‘Always Be My Maybe’: Gentrification and the Asian American Rom-Com

What Asian American narratives are erased and undervalued by the rom-com genres? Sasha's success in Always Be My Maybe comes at a cost.

5 years ago

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The recent trend of the Asian American “dream rom-com” continues with the 2019 Netflix production Always Be My Maybe. Meet Marcus, a Korean-American who does air conditioning repair work with his father and recreationally plays in a local band Hello Peril, who runs into his childhood friend and crush Sasha, now celebrity chef. Last year’s breakout film for Asian American representation, Crazy Rich Asians, has been criticized for its portrayal of only the lives of upper-class and privileged Asians and Asian Americans. The film’s portrayal of the elite family brushes aside the diversity of Asian American and Asian experiences. Crazy Rich Asians elides the contradictions and diversity of Asian experiences, indeed nowhere more explicit than in countries like Singapore.

Always Be My Maybe learned nothing from these critiques. In fact, the film tackles class dynamics from an even more insidious angle. Marcus begins as a character with a humble background — the antithesis of Sasha’s bling-bling celebrity lifestyle. Always Be My Maybe labors to depict Marcus’s lifestyle as something undesirable, a product of his own internal insecurities. Sasha berates him at one point: “You’re so scared of doing anything new.” Her critique reveals that Marcus’s lifestyle stands in for a larger problem for the film, that he is stuck in the past, stubbornly resisting innovation and creativity.

“Always Be My Maybe shows us…the active complicity of more affluent people of color in displacing their less privileged counterparts.”

Of course, the film’s concluding scene demonstrates that its ideal of innovation does not equate to a rejection of all tradition. Tradition, for Sasha, must be done well: it needs to sell. Sasha’s final invention in the film is a Korean restaurant, more “authentic” than her previous eateries as it is based on Marcus’ late mother Judy’s old recipes. But despite the film’s occasionally positive portrayal of local, authentic restaurants, its end goal is clear. The ideal isn’t the local Cantonese dim sum joint with “rude service” that Marcus and Sasha grew up frequenting; it is Judy’s Way, the gentrifying hip Korean eatery that reworks old family recipes for a different demographic. For all the talk of Sasha’s turn to authenticity, the film shows no ambiguity as to who the target audience is for Judy’s Way, in its final shot of the restaurant’s long line of white professionals in high heels and pinstripe blazers.

Restaurants like Judy’s Way are no strangers to the gentrification machine that is sweeping across most of the major Chinatowns and many other Asian American enclaves in the United States. Young Asian American entrepreneurs like Eddie and Evan Huang appeal to old family recipes to craft new restaurants that are not only unaffordable to local working-class residents, but also actively participate in the process of displacement of local businesses by driving up rent. Like Judy’s Way, Huangs’ Baohaus, with locations in NYC and Los Angeles Chinatown, says on their website that they are keen on “shar[ing] the homestyle Taiwanese-Chinese food they ate at home.” Their immigrant families, as they narrate, “came on boats,” but now they are “on a space ship.”

Image of Marcus and Sasha from "Always Be My Maybe"
Waitress at the local Cantonese place takes dim sum away from Sasha’s grubby thief fingers.

But the locals do not need space ships, when their basic needs like housing and accessibility continue to be threatened. The reality is that those working-class, immigrant narratives are not a thing of the past. They exist in the cramped, single-occupancy units literally right across the street from gentrifying developments in Chinatowns like many of the ones in Los Angeles’s Far East Plaza. They exist in the bustling kitchens of San Francisco Inner Richmond’s Clement Street, with long-time restaurants that locals like Marcus religiously frequent “at least twice a week.” And hip Asian American success stories like the Huangs’ and Sasha’s eateries, for all their nostalgic rhetoric, actively participate in eradicating these communities.

Apologists for gentrification often cite the classic argument that competition drives innovation and quality, but restaurants like Judy’s Way show that unbridled entrepreneurial developments lead to the opposite. Sasha’s restaurants are based on taking elements of Asian cuisine and reworking them into a setting that makes them inaccessible to their original practitioners and consumers. Her culminating achievement, Judy’s Way, directly capitalizes on a Korean working-class mother’s family recipes and sells her final products to white professionals. Sasha’s businesses do not innovate in any meaningful way for their local communities; instead, just like her last creations, Knives + Mercy and Saintly Row, they impede on the creativity of working-class communities of color who have been innovating, and may very well continue to do so without gentrifying eateries.

