Love and Sacrifice: Thematic Parallels Between “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Harry Potter”
This article contains spoilers for Crazy Rich Asians (2018).
Growing up as a Chinese Australian, I never thought much about the importance of cultural representation in the media that I consumed. When I read the Harry Potter books, I wasn’t consciously attempting to relate to their characters on a racial level – there was so much else that I found myself relating to. From universal themes about the triumph of good over evil, love, friendships, sacrifice, and morality to the plethora of life lessons embedded throughout the books, Harry Potter has shaped a lot of the values that I live by. Whenever I consume any piece of media, I instinctively connect it to the Harry Potter series.
Although I’m eagerly anticipating the release of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald in November, it wasn’t my most anticipated film of the year (that title belongs to Crazy Rich Asians). When I first learned that a film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians was being released by Warner Bros., my curiosity was sparked. When I saw the trailer for it, I felt some trepidation that the film wasn’t going to live up to my expectations. However, having seen it, Crazy Rich Asians is the film that I never knew I needed. I saw so much of myself reflected in it, but I also saw how it paralleled many of the themes in Harry Potter. While we wait for Crimes of Grindelwald to come out, I thought I’d share some of the similarities that I found between Crazy Rich Asians and Harry Potter.
Our Own Kind: The Slytherinness of the Youngs
While watching Crazy Rich Asians, I noticed that the Young family held values that paralleled Salazar Slytherin’s. The Youngs, the family through which most of the cultural subtext of Crazy Rich Asians is conveyed, are described by Peik Lin (Awkwafina) as being “old money rich,” having emigrated from China to Singapore in the 1800s. According to Peik Lin, the Youngs aren’t just rich, “they’re crazy rich.” And she’s not wrong there. The Youngs are so rich that they could buy and sell the Malfoys. Portrayed as the pinnacle of Singaporean aristocracy, the Youngs are implied to have a lot of political and financial influence across Southeast Asia. They would certainly be considered if one was compiling a Muggle version of the wizarding world’s “Sacred Twenty-Eight.”
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore explains to Harry that the Gaunts were “noted for a vein of instability and violence that flourished through the generations due to their habit of marrying their own cousins” (HBP 10). Although the Youngs definitely don’t practice inbreeding, they exist in a social bubble – the family estate is heavily guarded and isolated from the rest of society – interacting only with those of a similar social standing to them. In Crazy Rich Asians, Nick Young’s (Henry Golding) mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), tells Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) that she’s “not our own kind of people,” citing a Hokkien phrase, kaki lang (“our own kind”).
Eleanor’s attitude is reflective of the pure-blood mantra that’s rife throughout the Harry Potter books. In Half-Blood Prince, Blaise Zabini, while talking about Ginny, says, “I wouldn’t touch a filthy little blood traitor like her whatever she looked like” (HBP 7). In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Voldemort mocks Tonks’s marriage to Lupin, telling Bellatrix that she must prune her family tree to “cut away those parts that threaten the health of the rest” (DH 1). While Eleanor does not approve of Nick and Rachel’s relationship throughout most of the film, her behavior doesn’t come from a place of vindictiveness. In fact, in China Rich Girlfriend, Kwan’s sequel to Crazy Rich Asians, Eleanor reveals that she was trying to protect Nick and Rachel.
Eleanor isn’t the only character to express her dissatisfaction with Nick’s choice of romantic partner, though. Most of Nick’s family acts coldly toward her because her social status is lower than theirs. During Colin’s bachelor party, Nick is taunted by his cousin Eddie (Ronny Chieng), who asks him, “What’s Rachel bringing to the table?”
There are also visual ties to Slytherin in the film. During a pivotal scene, Eleanor tells Rachel that she “will never be enough.” In that scene, Eleanor is dressed in green, and the subject of discussion is the emerald engagement ring that her husband fashioned for her because, ironically, Nick’s paternal grandmother disapproved of Eleanor’s marriage to her son and wouldn’t give him the family ring.
Making Sacrifices for Those You Love
The moral conflict in Harry Potter stems from the agency of its characters. The theme of choice constantly emerges in most discussions of the series – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve quoted the line “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (CoS 18). Behavioral economists have coined the term “loss aversion” to describe the psychological phenomenon where the pain that people feel from losing something is disproportionately greater than the pleasure that they feel from gaining something of equivalent value. People who are loss averse make decisions based on fear. For instance, Voldemort’s decision to create Horcruxes was based on his fear of dying. Unlike Dumbledore, who viewed death as “the next great adventure,” Voldemort had a fear of the unknown – and that contributed to his demise.
When we’re first introduced to Rachel in Crazy Rich Asians, she’s lecturing a game theory class at NYU. She uses a mock poker game to demonstrate the concept of loss aversion. According to Rachel, “Our brains so hate the idea of losing something that’s valuable to us that we abandon all rational thought and make some really poor decisions.” She explains that she beats her opponent because he “wasn’t playing to win, he was playing not to lose.” Similarly, Voldemort made some extremely poor decisions throughout his life. He chose to create multiple Horcruxes without considering the irreparable damage he was inflicting on his soul, and he chose to use Harry’s blood to resurrect himself – unintentionally tethering Harry to mortal life when he uses the Killing Curse on him in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Harry triumphs over Voldemort because he chose to face his fear rather than turn away from them. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry makes a decision that is astonishing for a 14-year-old:
He was not going to die kneeling at Voldemort’s feet . . . he was going to die upright like his father, and he was going to die trying to defend himself, even if no defense was possible” (GoF 34).
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry realizes that choosing to kill Voldemort rather than turn his back on the prophecy is like “the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high” (HBP 23). Ultimately, Harry walks into the Forbidden Forest in Deathly Hallows with his head held high, prepared to die for his loved ones.
The mahjong scene between Rachel and Eleanor near the end of Crazy Rich Asians mirrors the poker scene at the beginning of the film. During the game, when Rachel tells Eleanor that she turned down Nick’s proposal, Eleanor states that “only a fool folds a winning hand.” Rachel replies, “If Nick chose me he would lose his family, and if he chose his family he might spend the rest of his life resenting you.”
Despite holding a winning hand, Rachel chooses to discard one of her tiles, which allows Eleanor to win the game. Rachel choosing to lose the game, rather than win, represents the idea that she is willing to sacrifice her own happiness for Nick’s. Subsequently, Rachel tells Eleanor, “I just love Nick so much. I don’t want him to lose his mom again,” before delivering the most powerful line from the film:
I just wanted you to know that one day when he marries another lucky girl who is enough for you, and you’re playing with your grandkids, while the tan huas are blooming and the birds are chirping, that it was because of me – a poor, raised by a single mother, low class, immigrant nobody.
Throughout the film, Eleanor had expressed her disdain at what she perceived to be Rachel’s Western values of “chasing one’s passions,” telling her that in Asia they “know to put family first.” By sacrificing her love for Nick for his family, Rachel shows Eleanor that she’s willing to put family first, earning her respect in the process.
Ultimately, both Harry Potter and Crazy Rich Asians explore the theme of sacrificing one’s own happiness for love. In Harry Potter, Lily Potter allows Voldemort to kill her to protect Harry, and Harry allows Voldemort to kill him to protect everyone at the Battle of Hogwarts. In Crazy Rich Asians, Rachel sacrifices her love for Nick because she doesn’t want him to lose his family – which leads to his family approving of their union.