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‘Storytelling really is borderless.’
Gems in this
It was never screenwriter and producer Adele Lim’s intention to live away from Malaysia longer than a few college years. It was also never Adele’s intention to work in entertainment. Yet, after two decades of working in LA, this Petaling Jaya native is one of the most electrifying voices in Hollywood today.
As one of the writers behind ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and Disney’s ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’, Adele has the goal to globalise authentic Southeast Asian culture and celebrate Asian female “kickass-ery”. In the last few years, this veteran screenwriter has become an unwavering advocate for the borderless power of authentic storytelling. From her home in LA, we chat to Adele about normalising the fierce working matriarchy, the vibrant immigrant communities of LA and her favorite pockets of the city.
On making the move to the US
I went to Emerson College in Boston where they have a big TV, film and theater program. I met a cute boy who lived on the floor upstairs. After graduation, I was going to go back to Malaysia and work in advertising, but the cute boy became my boyfriend and said he was driving out to LA to try and work in television, which sounded so much sexier. We loaded everything into our very, very cheap car and drove from the east coast to the west in 1997. We had no money and no contacts. We shared a crummy studio apartment, with no bedroom and barely a kitchen. We had a bunch of ridiculous, terrible temp jobs. But the great thing about being a writer is that everything is copy. So it puts a patina of romance through poverty, even when you're eating at Arby's, which is a terrible fast food chain.
On finding your tribe
The great thing about LA is that it's huge, it's sprawling, but there are all these really vibrant immigrant communities who've made home here. The community is bustling, and the food is on point. When I got to LA, I could get amazing Thai food at three o'clock in the morning. That’s when it felt like home, like it could all work out. LA is not for everybody, but it’s about finding your pocket and finding your people.
On surviving the LA hustle
I think there's a perception for everybody that you really need to be wired into the industry and have inside contacts. It's all helpful, but honestly, I had beyond nothing. I was also very new to the country and had only been in the States for two years. The way I spoke was different and I didn't have the same cultural reference and history as most of the writers. But I was told by another writer that being an outsider really does help: it gives you new eyes on everything. I leaned into that. After a lot of hustling, I got a gig as a writer's assistant on Xena: Warrior Princess.
On female empowerment in Southeast Asia
Growing up in Malaysia, I watched a lot of Hong Kong action movies. Whether they were contemporary or historic, there were a lot of strong female characters. They could be the pretty girl or the villain, and still whip out a sword and kick ass left and right. In Southeast Asia, both my mother and grandmother worked. I thought the whole world just operated that way. It wasn't until I got to the States that I learned that in Southeast Asia, even if the culture is more conservative, the women really do have a lot of power. They are the breadwinners, and we have a history of strong female warriors and civic, social and military leaders. I took that for granted. It really wasn't until I got here and worked in entertainment that I realized that America and a lot of the West, are not used to identifying women in those warrior or leadership roles. That's sad as hell. I have a daughter, and I don't want her growing up in a dominant culture where she's not seen as someone who makes change happen. So that’s something I've fought for.
‘The community is bustling, and the food is on point. When I got to LA, I could get amazing Thai food at three o'clock in the morning. That’s when it felt like home.’
On writing for Crazy Rich Asians
I've always felt very lucky to be able to work in Hollywood. But in mainstream network television, the unspoken assumption was that you could not sell a show with Asian leads. With Crazy Rich, I had worked with Jon Chu before. He called me out of the blue and said, 'Read this book’. When I read the first few pages, I immediately called Jon back and said ‘I have to do this’. It wasn't just about Asians or the sensational title. It was all about my culture. Singapore and Malaysia share the languages, the food, the family dynamics, the snoopy aunts who are up in your grill about your love life, your diet, and how much weight you've put on in your ass. Being able to write those characters and write that world was like breathing. I used to think writing was hard. I'd spent 17 years writing for white male FBI agents or cops, so all of my life experiences had to be shoved through this white dude, American hero prism. Crazy Rich was the first time I was able to write my own voice, and it was the most liberating, wonderful experience. After that I realized that writing authentically was so rewarding, and I really didn't want to go back to doing anything else.
On writing for Raya and the Last Dragon
Disney is an exception in that they really take the time to get it right. They want to get deep under the surface of a story. We had a cultural trust where we formed relationships with experts from the region, like cultural anthropologists, or artisans. They didn’t just come in, unload the wisdom and then we send them on their way. We’d go beyond what their expertise or craft was and hear their stories. The creative team also went to Asia a couple of times, to walk a mile in the shoes and really live it, touch it, feel it. The second component, which is equally important, is that I grew up in Malaysia and my co-writer Qui Nguyen grew up in Arkansas but his family is Vietnamese. A lot of our visual development team were people who had cultural roots in that region. There are so many little details that allow the audience to feel what it's like to grow up in that region, how you relate to your elders, how food looks, what our language of love is — spoiler: it's food, it's always food. All these tiny little details are a love letter to the team’s heritage. Even though Raya is an entirely fantasy world, you can tell the core inspiration came from something real and you know it’s a product of love, and hopefully people can feel that affection and that authenticity coming through.
On the influence of travel and creativity
When you grow up in one specific culture, it’s hard to understand how other people think and feel, which makes it easy to vilify or feel alienated from other tribes of people. Traveling and being exposed to a different way of being, or a different point of view is so important. When our Raya team traveled to Southeast Asia, they realized how deep the thread of community ran through all Southeast Asian countries. It’s one thing for a cultural expert to come to you in a Western setting and say ‘Community is important to us’. But seeing it in action is powerful.
‘There's a million stories I want to tell and the exciting thing about the world now is that because of all these different platforms, storytelling really is borderless...You have Westerners loving K-pop and K-dramas and people in Asia loving a German series.’
