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Tatler speaks to the Malaysia-born Crazy Rich Asians and Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon co-writer about breaking into Hollywood and bringing authenticity to the screens

"Adele Lim has entered the Waiting Room for this meeting."

I admit her into our Zoom meeting and as soon as her video comes on, she greets me with a million-dollar smile and a big "Hiiii!" It's late into a weeknight for her but she's brimming with energy and like everything that she does in her work, 100 per cent in it and ready to hustle.

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The world knows Lim as the co-writer of the insanely successful 2018 romantic comedy-drama film Crazy Rich Asians and the recently Oscar-nominated Raya and the Last Dragon. While she's busy ticking items off her 'things to achieve' list, at the core, she's still very much the Malaysian girl who just loves to write.

"I've always written, I think. I have a vivid memory of the time when I was maybe three or four years old learning how to print and write my letters. I had a composition book and I was writing my own story in it. I remember writing it in the style of all those British childrens' books like Enid Blyton and those Peter and Jane books," Lim reminisces. "It was the most boring story! It was terrible, awful. It was about an ant."

Lim grew up in a multi-generational family home in Petaling Jaya, a satellite town of Kuala Lumpur, with plenty of memories that she'll always hold dear.

"We lived with my grandmother for a long time and all my cousins, aunts, and uncles were always there. It was a non-stop flow of people," she says. "My grandmother and my mother were very successful career people and also very active in the community, so there were always church people, community people, and friends, and there was always somebody cooking or somebody buying food. I'd wake up in the morning or from a nap in the afternoon to the sound of somebody pounding belacan (shrimp paste) or something frying in the kitchen signalling someone’s making food. My whole family is in Malaysia. I've got a lot of Malaysian pride."

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She recalls honing her writing skills from way back when: "I'd write and present stories in primary school for elocution contest and in secondary school, I'd write all the choral reading poems for my class. I'd also write class plays—I did that even in junior college. I was an editor of one of my Sri Aman yearbooks and when I was an older teenager, I had a weekly column in The Star newspaper and it was my first paying writing job. I think I’m one of those very lucky people who just knew what I wanted to do from a very early age.

"My second career choice would have been a dancer. I did a lot of dancing! I was a backup dancer for Ning Baizura for a hot minute and I loved it. But not good enough to be a professional backup dancer," she muses.

After completing two years of her American Transfer Program at KDU College Damansara Utama, she left for the US. In 1996, right when the entire Southeast Asian economy was about to collapse due to the Asian financial crisis, Lim graduated from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts with a degree in TV/Film.

"I had learned in college that you could be a TV writer and have that be your vocational career, which had never occurred to me before because growing up in Malaysia, you didn’t think of TV writing as an option," she says, adding that she had always planned to come back to Malaysia.

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They say that love makes people do crazy things and perhaps this was true for Lim as well. She met an American boy in college who said he was driving out to Los Angeles after graduation to get work as a TV writer and it was an idea that sounded incredibly romantic and fantastic to Lim.

"We got into a really cheap, beat-up car and drove from Boston to Los Angeles. I had no money and a lot of student debt so we stayed in the tiniest apartment. I was terrible at networking. I knew nobody," she admits.

Lim would go on to do the necessary, taking on a lot of temporary grunt work and really hustled until she landed her first writer's assistant job for Xena: Warrior Princess in 2000 despite having nothing to show on her resume. It was through this internship-like, underpaid role that she had a crash course in TV writing.

"They can teach you in schools but nothing takes the place of being in a writer’s room. The writers there were tremendous. They helped me out with my specs (writing samples) and introduced me to their representation (agent) so that kicked off my TV writing career," Lim says.

In the beginning, she was the only female on a lot of her writing staff and the only female of colour, and she was also very new to the US, having been in the country for only two years. This meant that she wasn't able to share a lot of her childhood experiences or bond with the other writers at work. Fortunately, her then-boyfriend and a circle of American friends helped fill in the gaps in her knowledge of TV.

"I didn’t know how hard it was to become a TV writer. I think if I’d known; I don't think I would've done it. So it’s good! It’s good to be oblivious and sometimes I think about it too. All the times your parents told you not to do things like, 'Don’t watch too much TV,' 'Don’t get a boyfriend'. Honestly, if it wasn’t for TV and a boyfriend, I wouldn't have the career I have today. That’s my terrible advice for young people," she laughs.

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For nearly two decades Lim pushed herself and worked her way up the ladder and watched TV evolve right before her eyes: "TV then is different. TV now has like a million shows and niche programming for absolutely everybody. You want a thing about little people? You got it!"

Over that long period, she rose through the ranks, ran writer's rooms, ran her own show (The CW's Star-Crossed), and eventually started developing shows and creating pilots to sell.

"I worked with Jon Chu on a dance pilot for Fox which we both loved and thought was fantastic and amazing. While it didn't get picked up, that's where I got to meet Chu. A few months after, he called me because he had been brought onboard Crazy Rich Asians and felt that the script needed a rewrite and an authentic voice. He and I enjoyed working together so that started my odyssey with Crazy Rich Asians," Lim says.

I've learnt that there’s no such thing as a bad move or right or wrong. It’s what you do with the opportunity.
Adele Lim

Crazy Rich Asians became a major critical and commercial success, grossing over US$238 million on a budget of US$30 million, making it the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the 2010s. The rom-com also received high praise for its groundbreaking nature—an all-Asian cast and a flag bearer for Asian representation—and numerous accolades. From there, Lim went on to Raya and the Last Dragon, which featured Disney's first Southeast Asian princess.

