anatomy of a scene

The Story Behind Crazy Rich Asians’ Mahjong Showdown

Michelle Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians. Photo: Warner Bros.

Spoilers ahead for Crazy Rich Asians.

Crazy Rich Asians wraps up on a textbook rom-com happy ending that’s no less ravishing for being familiar. Having turned down her boyfriend’s proposal to avoid causing a rift in his tight-knit Singaporean family, Rachel (Constance Wu) is leaving on a jet plane, only for Nick (Henry Golding) to chase her all the way through the airport and get down on one knee. But the true ending of Rachel’s story comes a couple of scenes earlier, as she confronts Nick’s fearsome mother Eleanor (an impeccably restrained Michelle Yeoh) over a game of mahjong. It’s a mesmerizing set piece that does not appear in Kevin Kwan’s book, but which director Jon M Chu calls the most important in the movie.

“The movie should be able to end after the mahjong scene, because it’s not about getting the guy,” Chu says. Instead, it’s about Rachel reconciling the two sides of her own cultural identity as an Asian-American woman: an identity which has been harshly judged by Eleanor throughout the film. “The film is really Rachel’s journey of going to Asia and finding the dragon within, and becoming stronger and more self-assured in her own identity,” Chu continues. “The mahjong scene is the moment when the dragon finally comes out.”

During the game, Rachel has a winning hand but deliberately does not play it, instead sacrificing a crucial tile to allow Eleanor to win instead. It’s also revealed during the course of the scene that Rachel has turned down Nick’s proposal, despite loving him desperately, because she doesn’t want to cause a rift between him and his family. The beats of the game mirror the real-life conflict: as Rachel picks up the tile that both she and Eleanor need in order to win, she reveals: “Nick proposed to me yesterday. He said he’d walk away from his family and you for good. But don’t worry, I turned him down.” Literally and figuratively, she holds the winning card – and chooses not to play it for Nick’s sake, thus skewering Eleanor’s assumption that all Americans think about is their own happiness.

Though Chu and co-screenwriter Adele Lim know that Western viewers may not understand the specifics of what goes on in the game, the larger meaning is clear. “Rachel holds a card that both she and Eleanor need to win, and she discards it,” Lim explains. “The game becomes an analogy for their struggle and their conflict over Nick. The card sort of represents Nick – he’s proposed to her, and she could take him and win, but she’s not going to do that. She’s making a sacrifice, and in that way showing that Eleanor’s assumptions about her couldn’t be further from the truth”

Rachel is not bluffing; she’s truly prepared to walk away from this relationship, though the pain it causes her is clear. And when Nick eventually marries someone Eleanor deems worthy, she says with quiet intensity, “it will be because of me. A poor, raised-by-a-single-mother, low class, immigrant nobody.” With that devastating kicker, she walks away from the table, revealing that she had a winning hand all along and chose not to play it. Unbeknownst to Rachel until later, this sacrifice is enough to change Eleanor’s mind about her – but in the moment, it doesn’t matter. “When Rachel walks away from the table, she is now fully who she’s supposed to be, and she doesn’t need Eleanor’s approval, she doesn’t need that ring. She doesn’t need anything,” Chu says. “She’s walking away with an understanding of how unique her dual culture is.”

Here’s Chu and Lim’s anatomy of the scene.

Rachel’s aptitude for mahjong is a silent riposte to Eleanor.

Within seconds of arriving at the game, Lim says, Eleanor’s understanding of Rachel has already changed based on how she’s handling the tiles. “The first thing you see when you sit down at a mahjong table is the way people shuffle the cards, stack the tiles, and take turns taking the tiles,” she explains. “There’s a really smooth ballet movement that happens around the whole table, and it signifies whether you’re familiar with the game, and whether you’re an insider or an outsider.” Rachel mentions that her mother taught her to play the game, but even before she says this line, “Eleanor can tell that Rachel plays. It’s clear that even though Eleanor calls her an outsider, they have more in common than Eleanor thinks, and that Rachel has a command of this.”

The scene is written so viewers don’t need to understand the game to understand the story.

But if you’re curious about the specifics, here’s how it goes down. In mahjong, there are two types of set that contribute to a winning hand: per Lim “you can have a running set, which is three tiles in a numerical sequence, or you can have three or four tiles of a kind. Both will make a set.” The tile Rachel draws is the Bamboo 8 – the one she’s looking at right as she tells Eleanor about Nick’s proposal. At this point in the game, Rachel already has a Bamboo 6 and 7, so the 8 would complete a set. Eleanor has two other Bamboo 8s, so the tile would also complete a set for her.

“With that tile, Rachel knows she’s already won,” says Chu. “By discarding it, Eleanor wins, and that’s the sacrifice. When Rachel reveals her hand at the end of the scene, she reveals that she let Eleanor win.”

The original mahjong tiles had to be swapped out because they didn’t make enough noise.

The clacking of mahjong tiles is a familiar sound in many Chinese households, and a deeply personal one for Chu. “I will never forget the sound of walking into my aunt and uncle’s house and hearing the shuffling of the tiles. It’s so distinctive, and when they played, my aunt and uncle became different people. They were fast, and fierce, and they were strategic and smart and in attack mode. That really influenced the way I think about mahjong.”

