Molding your cute little dumpling bun of a child takes care and practice. What to do when your sweet baby bun starts to rebel or brings home a girlfriend you don’t like? Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians and Domee Shi’s 8-minute Pixar short Bao (which played with Incredibles 2) share one thing in common: the Chinese dumplings as the emblem of mother-son bonds within Chinese households. These Chinese matriarchs’ relationship to dumplings reflects their rapport and rocky dynamic with their sons — and their Westernized significant others.
As an intrinsically Chinese food, the dumplings represent Asian mothers’ cultural ownership over their progeny. In Bao, a Chinese mother sublimates her memories of her estranged son by mothering a bao dumpling that comes to life. In Crazy Rich Asians, Nick and the protagonist Rachel partake in dumpling folding with Nick Young’s old-money family and his icy mother Eleanor in Singapore. To emphasize the importance of dumplings to the “richer than God” matriarch, Eleanor and family fold dumplings by hand, not deferring to their countless servants.
Crafting dumplings is linked to maternal nurture and labor. The Bao mother takes great, overprotective pains to keep her dumpling-kiddo safe and spoils him with food — until he becomes repelled by her smothering. Nick is not represented by an anthropomorphized cartoon dumpling, but dumplings carry a significance to Eleanor’s motherhood. Folding in the pork fillings has parallels to the formation of the Young family and how their Chinese propriety must be maintained, outsiders treated with skepticism. That explains Eleanor’s discontent when Nick left Singapore to live in America and then brought Rachel Chu, an Asian-American woman, to the Youngs’ dining room table.
The shell of Chinese traditionalism, symbolized by the dumpling, becomes penetrated by Western intruders who date both mothers’ sons. For Eleanor, it is Rachel, the New Yorker Chinese-American woman, who she surmised kept Nick away from his birthright in Singapore. In Bao, the mother is distraught when her dumpling son brings home a stranger in the form of a blonde white fiancée, a sign of his committing to Westernization. Innocent as it may be, Rachel’s remark that the Youngs’ dumpling activity is “fun” provides a hint of Eleanor’s maternal anxieties: that Rachel is not Chinese enough for her son. Eleanor has to explain the dumplings’ family meaning to Rachel and the need to keep tradition alive.
But through these dumplings, Rachel understands that Eleanor has dimensions to her coldness. When Rachel notices Eleanor’s wedding ring, it prompts Eleanor to open up about her past and how she struggles to measure up in the eyes of her mother-in-law. Shaping dumplings with Eleanor gives Rachel more context to the value of tradition and family to both Eleanor and Nick.
Both Eleanor and the Bao mother are agitated when their sons try to break further from their Chinese households, threatening the generational preservation of Chinese customs. Come to the infamous gasp-inducing scene where the Bao mother swallows her dumpling son to keep him with her, which does not remotely fill her Empty-Nest-Syndrome hollowness. Bringing a blacker meaning to the “I love you so much I could eat you” parental cliché, her tearful reaction to swallowing her son demonstrates an epiphany: She suffocated her son so much that his expression of his individual identity, his Chinese heritage or his Westernization, could not thrive. The same is true for Eleanor’s relationship with Nick, whom she seeks to keep on a tight leash in Singapore — but as Rachel notes, he would not function well in his Chinese homeland if he resented Eleanor for driving Rachel away.
Chinese culture seems to operate as an obstruction to these relationships, but it is the reconnection to Chinese heritage that restores bonds. Rachel rejects Nick’s first proposal because it comes with leaving behind his Singaporean kin. Later, Nick proposes again, this time with his mother’s ring, indicating Rachel is being welcomed into the family and Nick won’t have to sacrifice his relationship with Eleanor after all. Likewise, we witness the reunion of the Bao mother and her literal son, since he cannot thrive without his mother and makes amends with her over Chinese bread, a treat he previously rejected from her.
By the end of both movies, the sons’ cultural ties are reconciled with new additions to their families. Both Rachel and the Bao-son’s betrothed reconfigure themselves to respectfully adopt their significant others’ Chinese identity. Bao ends on the domestic bliss of an integrated family folding dumplings, the fiancée’s shoes off to signify adherence to Chinese traditions. At Nick and Rachel’s engagement party, Eleanor and Rachel maintain a respectful distance. But it’s probable that when Rachel is re-welcomed into the Youngs’ Singapore estate, she will find herself molding dumplings again with Nick and Eleanor, making way for Eleanor and Rachel to mature their bond. By granting Rachel her wedding ring, Eleanor trusts Rachel with carrying on the dumpling tradition as well as supervising Nick’s wellbeing as a succeeding matriarch. Chinese mothers understand that before you can leave your fingerprints in the dough, you must revere the family ties and what it took to keep them fulfilled and together.