The first Asian leading man becomes the first Asian cover star. But is Henry Golding too white that GQ has to style him to look unmistakably Asian, a la P Ramlee?
By Mao Shan Wang
I saw it coming and it has arrived. Henry Golding, from the minute Crazy Rich Asian (CRA) hit the big screen, was destined to be big, if not in the coming years, at least this year. He hadn’t been an actor that long (a year?), or in the global public’s eye that frequently, yet he’s made an effortless leap onto the spotlighted pedestal as one of GQ’s Men (and Women, right?) of the Year (which include three other cover stars: Michael B Jordan, Jonah Hill, and Serena Williams). Contrary to the prediction of my colleague’s here at SOTD, I thought a cover, or two, would be inevitable. In an age of obligatory inclusivity, Henry Golding on the cover of a Western/American magazine was a matter of time, and timing.
Excuse me while I look at this cover closely for a moment.
I applaud this GQ cover, but I am not sure I like it. It’s not bad per se, but I am not attracted to it. To me, there’s no pull: you know, the winsomeness that made countless women fall for Nick Young, or the earnestness of expression that says Mr Golding’s possibly Asia’s biggest movie star. I have seen thirty-one-year-old in person, and he’s handsomer and—judge me not for seeing him for the colour of his skin—fairer. The CRA leading man in GQ is styled to look unmistakably Southeast Asian, not just Asian—more abang than oppa.
Malaysia’s New Straits Times, in a quick-response online post earlier today, described Mr Golding on the GQ cover as “dashing”. Aesthetically, it is a dashing that has in common with the dusky debonair that was P Ramlee, who, according to what Mr Golding told the Hollywood Reporter, has been a source of the latter’s inspirasi. Perhaps it’s the colours and the styling, which in sum also reminds me of the Thai spaghetti Western Tears of the Black Tiger. Or, to refer to something more recent, Indonesia’s Buffalo Boys. It’s also the pomaded, jet-black hair, and the matinee-idol eyes, both evocative of the cinema of long ago, more Cathay-Keris than Warner Bros.
Mr Golding’s enhanced Asian-ness is, to me, ironic since, as argued in his casting, it is his not totally Asian looks that got him the part, which means, as some say, the leading man is easier to market to American viewers. The magazine conceded that they chose Mr Golding also because “he’s handsome, he’s suave, and that accent. A nation swooned, and GQ did too.” Looks, naturally, came first, but they were sure to emphasise his accent too. You see, not sounding Asian is also a plus. Of course it helps that he’s handsome and suave, but his handsomeness and suaveness is, to be sure, based on Caucasian standards. And old-fashioned too, which means he’s no Ezra Miller.
Hidden Tiger and Crouching Tiger— the highest-grossing foreign-language (possibly Chinese) film produced outside the US in American history—star Chow Yun Fatt is, to many Asian fans, handsome and suave, including his younger co-star Chang Chen, but the editors of GQ will never see them as cover material. Newer, more exposed, more experienced Asian actors, such as main-lander Li Gengxin (Great Wall and Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon), can be handsome and suave too, but they simply do not look angmo pai enough.
To me, Mr Golding’s CRA co-star, the Taiwanese-Australian Chris Pang is just as handsome and suave, if not more, but, in the end, the two men’s fate, I believe, is also in the Asian-ness of their family names. Golding is clearly a lot less so and more marketable than Pang. Although Pang, (which has an English meaning: sharp, sudden pain or sensation), is more pronounceable than, say, Ng, it is the two-syllable Golding that has more of a ring to it. Interestingly, Chris Pang’s Chinese surname is Wu (吴 and he is named育刚 or Yugang). I have not been able to uncover this discrepancy in the family name: how Wu became Pang. Still, neither shares the high tone of Golding. Also the surname of the author of Lord of the Flies, William, Golding has Anglo-Saxon roots and is thought to mean friend (or son) of gold, the colour of Oscar.
Fashion wise, GQ styled Mr Golding with one goal: so that you can call him suave. Tom Ford, his earliest sponsor, had already aimed for that. The thing is Asian men are rarely described as suave. To play down any perceived lack of suaveness, I suspect GQ deliberately played up the retro-sophistication in those jackets that, to me, recall P Ramlee-as-Sazali’s tuxedo in the 1956 film Anak Ku Sazali. For the cover, Mr Golding is in a maroon Dior and in one of the photos within the pages, a bright blue tux-jacket by Dolce & Gabbana. Few men wear such colours, unless they’re a dandy, which is also a rarer, even non-existent, breed among Asian men. This is keeping him in movie-star mode. I think good fortune is smiling on Henry Golding. There are forces determined to ensure that he remains front-row, red-carpet, and magazine-cover worthy.