Golding Hits Gold

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?


HG GQ December 2018

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.

HG GQ December 2018 P2

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.

Photos: GQ

Golding’s Going Places

Henry Golding with Anna & coPhoto: Tom Ford/Instagram

We weren’t going to talk about Henry Golding. Afterall, that movie he’s in has been receiving so much publicity that jelak won’t be adequate to describe the aftertaste. But now that even Vanessa Friedman mentioned “getting to sit across the runway from Henry Golding” at the Tom Ford show during New York Fashion Week, as if she was right in front of the most powerful sultan in the world, maybe we should also join the hulabaloo.

Here, in crazy rich (SE) Asia, the Malaysian media was quick to bask in the first-time actor’s glory of a front-row appearance, with the New Straits Times inferring that the seating arrangement is a “badge of honour” and, since Mr Golding was also placed next to Anna Wintour, “a coveted spot”. The man of that moment was also to the immediate right of Cardi B and a handshake away from Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson. This is the stuff of national pride—Malaysia Boleh high, an achievement Jho Low, despite his Hollywood ties and international fame, have not been able to bring to the people of Malaysia. This is the recognition our own Pierre Png, not quite leading man material, will for now observe with shrouded envy.

That Henry Golding would be charming enough to secure Anna Wintour’s company at Tom Ford’s show is unsurprising. He has clearly won the approval of women who like their heterosexual leads with an affability that is decidedly old-fashioned, unforced, and, when imagined as boyfriend, easy to bring home to meet mom. And looking dapper in Tom Ford, which happens quite a lot for him these days, helps. So winsome he is that when he appeared on The View, all five hosts, including Whoopi Goldberg (who even took a photo with him off-stage, her arms around him!), betrayed their usual toughness to be captivated.

Henry Golding @ Tom Ford.jpgPhoto: Getty Images

Mr Golding has been on Asian television quite a bit before his big movie break, mainly hosting travel documentaries. Especially compelling was Discovery Channel’s Surviving Borneo in which he completed the bejalai—an Iban tribal rite of passage into manhood, usually performed before marriage—in his mother’s homeland of East Malaysia. But it isn’t until now that people are identifying him by race, with the Malaysian media certain to precede his name or glowing nouns with the adjectival specificity of Iban-English(!)—Malaysian apparently not enough. With torso-baring scenes in the well-hyped film, girls are now adding “hottie” to the geographical affirmation, which may now elevate the home of Dayak head hunters to husband-hunting ground.

To Mr Golding, acting wasn’t answering a certain calling. In the UK of his formative years, he was a shampoo boy after secondary school and worked his way up as a hairdresser before landing a job at Richard Ward Hair & Metrospa, a swanky London salon near the Saatchi Gallery and within walking distance from the Sloane Square Tube station. It was after his return to Malaysia in 2008, when the now-ousted Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Abdul Razak was just a deputy prime minister, that he found himself as a presenter for travel shows on television, including the BBC’s, well, The Travel Show. His telegenic presence did not go unnoticed, and PR types and marketing heads keen to come before his comely face were inviting him to many social events, thus augmenting his celebrity status. To us, Henry Golding recalls another Eurasian: the British-Malaysian ethnobotanist James Wong, who, too, has a certain magnetism on television, and has made a name for himself through TV series such as Grow Your Own Drugs and Countryfile, both shown on the BBC.

Before his debut movie could even consider life as a DVD release in Poh Kim Video store, Mr Golding will soon appear in another movie A Simple Favour, opposite the inexplicable Vogue fave, Blake Lively. It is expected to be released globally next week. Whether this will see Malaysia’s favourite son become a movie sensation or a front-row regular, no one is placing a bet yet.

Watched: Crazy Rich Asians

There is wealth and there is fashion. It’s a movie Jack Neo could never make, but is Crazy Rich Asians any good? 