Gentrification has been widely portrayed in rigidly racialized terms, with working-class residents of color being forced out of their neighborhoods by affluent or middle-class white developers and residents. But Always Be My Maybe shows us a crucial element frequently understated or overlooked in the relentless calculus of gentrification: the active complicity of more affluent people of color in displacing their less privileged counterparts. Entrepreneurs like Sasha churn out restaurant after restaurant that no one needs in the community, but that threatens the livelihood of workers of color that depend on the subsistence of local businesses. In Los Angeles Chinatown, the Business Improvement District, led by businessman George Yu, has actively worked with developers to facilitate the erasure of many local businesses over the last ten years. These figures and businesses are continually shown as the paragon of Asian American success, precisely demonstrating the limits of a liberal politics of representation for minority subjects. Just because a few Asians ‘made it’ does not mean the material conditions of Asian Americans are improved as a whole.

The film insidiously recognizes some of these critiques, but ultimately dismisses and even satirizes them. Hello Peril introduces their first set in the film with their song ‘Hello’, which “welcomes” the audience into a San Francisco “that used to be free of suckers til the techies came in hummers and colonized the gutters / If I see another hipster openin’ a coffee shop I’ll make a body drop with my signature karate chop.” Hello Peril’s socially radical lyrics are shown to be as hollow as the band’s reputation beyond the East Side. Social critique only extends as far as a laughable satire of the gentrifier of the gentrifiers, a scene in a restaurant with exorbitantly priced and ridiculously designed food items with the pretentious Keanu Reeves (playing himself).

“…a substantive critique of masculinity becomes lost in the film’s insistence in rejecting class concerns.”

But as the movie tries to convince us, Sasha is ultimately not like those gentrifiers. And at the same time, she is not ineffective like the community activists and artists like Marcus and Jenny, Marcus’s formerly polyamorous free-spirited ex who works for a community youth group. In fact, the film suggests that the “activist culture” that Jenny represents is hypocritical, as we trace her narrative from meeting Marcus at a youth art event protesting the treatment of tropical birds to fawning over Reeves in an attempt to get him to help fund her youth center. “You can’t change the world without influential people,” says Jenny.

Marcus’s subsequent quip questioning what someone influential like Leonardo DiCaprio has done for climate change seems to fall flat for the film’s central lesson. Ultimately, it is the influential Asians that save the day. At the end of the film, Marcus tries to remodel Hello Peril’s merch store and successfully increases their profit — only to find out later that Sasha is responsible for the spike in sales. The mastermind behind Saintly Fare quite literally buys out the body-dropping anti-gentrification band. We don’t hear from Hello Peril again. We assume that they either continue to play in small dive bars or get a little bigger while watering down their lyrics.

For many critics, the film’s treatment of the rom-com genre brilliantly subverts toxic masculine conventions. In reality, a substantive critique of masculinity becomes lost in the film’s insistence in rejecting class concerns. The film establishes a continuity from Marcus’s whiny, mulish attitude about not trying new things like cold brew to his support for the local community. He is portrayed as pitifully trapped in his backward notions of tradition, and grassroots community concerns and contradictions are cleverly elided in the name of toxic masculinity. Feminist generic subversion is thus weaponized to render class critique invisible, and the film muddles the need to unpack masculinity with a need to defuse class tensions. It presents us with a false ultimatum: either Sasha’s privileged and exploitative feminism or the stubborn insularity of Marcus’s existence.

Always Be My Maybe also misses its big moment to attack patriarchy in all its effects: adequately critiquing Sasha’s manipulative, real estate developer ex-fiance, Brandon. Sasha breaks up with her former fiance business developer mogul Brandon because she realizes that he only wants her around to bolster his own status. The feel-good, feminist moment of Sasha giving him the finger over the phone distracts us from the fact that the film only attacks the surface of Brandon’s toxic masculinity, not its roots and larger consequences. Their separation mounted no critique of how Brandon’s hugely problematic economic position intersects with his dehumanizing treatment of women. Sasha had no qualms about Brandon’s career up to the end.

