Does the film really show us Singapore? It's a city where more than 80 percent of people live in public housing blocks, yet we never see one

City-as-film character is an oft-used device: Think of how New York shapes Manhattan or the way Paris’s Montmartre neighborhood serves as a companion to the lonely heroine in Amélie. But when Hollywood invokes non-Western metropolises for this purpose, the portrayals can be shallow—though this may not register with or feel significant to Western audiences.  

The 2003 film Lost in Translation, for instance—the story of two forlorn Americans befriending each other in a bewildering Tokyo—was roundly adored in the United States, earning an Academy Award and three Golden Globes, but in Tokyo it played in only one theater. Japanese viewers and critics (as well as Asian-Americans) found its depictions of Japanese people (short, eccentric, unable to pronounce English correctly) and urban life (alienating, hypersexualized, and either ultramodern or nostalgically traditional) discriminatory and insulting.

The latest case of city-as-character: Singapore in the new rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians, based on the 2013 novel by Singaporean-American Kevin Kwan. The Southeast Asian city-state’s lush green spaces and modern architecture serve as an apt co-star to the equally beautiful and polished 1 percent at the center of the plot, which concerns a Chinese-American woman who travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s insanely rich and snobbish family for the first time.

While the depiction of the city and its inhabitants may not cause the same kind of offense as Lost in Translation, does this Hollywood portrayal do Singapore justice?

As someone who lived in the city-state from 2011 to 2013, I took great pleasure in recognizing beloved spaces I once frequented: acacia tree-lined highways, inexpensive open-air food and drink complexes called hawker centers, streets lined with shophouses. But I was struck that I didn’t see what I most associate with Singapore: public housing, public transportation, and a diverse ethnic and religious population.

American audiences and critics have given Crazy Rich Asians rave reviews: Brian Truitt of USA Today heralded it as a “shining, redefining example of what the romantic-comedy genre can do best,” and others have called it “deliriously glossy” and “hugely enjoyable.”