CRA P1.jpg

By Mao Shan Wang

I want to like Crazy Rich Asians; I really do (desperately even), if not the crazy part or the rich part, certainly the Asians part. But, I do not. The Kevin Kwan novel-turned-movie is not nearly crazy enough (I did not laugh), not roundly rich enough (what’s with the fake first class of a fake Pacific ASEAN Airlines?), and not closely Asian enough since this is supposedly about Singapore, which is not, to borrow our northern neighbour’s marketing catchphrase, Truly Asia.

This is ultimately an American film, seen through American eyes, written and directed by Americans, and made for Americans, exotica-seeking, Singapore-is-in-China Americans. CRA, as we like to call it here (now, that’s Singaporean—abbreviating a linguistic pastime!), may have spoken to Americans, but it did not say anything to me, the born and bred. According to media reports, it has become the “most successful studio rom-com at the box office in nine years since 2009’s The Proposal” (USD117 million in the US so far, as reported). By now, we also know that it is the first all-Asian-cast Hollywood production in 25 years since 1993’s (predominantly Asian) The Joy Luck Club. 

Do not for a moment think that CRA is anything like The Joy Luck Club, a film on such a different plane, with such an emotional pull that it makes CRA look like a Mediacorp drama on a good day. And, to be sure, Jon M Chu is no Wayne Wang; he wasn’t aiming for a little movie with a lot of heart. It is understandable why CRA’s Asian-ness is now especially appealing in America, the birth place of chopsuey and fortune cookies. Given the United States’ current social issues—inclusivity and cultural appropriation et al, an all-brown cast is a big deal, just as an all-black superhero film recently was. But here in Singapore, and indeed Asia, a film featuring mostly Asians is nothing so new that it is heart-thumping revolutionary. The Americans may not be aware that we have consistently enjoyed Chinese/Asian-centric motion pictures that are not stories about the destitute, such as Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (饮食男女), Ann Hui’s A Simple Life (桃姐), or Feng Xiaogang’s If You are the One (非诚勿扰), just to add a rom-com for good measure. Funnily, many here waited with such bated breath for CRA to open, so much so that Warner Brothers may believe we are as deprived as the Asian-Americans.


Before I go on, a disclaimer: I have never read CRA, the book. Er, to be more specific, I have not read it in its entirety. I apologise; I did judge the book by its corny cover and, with prejudice-stained hands, could not venture beyond the third page of the prologue, set in London (but shot in Penang’s E&O Hotel in the film) in 1986 when cousins Nick Young—then eight—and future fashionista Astrid Leong arrived in a hotel as soaking sods. The cliché of a hotel general manager “over-enunciating every word” and the “Chinese woman”—the formidable Eleanor Young— rejoining “in perfect English” was too much to bear. There was something so bordering on the trite about the opening pages that I found myself longing for, gasp, Catherine Lim!

Still, a movie about how the upper crust of the Lion City lives and loves, and lashes is intriguing enough for me to want to part with the price of a McDonald’s Classic Angus Cheese Meal  to watch it. Imagine, Singapore Tatler page-fillers come to life! Nearly two weeks after CRA opened, the film is still enjoying packed halls, and those who flocked to GV at Plaza Sing, where I chose to go to for my CRA acquaintanceship, did not look one bit like they move in the circle that forms the Young family and clique. Do the wealthy even go to the movies in a cineplex? Not those Crazy Rich Asians!

On the screen that afternoon, the wealthy, for a change, isn’t Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, or anyone so rich they have a second job fighting villains. Nick Young, played by the affable Henry Golding, looks unlike the vilely moneyed son he would normally have been if this were a Channel 8 soap. Nor does he dress or accessorise like one (he and his buddies look like they only go to Kevin Seah). Perhaps he’s so used to all the wealth that he does not have to show it by, say, having money stuffed in a Birkin that is left opened and posted on IG for all to admire. In fact, apart from the suggestion of extreme riches, the prosperous and preposterous bunch in CRA are rather like you and I: jealous, insecure, and needy. The only difference is that we are not targets of private bankers and our front gates are not guarded by Sikh sentries.