Chu choreographed the scene as a fight sequence, with the sound of the tiles as the score. The physicality of the game had to be evident in the sound design, and so the original tiles sourced for the scene were switched for a less pretty but louder alternative. “We swapped them out for uglier tiles that had the weight that I really wanted. I wanted it to feel like the rooftop scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where Michelle is actually physically fighting and the score has the sound of these bamboo sticks that are hitting and intensifying. I wanted the sound of the tiles in this rhythm, this percussion that was sliding and hitting on the beats of this mental game as these two fierce women come head to head.” The two actresses didn’t speak to each outside of the scene that day, to Chu’s recollection: “It was very high tension.”

The scene went through a huge number of drafts, with Constance Wu and Michelle Yeoh both giving a lot of input.

Wu and Yeoh both had very strong feelings about the scene and what each of their characters would communicate. Lim says that this scene, along with the dumpling scene, went through the most revisions, with both actresses equally unyielding. “Each one wanted to say very specific things and didn’t want the other one to run them over,” Chu says. “Michelle was like ‘I would never let this little American girl say these things to me, I need to say this, because I refuse to be a villain. And then when Constance read that version, she was like ‘Wait, I would not let her talk to me like this! I need to say these things, and defend my way of living!’ It was great, I ended up putting both parts together and creating this mish-mosh blend.”

One point of contention between the writers and producers, Lim said, was how much the scene needed to adhere to “the traditional trajectory of victory for a romantic comedy heroine.” After all the cruelty Eleanor has shown to Rachel, it was tempting to have Rachel scream at her, Lim says, “but that would not resonate in this culture. Eleanor wouldn’t put up with that. And we didn’t want this to be a story of two women fighting over a man. We wanted it to be about people coming to terms with one another’s power and making decisions based on that.”

Wu had a tough time getting through the scene emotionally.

“We couldn’t do too many takes on Constance’s side, because it was so emotional for her,” Chu recalls. “She would be crying and her eyes started to get really puffy. With this, and with the staircase scene [where Eleanor says ‘You will never be enough’], it tapped into something very true for Constance, and I think she had a very difficult time doing that take over and over again. When we watched it back, people were crying on set.” When Wu delivers that devastating “immigrant nobody” line, Chu says “she is literally trying to hold in [tears] so that she doesn’t have to redo her makeup again. Every time she said it, it was so hard for her to keep it together.”

“There’s a lot going on with that line,” says Peter Chiarelli, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lim. “First, I wanted to show that Rachel was unequivocally proud of who she was and where she came from. She’d been questioning herself throughout the film and I wanted there to be no doubt that she knows her own worth. Second, I wanted that line to rattle Eleanor and haunt her dreams. Rachel standing up for herself and proudly dropping a five-ton truth bomb was what I thought we needed to help wake Eleanor up to the fact that who your family is, or how much money you have, doesn’t determine your worth as a human being.”

The other players at the table were originally played for laughs.

Mahjong generally requires four players, which is why there are two other nameless women at the table. (Rachel explains in a throwaway line that they’re deaf and only speak Hokkien.) “We originally made it a joke and had shots of the other players reacting to what was happening between Rachel and Eleanor,” Chu says, “shaking their heads, rolling their eyes… it was funny, but it took a little bit of the power away.”

That loaded glance between Eleanor and Rachel’s mother wasn’t scripted.

The final beat in the scene is the revelation that Rachel’s mother Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua) is waiting to accompany her out of the mahjong parlor and exchanges a stony glance with Eleanor. Lim credits the scene entirely to Chu, who says that it came directly from his own experience with his mother. “When she holds onto Rachel, grabs her arm, it’s exactly the way my mom held us. It’s like ‘I am mama bear, and I am going to protect you, I will throw myself on the railroad for you.’” Though Kerry and Eleanor have never met before, their glare echoes a much broader and more ancient class rivalry, Lim says. “It’s very much like the matriarch of the old world and the matriarch of the new world having a moment. Rachel may not have this extensive old-money family, but when it counts, her single immigrant mother is there for her and loves her just as fiercely.”

The scenes immediately before and after the mahjong game both changed in the final edit.

In the original cut, the viewer already knows Rachel has turned Nick down before the mahjong scene begins. “When Nick first proposes to Rachel by the water, that scene used to end with Rachel saying ‘I can’t’ and walking away,” Chu explains. “We found that it gave away too much information, and took a little gas out of the mahjong scene.” Cutting that ending and going straight to Rachel and Eleanor’s confrontation heightened the stakes and tension, and turned Rachel’s line – “I turned him down” – into a subtle twist.

In the film, Eleanor’s visit to Nick to give him her blessing is shown in silent glimpses, and we don’t know that he has the ring until he pulls it out to propose to Rachel on the plane. But a deleted scene, which Lim calls “one of the most heartbreaking ones that got cut,” had Nick confronting his mother more openly. Per Chu, who was also sad to let the scene go: “They talk about Eleanor’s sacrifice for her son, how she allowed Ah Ma to raise him so that he would be her favorite and his future would be secure. Nick says ‘I needed you, and you put me there, and you think that was worth it?’ Her response is ‘Absolutely,’ but you can see her heart is just crushed and that she is questioning her decision. Ultimately, it gave away too much, I thought, and we wanted to keep the focus on Rachel’s journey.”

The Story Behind Crazy Rich Asians’ Mahjong Showdown