By Aaron Pressman, Adam Lashinsky, and Clay Chandler
August 22, 2018

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Greetings from Singapore, the setting for this summer’s surprise box office hit, Crazy Rich Asians. The film opens here in The Lion City tonight, but I managed to snag an invitation to last night’s premiere at the Capitol Theatre, an exuberant affair attended by director John M. Chu, star Henry Golding, and many other cast members. It’s a great flick, worthy of the rave reviews it’s earning. And it has me thinking about the complex connections between language, culture, national borders, and technology.

What got my wheels turning was an early scene in which Rachel, a Chinese-American economics professor at New York University, is invited by her boyfriend Nick to accompany him to his hometown of Singapore to attend a friend’s wedding and meet his family. Unbeknownst to Rachel, who has never been to Asia, Nick is the scion of Singapore’s richest clan. Their conversation is overheard by a woman who knows exactly who Nick is—and that his family’s vast wealth makes him Singapore’s most eligible bachelor. She snaps a photo of the couple on her mobile phone and sends it spiraling across social media to discover the identity of Nick’s new flame.

It’s not easy to portray on film how a piece of gossip goes viral in the Digital Age. Chu explains his solution in this “anatomy of a scene” clip, which shows an explosion of text boxes, video images, and maps animated by colorful snippets of emojis and the logos of Google and Facebook’s Instagram as well as Tencent’s WeChat and Sina’s Weibo, two social media platforms based in China’s mainland.

The montage is deft—but glosses over big differences in how the world’s Chinese use social media in different markets. Behind the Great Firewall of China, WeChat (with more than 1 billion active users) rules social media, while Baidu dominates search; both services are heavily censored, and there is much evidence to suggest mainland users are just fine with that.

But beyond the Great Firewall, Chinese prefer other digital tools and networks. In Singapore, with a population that’s more than 75% Chinese, the most popular websites include Google, YouTube, Facebook, Yahoo, Instagram and WhatsApp, according to Alexa. Baidu ranks 15th. WeChat doesn’t crack the Top 20. In Hong Kong, 75% of Internet users are on Facebook, 74% use WhatsApp, 73% use YouTube, while only 44% use WeChat. In Taiwan, only 24% of Internet users are on WeChat.

The entire plot in Crazy Rich Asians turns on Nick’s mother’s insistence that a Chinese girl raised in America—even one who speaks perfect Mandarin and plays a mean game of mahjong—is just too different to marry a Chinese boy raised in Singapore. You’re not our kind, she hisses to Rachel at one point. But when it comes to social media and the technology that is increasingly the basis for organizing our daily lives, the more than 50 million Chinese who live outside the Great Firewall are more connected to and have a lot more in common with each other than they do with the 1.4 billion Chinese who live within it.

Clay Chandler


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