Towards the end of Crazy Rich Asians, in a scene original to the film adaptation, Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) and Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) enter a showdown over a game of mahjong. The steely dialogue between the two women is interspersed with shots of intense gameplay.
Director Jon Chu told Vulture that the story could have ended immediately after that scene because it was the most important in the movie. That’s a bold statement, given that the majority of the audience would have missed a whole dimension of the scene—because they don’t know how to play mahjong. Even with 40% of the film’s attendees on opening weekend being Asian, and the possibility that other demographics know mahjong, the fact is that very few would grasp the intricacies of how the game play tied into the action of the scene.
The mahjong scene is an Eastward-facing shift from the many Hollywood blockbusters that assume viewers have full knowledge of American football, baseball, soccer, or poker. Chu told Jeff Yang, who wrote a detailed explainer for Vox, that providing no explanation was intentional, a way to emphasize that mahjong was a normal part of many people’s realities, and not part of some “exotic fantasyland.”
Mahjong is a tile-based game that originated in China, and while it is especially popular in Chinese communities, it is played by various cultures around the world (you can learn how to play here). I am Chinese-Malaysian, and playing mahjong is a uniting pastime for my family. In the movie, both Eleanor and Rachel learned the game from their mothers; it was my grandmother who taught me.
As Yang writes in his explainer of the scene, there’s significance in everything from the tiles the camera zooms in on to the seating arrangements. (Mahjong is typically played by four people.) But none of that is ever spelled out.
This cinematic choice explicitly assumes the audience is Asian, or Asian-American, or at least understands Chinese culture and the game. As Sarah Burke writes for Broadly, “It’s a bold move to make something with Asians, but it’s bolder still to make something for Asians.”
There’s plenty of narrative to glean from the scene, which shows how Rachel’s character has evolved, but that’s not the most profound message it sent to people like me in the audience. In that moment, in that movie theater, I felt seen, and spoken to. Our shared cultural heritage—Rachel’s, Eleanor’s, mine—was acknowledged. I’m not the only one to have felt that way, and not the only one who teared up.