Image of Brandon from "Always Be My Maybe"
Daniel Dae Kim plays food mogul Brandon Choi in ‘Always Be My Maybe’

Brandon and Sasha’s relationship in fact reveals another truth behind gentrification: the close relationship between developers and gentrifying business owners. The film tries to show Sasha as someone who has simply worked hard and made it to the top. She may or may not be aware of her role in displacing local businesses, but we are told that doesn’t matter. The forces of the market are beyond her control and the only narrative that matters is that she, an Asian American woman raised by immigrants, has achieved economic success. In reality, Sasha’s business empire had been driven by Brandon’s capital, and behind her feminism lies the unchallenged position of male-controlled authority in the market. Working-class women who have been displaced by Brandon and Sasha’s developments would not be included in the film’s feminism: with Sasha’s ascent, they have only received a new exploiter.

The film ultimately leads us to reflect on a larger problem in the genre itself: what type of cultural work is the Asian American rom-com registering and inhibiting? The generic conventions of the rom-com reify a certain rendition of the Asian American experience as a central paradigm for neoliberal success narratives. Stereotypes of Asian Americans (especially East Asians) as career-climbing and socially ambitious are not new, but the genre of the rom-com identifies the model minority narrative firmly with particular social positions of exploitation in the neoliberal economy (Crazy Rich Asians’ Young family as real developers, Sasha as gentrifying celebrity chef).

“Always Be My Maybe excuses the ‘Asian American dream’ from its complicity in perpetuating a brutal reality.”

And why the Asian American rom-com now? Its sudden popularity suggests that the increasing visibility of Asian Americans in the civic and cultural sphere is characterized by a key contradiction. Job security, high rent, and other forms of economic precarity affect many Asian Americans, especially South and Southeast Asians Americans, LGBTQ+ Asian Americans, etc, in an increasingly deregulated market economy. Gentrification is one of neoliberalism’s many symptoms, and working-class Asian Americans across Chinatowns have been struggling to fight developments and stay in their homes. The rom-com genre is the perfect mask for these tensions: yes, social ills and people who perpetuate them in the community exist, but they can be put aside in the face of love. Marcus’ reconciliatory words to Sasha at the end speaks the genre’s logic: “I don’t care where it is. I don’t care what outfit I have to wear. I don’t care if I have to eat a lot of tiny, little things I hate. I just want to be with you.” Marcus, in the end, actively dismisses his own disapproval of her work throughout the film. But the film’s attempt to explicitly subsume social critique into its vision of the model Asian American — trendy, rich, and just ‘traditional’ enough but not too much — ultimately proves to be too blatant of a tension to ignore.

Always Be My Maybe excuses the “Asian American dream” from its complicity in perpetuating a brutal reality. Sasha is a perfect example of what Imani Perry calls “the entrepreneurial woman,” a figure “marketed” as feminist but “do not ultimately disrupt the general patterns of gender and race domestically and globally. Nor [does she] disrupt ideological underpinnings of the architecture of gendering, because [she] possesses property, personhood, and the benefits of sovereignty, while the many continue to be excluded” (Vexy Thing, 111). The figure of Sasha upholds a kind of feminism that can sell, and one that continues to perpetuate the neoliberal market’s abuse of women of color who are being displaced from their homes everyday, and who work multiple jobs for long hours. Once again, the irresponsible triumph of the East Asian entrepreneur is the story that is privileged over other Asian American voices, like the ones of the Cantonese servers at Marcus’ favorite dim sum joint on Clement Street. One of the most meaningful moments of the film is when one of these servers wrenches the dish away Sasha when she tries to take a piece of the complimentary dim sum given to Marcus by the restaurant. They know they make good food that actually gives back to the community, and they reject Sasha and the values she represents.

While Crazy Rich Asians’ extravagantly wealthy Young family, for many spectators alike, is but a fairy-tale pipe dream, Sasha’s business-savvy neoliberal feminism reproduces a common narrative that many Asian Americans find practically achievable. And that is the central problem of the film: it gives hope to those that see Sasha’s narrative as not only achievable, but preferable to and better than others. The film tells us that an Asian American who fixes AC for a living is too scared to pursue their dream. It tells us that an Asian American who works for community youth is hopelessly hypocritical. It tells us that an Asian American who tries to pursue their dreams at the cost of others’ is the epitome of self-worth and success. The film presents Marcus and local residents’ vision of tradition as out-moded and ineffective at best. Sasha’s vision, however financially successful, comes at a cost: it threatens to make tradition inaccessible to those who have once brought it to life, and still practice its magic.

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Promise Li

Published 5 years ago

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