On the borderless nature of storytelling
There's a million stories I want to tell and the exciting thing about the world now is that because of all these different platforms, storytelling really is borderless. There are all of these streaming platforms available to people across the world. You used to have to wait years for a movie to get to you in Malaysia, but now it's sometimes released before your Western counterparts. You have Westerners loving K-pop and K-dramas and people in Asia loving a German series. At the end of the day, we're all human and that thread is universal. So even if the packaging is different and there are cultural or speech differences, people can recognize a human story and they will flock to it if it vibrates and rings true.
On what you’re currently working on
I'm prepping to direct my own movie. It's entirely different from Raya. It's an R-rated raunchy comedy I wrote with some friends. Much smaller and nothing close to Raya, but while it’s different, it’s also true to my experience. It’s about four young Asian American women going off to Asia and getting in trouble.
On diversity in the entertainment industry
It's not like Crazy Rich came out and suddenly racism was fixed in entertainment. It's an ongoing fight. Having a world where there's parity and inclusion only works if we are constantly vigilant and fighting for it. It’s not just about giving someone an opportunity, it's also giving them the support and the mentorship. Studios need to put diverse people in positions with greenlight power.
‘At the end of the day, we're all human and that thread is universal. So even if the packaging is different and there are cultural or speech differences, people can recognize a human story and they will flock to it if it vibrates and rings true.’
On allowing people to fail
We need to be giving people of color or from underrepresented groups, the opportunities to fail. When you make a misstep, as a person of color, your otherness or your ethnicity, is oftentimes looked at as the reason for your failure. Whereas you have shows from white show runners or movies from white directors that fail all the time, and it's never their race, their ethnicity, their otherness that’s blamed. We need to change the dominant perception that we tried giving a minority director or a female director a shot and it didn't work out. It's really putting your money and your effort where your mouth is. And if diversity is really important to the studios, they should be able to support these content creators.
On why you love LA
What I love about LA is that it’s not one city or one town with one identity, it’s a patchwork of a myriad of different communities. If you are adventurous, if you're open, and if you're really into food like I am, LA is the city for you. I'm raising my children here, and I sometimes hear from my friends ‘I could never raise my children in a city like Los Angeles,’ which I think is insane. Kids here are exposed to people from all over the world. When you go into different neighborhoods, you really feel a piece of that culture, and a piece of their country, which is all within a half hour's drive from you.
On getting into nature in California
Sometimes you just need to decompress, and there really is something about the ions of water, and getting out to the beach and taking a deep breath. I head from Venice Boulevard to either Venice Beach, Santa Monica or Malibu. Then there are some beautiful beaches down south like La Jolla. If you keep driving all the way to the central coast where Carmel and Big Sur are, it's a totally different feeling. Gorgeousness. We're very lucky that way.
I’ve also been converted to Mammoth Mountain. It’s a big ski resort about five or six hours from LA. Growing up in Malaysia my limited experience with jungle trekking was that everything is going to kill you — leeches, wild boar, slipping and disappearing never to emerge again. Westerners have a different relationship with nature, they enjoy it, it’s not out to kill them. I didn’t want to hand down this fear, loathing and wariness to my kids, so I’ve been bringing them up with nature and it’s delightful. Although I’m the worst skier. I’m the one waving her arms and yelling loudly for people to get out of the way, before crashing into the parking lot at the bottom.
‘It’s a patchwork of a myriad of different communities. If you are adventurous, if you're open, and if you're really into food like I am, LA is the city for you.’
On different places for different phases in your life
It's a difficult trajectory for people who come to LA with no money. You start in the Valley, deep in the Valley. Then you get some money and move to West Hollywood, where all the fun parties are at. When you’re thinking of starting a family, you go looking for a backyard. I always tell people it takes at least five years to find your lane, your group and your groove. Having been here for over 20 years, I feel I've lived in different parts of the city for different parts of my life. And I feel like there's one more house, or one more move in my future. I also never cut out the possibility of moving back to Malaysia. Plus it’s a dream of mine to move to an entirely different country, whether it’s France or China, and take the children. I want them to experience life in a totally different way, so they're aware that they are consuming culture from everywhere. In America it's easy to feel like we're the only culture that exists. It'd be good for the kids to get out of that bubble.
On where you go to write
Getting out of your usual pocket helps shake things up. I go to different places to write — when you change your environment, you change your energy. When I was writing television scripts, I would write a few acts at a museum and then a few acts at a park. I would go to the Getty or the Norton Simon Museum. Or I’d go to coffee shops and watch people, just to get out of my head.
On some of your go-to food spots in LA
My number one coffee spot is a place called Green Table where you get the most delicious açai bowls and turmeric golden milks. I've become incredibly LA, like it's all turmeric lattes to wean off the caffeine. For a celebratory meal with my family I’d go to Boiling Crab. There's a ton of seafood and these massive messy plastic bags, and you’re dripping with butter, there are shells everywhere and you have sauce on your face. And the waiter ties a bib around you like you’re a toddler.
‘LA is a city of people who are pursuing their dreams. If you're not pursuing your dreams, you're close enough to somebody else's dream to feel excited by it.’
On a window or an aisle seat
On LA in one word
We have people from every strata of society, and a lot of the most amazing creative people are out here doing really exciting things, whether it's in food, art, dance, writing, TV or film. The person bagging groceries at the store is an aspiring actor or has a screenplay he's working on, or your best friend is now excited to be a Reiki Master because theater didn't work out. It's a city of people who are pursuing their dreams. If you're not pursuing your dreams, you're close enough to somebody else's dream to feel excited by it.