While that seems to be a problem for some viewers, who charged that the film shows nothing about the non-affluent among us, it isn’t that terrible to me that there is a story on the big screen about how our one percent live and consume. Jamie Chua would not gripe that Jack Neo does not spotlight her in his films; she makes her own YouTube videos! There’s nothing enviable about the Young clan and their friends and their wealth-protection problems and, frankly, juvenile insecurities and shenanigans. The more I looked at the story line and its telling after the protagonists left New York, the more I saw that this is no different from the slew of spring break movies that are a uniquely American genre. A bachelor party in an inter-modal container of a cargo ship? Only Crazy, Rich, and Bored Americans would think of that!

The Singaporean cast in their dismal dresses doing their obligatory publicity rounds may try to convince us that this film is as much about love as luxury fashion, but those hoping to see a Sex and the City sartorial moment set in this city may be disappointed. Yes, there were quite a lot of clothes (and a walk-in wardrobe Carrie Bradshaw may love), but their ability to influence how Singaporean women dress is doubtful. If what they wore on screen is fashion, they’re irrelevant red carpet femininity that money is attracted to, not taste. The clothes worn on CRA will not cast us in the same light as fashion-forward cities such as Tokyo or Hong Kong. We are, at best, wannabes, if that word is still of popular usage.

Still, we should thank the film-makers for making us appear as a nation of fashionable tribes, with a penchant for tacky, OTT weddings. That’s certain about this film: “truth is not the truth”, to quote Rudy Giuliani. New Yorker Rachel Chu, played by the plain-looking Constance Wu, has no fashion sense despite living and working in a hub city with a major fashion week. She comes to Singapore seeking not sartorial rectitude, but potential in-law approval, and yet she is willing to be dressed by her loud—in more ways than one—university mate. Goh Peik Lin, played by the bawdy Awkwafina, has, at best, dubious taste, yet Rachel could trust, without question, her royal flashiness to style her to meet the Young family for the first time, in a dress that showed off her lack of mammary assets?

CRA P4.jpg

To confirm that the weather of Singapore is no friend of sleeves, Rachel Chu wore mostly Forever 21-looking dresses that do not cover the arms. In fact, many of the women she meets are similarly dressed. The only character that lives up to her fashion goddess reputation, as per the book, is Astrid Leong. Played by the lithe British-Hong Kong actress Gemma Chan, Nick Young’s chic cousin glide through the film as if she was born to wear those clothes. Our Singaporean actresses, on the other hand, try so hard not to be heard as heartlanders and not to carry themselves like a housing estate dweller that they neither sound posh nor look loaded. Could it be because they have never played characters in couture? Their lack of appeal—forget about poshness—is compounded by the absence of subtlety in their performance, the lack of meaningful dialogue, and the utterance of appalling dialects.

I wonder, as I write this, if the story would have worked better by shifting the action to New York instead, with the Youngs and their coterie going West to visit Nick and Rachel, wintering in the Big Apple, perhaps. But then the American audience would not get to see a Singapore in such stirring light! The token shots of Singapore’s tourist hot spots may help with the tourism board’s KPI, but it barely showed the city state beyond what it wants visitors to see, never mind that jiaozi is not our culinary highlight and there are no mahjong palours here, not legal ones or in Ann Siang Hill, nor any place that resembles the Cheong Fatt Tze—also known as the Blue—Mansion in Penang. Malaysia is where they shot the palatial Young residences, which, together with the Malaysian leading man and costume consultants, allowed our Equanimity-rejecting neighbour to gloat that without their handsome resources, Singapore would not be able to appear enviably upper class and exaggeratedly genteel.

While this was still turning out to be a massive coup for STB, Mindef quickly threw red wine on the former’s shirt, as Rachel did on Nick’s, by announcing a day after the glamourous Singaporean premiere that author Kevin Kwan is a potential fugitive for not honouring his national service obligations, which quickly became an international headline. I was befuddled. Why was Mindef such a wet blanket? Could they not have waited until the film’s popularity waned (they said nothing when the book hit the New York Times bestseller list)? Or were there officials at each side not talking? I don’t know—maybe this, as with Crazy Rich Asians, was simply Passion Made Possible.

Film stills: Warner Bros