In ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Singapore’s tech and opulence get starring roles

Singapore Marina Bay, Photo by Leonid Iaitskyi (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Leonid Iaitskyi/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Although it may be cliche to call a city “another character” in a film, it is true that some films evoke a setting so well, you can’t imagine them taking place anywhere else. Roman Holiday (Rome), Lost in Translation (Tokyo), and Adventures in Babysitting (Chicago) come to mind. When characters find themselves in a new environment, the audience gets to explore along with them. It often helps to have a guide, and in Crazy Rich Asians, the movie, based on Kevin Kwan’s novel, Nick (Henry Golding) shows his girlfriend, Rachel (Constance Wu) around Singapore.

Even if you’ve visited, it’s highly unlikely you experienced the island nation the way Rachel did, thanks to Nick’s deep pockets: luxury hotels, mega mansions, fancy cars, and first-class anything and everything. If this is director Jon M. Chu’s love letter to Singapore, it’s one encrusted with emeralds and pearls.

If you think the movie is another Hollywood exaggeration, however, think again: While upbeat movies often romanticize a destination, the wealth in Singapore is very real. Despite a population of approximately 5.6 million, Singapore has one of the highest GDPs (gross domestic product) of any developed economy; some of the world’s most expensive real estate; and the highest percentage of wealth among its residents (never mind that it also has a huge income disparity, which you won’t see in the film).

And, while Japan and Korea often get the spotlight, Singapore is one of the most high-tech nations in Asia, and, according to research from ABI, its initiatives have led it to become the world’s smartest city.

Because of Nick’s fictional background, the movie doesn’t bother to show the city-state’s everyday side, but from the dumplings to the hawker centers and mahjong parlor, it gives a taste. Even if you aren’t into rom-coms or the lifestyles of the rich and famous, it’s worth watching for this dynamic city alone.

The airplane

A business class seat on a Singapore Airlines A350 feels more like a large, private pod. Singapore Airlines

In the trailer, you see Rachel’s mind blown by the cushy, first-class cabin aboard the fictional Pacific Asean Airlines, but it’s clearly a nod to Singapore Airlines, which is planning to relaunch the longest flight in the world (almost 20 hours from New York to Singapore) on new ultra-long-range Airbus A350-900s. A first-class suite in the airline’s new Airbus A380 can cost anywhere from $12,626 to $14,376 (according to our search), but a business class seat in a nonstop A350 (the only upscale option available) is also luxurious, but at half the cost. If your budget is more limited, don’t fret: Singapore Airlines has one of the top-rated economy cabins.

The airport

A rooftop pool not at a hotel, but at Singapore’s Changi Airport.

Once they land in Singapore, Rachel marvels that the Changi Airport has a butterfly garden and movie theater. There are also sunflower, orchid, and cactus gardens, not to mention a rooftop pool and an entertainment center with a 24-hour movie theater. No wonder a man attempted to live there.

The landmarks

The Supertree Grove at the Gardens by the Bay. Gardens by the Bay

From their room at the historic Raffles Hotel (which opened in 1887 but is currently closed for renovations) to the futuristic Gardens by the Bay, Rachel and Nick manage to take in some of Singapore’s most iconic spots. A party at the end of the film was filmed atop the Marina Bay Sands, which boasts the world’s largest infinity pool on a rooftop that straddles across three buildings. Some scenes were actually filmed in neighboring Malaysia, “because those properties just don’t exist anymore” in Singapore, Chu told Conde Nast Traveler.

The food

Diners at a Singapore hawker center, photo by Aussie Assault/Flickr (Creative Commons)
Diners at a hawker center in Singapore. Aussie Assault/Flickr (Creative Commons)

There are currently 39 one- and two-Michelin-star restaurants on the 278-square-mile island. Rachel, Nick, and their soon-to-be married friends stop at the Newton Food Centre to get beers and plates upon plates of food. One of Singapore’s many hawker centers, it’s a place to revel in delicious dishes from a variety of cultures that exist in the country and Southeast Asia (and one of the few scenes in the movie that shows everyday life in Singapore). At the Tiong Bahru Market you can get Malaysian nasi lemak, Chinese siu mai, Thai fried rice, and Hainanese chicken rice — Singapore’s national dish — in one place. The late Anthony Bourdain said he went to Singapore to eat, as it had more diverse, affordable food options than almost any place else.

The soundtrack

Shiny buildings and shots of spicy food have their place, but the film’s music also evoke the sense that New Yorker Rachel is in a world that’s simultaneously familiar yet foreign. “I would be lying if I said I had some pre-existing expertise in Chinese music,” music supervisor Gabe Hilfer told Entertainment Weekly (spoilers in the article). “So it was really cool to get into it.” The result is a multi-lingual soundtrack, with Chinese covers of Madonna’s “Material Girl” and Coldplay’s “Yellow.”

What wasn’t shown?

Singapore public housing, photo by Bernard Spragg/Flickr (Creative Commons)
While Singapore has a large percentage of wealthy residents, the majority live in government-built public housing. Bernard Spragg/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Do you have to be crazy rich to live in Singapore? It doesn’t hurt. For the fifth year in a row, it was named the world’s most expensive city. Its gross domestic product per capita is the fourth largest in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund. But its Gini coefficient, a measurement of income disparity, is quite high at 0.458, as Dollars and Sense points out. The median household income was around $6,604 per month in 2017, according to Singapore’s government. While that’s higher than in the U.S. (around $4,920 monthly), clearly not everyone is dropping two month’s salary on first-class plane tickets.

One way Singapore uses its money is to “techify” the city. It’s frequently ranked among the top smart cities. But for every photovoltaic-outfitted “supertree” and pollution-tracking robot swan, there are eye scanners and lampposts with facial recognition technology that raise privacy concerns. The penalties for law-breaking can be severe, as two Germans who spray painted graffiti on a train learned; in 2015, they were sentenced to jail time and caning.

Though Crazy Rich Asians is an anomaly in Hollywood because of its all-Asian cast (a major film with a majority Asian cast hasn’t come from a major Hollywood studio since The Joy Luck Club), some point out that Singapore isn’t homogenous. The majority of the population is Chinese, but 15 percent are Malay and 6.6 percent are Indian. In the movie, those of South Asian descent mostly play members of the household staff.

If you do decide to visit, keep in mind that as with anywhere you visit, the view from 55 stories high may be spectacular, but you get a better feel for it on ground level.