Asian American, which would be 3 times more represented than the population average.
So at some of the highest ranks of the technology startup ecosystem, Asian American representation has seen strong growth over the past decade. There’s always more that can be done, but this representation of leadership and success deserves celebration because it’s not just a sign of improving opportunities for Asian Americans — rather the representation is actually part of the solution.
“You never know how much you miss being represented… until you actually see what it’s like to be represented.”
Chrissy Teigen, Model and Author
From being labeled as the model minority to now facing the bamboo ceiling, the history of Asian inclusion in American is complex, as are the many socioeconomic theories behind why these biases may exist in the first place. But what’s not up for debate is that representation is critical to the solution for everyone, which brings us back to Crazy Rich Asians.
The breakthrough of Crazy Rich Asians goes beyond simply the all Asian cast. Rather it’s the roles that this cast is allowed to play that are so incredibly unique and refreshing. To watch Asians as the leading woman, the leading man, the matriarch, the powerful and successful, and at every moment the focal point of the film was something that many Asian Americans have never seen before — I know I had not.
University of Pennsylvania communication professors George Gerbner and Larry Gross once stated in their research into the social impact of media that “representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation”. In other words, the lack of representation is a reminder that you don’t matter or aren’t accepted. And the flip side is that seeing it makes it more real. If you are shown representative success that looks like you, it’s easier to envision that actually becoming your own success.
That’s the power of not just representation, but representation at the highest levels in the most accomplished roles. Crazy Rich Asians isn’t just a Hollywood movie with an all Asian cast; it’s a number one grossing Hollywood movie with Asian actresses and actors that are now bonafide stars. Similarly, the Asian American founders of unicorn startups aren’t just entrepreneurs, they are creators of some of the most successful and respected companies of their generation. Managing Director at a top investment bank, Partner at a law firm, CEO of Fortune 500 company. To see Asian Americans in all of these prominent, visible roles are the watershed moments that inspire, motivate, and remind communities that this type of lofty success is possible. Doors to the very top can be opened for us all.
It’s success combined with the visibility of that success which is what’s so powerful, which is what’s so transformative. If you succeed in the shadows, you win at the game. But if you succeed in the spotlight, you change the game.
A Beginning, Not An End
“It only takes a spark, to get the fire going. And soon all those around, can warm up in its glowing.”
Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians
The week following the historic opening of Crazy Rich Asians, the sequel to the film went into development, and a number of other Asian American Hollywood projects gained national prominence. Producer Albert Kim said “In the last week, two network pilots were sold that feature all-Asian casts. I also know of three cable projects, all in active development, that mostly feature Asian and Asian American characters. It’s going to happen, the momentum is there.” Even the country of Singapore benefited from the widespread excitement around Crazy Rich Asians with travel searches for the country up more than 100% from normal.
Was this all still a fleeting moment in time? Was this all just a single, anomalous event that would soon pass?
On August 27th, the final box office tally from Crazy Rich Asians’ second weekend were in. The film grossed an even more astonishing $24.8 million dollars, which represented only a 6% drop in revenue from its opening weekend. To put in prospective how good that performance is, the 6% drop is the 24th smallest for any wide release (i.e. a movie shown in 3,000 or more theaters). And if you take out movies that benefited from a holiday in their second weekend to boost numbers, Crazy Rich Asian’s second weekend was the 7th best movie performance ever.
The following week Crazy Rich Asians topped the box office for the third consecutive weekend with a $28.3 million holiday weekend haul, the best Labor Day movie performance in over a decade and the third best of all time. Third best for any movie. In the history of all movies. And also in the Top 5 top grossing films of the weekend was Searching, starring Asian American actor John Cho. Two Asian centric movies leading American popular cinema.
One word to describe that might fittingly be “crazy”.