When asked if she had set expectations for herself for Raya and the Last Dragon, especially since it's coming after the monumental success of Crazy Rich Asians, Lim shares: "I don’t think I ever really set expectations for myself and the given project. I don’t think about how big a hit this is going to be, even with Crazy Rich Asians. It all comes from a place of, 'Do I love this story? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to tell?' Any success that follows is a happy occurrence."

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"It was more this idea of sharing something that was very specific because the world thinks it knows Asians, you know? In Malaysia, even the Chinese are so different, to say nothing of all the different Asian cultures! Being able to share an aspect of Asia that I grew up with and have the world embrace it and be excited by it is a tremendous feeling. The expectations were to create something that felt new to the world but also authentic to people who come from the culture. Having children all around the globe dressing up as Raya, calling themselves a name that's Malay that means celebration, that means something great!" she enthuses.

In a time when the world is seeing a proliferation of TV programming owing to the Hallyu and the rise of Korean programming, the world is hungry and starving for different kinds of stories, Lim says. "We’ve already seen the hero white male story a million times over and there are a million more TV shows with those scenes, characters, tropes, and storylines. We want something different, something that excites us. Something that’s wonderful, new, and novel.

"That’s the exciting thing about my cultural background coming from Malaysia and Southeast Asia and having our own rich story-telling heritage. It’s exciting to know that because of our backgrounds and our heritage, there are all these opportunities to bring new stories to the world. Stories to the world that they have not seen before. That's what we were doing with Crazy Rich Asians, that’s what we were doing with Raya and the Last Dragon and hopefully, that’s what we’re doing for the movie I just directed!" Lim reveals.

Steering our conversation onto a more serious path, I asked about some challenges that she faced, being not just an Asian but also a Southeast Asian female in the US in a typically white-dominated and male-dominated industry.

"I wanted to come to the US very badly as I thought there was certain equality and parity between the sexes here because that’s the US you see on the outside. Some traditional families in Malaysia have a preference for boys. In different aspects of our society, being a man somehow automatically gives you a heads up or a certain standing in the family. It enraged me. I thought it was complete garbage that many cultures prioritise boys and I grew up with a huge chip on my shoulder about that because it's just negating 50 per cent of the population. My mother and my grandmother were such strong role models for me. They were the centre of the family and they did so well professionally. For them to be seen as anything other than complete equals was ludicrous to me," she laments.

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"The interesting thing is this: after I came here, even though they purport to have complete equity and parity, they actually don’t! It’s just not as overt as in Malaysia. When you look at the numbers of how many women are running companies, how many women are on boards, the earning potential of women and realistically, how much household income come from women working, it’s greater in general than it is for women in the US.

"Most of my American friends' mothers were stay-at-home mothers, and this is not to take away anything from stay-at-home mothers, but it was interesting to me that most of my friends’ mothers in Malaysia had careers and if you look at studies about maternal employment, working mothers' daughters will have a higher chance of having careers of their own. Between that and the tradition of the depiction of women as warriors and leaders in Hong Kong action movies... we grew up with that and took that for granted in a way that they didn’t really have that in the US."

She continues: "The first challenge was not being aware of the gender disparities when I first came. It took a long time to pick up the non-obvious cues. The second challenge was figuring out how those biases affect my professional life. A lot of it is implicit bias so a lot of male showrunners think they're not being biased. If you're a white man in the US, chances are the person who'd understand your voice best is another white male writer. It doesn’t mean anybody else’s point of view isn’t valid, but if you’re the showrunner and you want people to sound and think like you, that person is going to have to look like you. That has been a huge issue for American programming and something that they're trying to correct now!"

She may be a force to be reckoned with now but given the challenges that she had to face as a budding writer, was there ever a time that she felt like giving up?

Lim is pensive for a second before saying: "TV writing is especially gruelling because it's a writer's medium. We're the showrunners, we're the bosses, running the whole show and producing everything. It's non-stop work, and Malaysians work incredibly hard, but there were all those hours plus more of grinding yourself into the ground writing, pre-production, production, being on set, overseeing post-production.

"It's incredibly gruelling and a very competitive job. A lot of people want to do it because everybody can technically write so everybody thinks they can write but because it's so difficult, it becomes a weeding-out process. It’s really for the people who stick with it and understand that writing is not like some God-given gift, it's a learned craft. It’s for the people who have the stomach for it and have thick skin."

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"I don’t think I thought realistically about giving up. The frustrating time was trying to break in. I started working at 21 at Renaissance Pictures where we had Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the guys who created Alias, and they would go on to write Star Trek movies and have huge, insane careers. They were an anomaly, showrunners at 26 years old. So I thought if I wasn’t running a show at 26, I must be a failure.

"I was a writer’s assistant and a script coordinator for many years, but I was not a paid TV writer. At 26, I was thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I already spent four to five years of my life in this. I can’t be an assistant anymore. I need my life to count for something. I can’t be just an assistant in this superficial industry.' That was the only time I ever came close to it. So the short answer is I’ve never seriously considered giving it up," she says.

Tatler Asia's Asia’s Most Influential is the definitive list of people shaping Asia. Asia’s Most Influential brings together the region’s most innovative changemakers, industry titans and powerful individuals who are shaping the region through positive impact. View the full list here.

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