Disney’s latest feature animation debuted the company’s first Southeast Asian princess(es), so a throng of people from Southeast Asian backgrounds – including me – were anticipating this movie for months.
Two things really excited me when I saw Raya and the Last Dragon: I consciously joined the global rejoicing that a new generation of Southeast Asian kids would grow up with a princess who represents them, and that a mainstream movie celebrated the cultures, sights and values of their childhoods.
I invite you to journey with me in understanding what this kind of recognition means to the Southeast Asian community, and how Raya and the Last Dragon can be of use to Aussie Christians, as we help Southeast Asian people to meaningfully encounter Jesus and his Christian communities.
Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is the daughter of a chieftain living in a broken world perpetuated by disharmony and mistrust. She is tasked with finding the last dragon (Sisu) and restoring peace and harmony to the world.
There is much for Christians to affirm about the film, not least the final scene – reminiscent of all nations flooding to Yahweh in Isaiah chapter 60.
Disney’s “love letter” to Southeast Asian cultures
Importantly, Disney recognised that until now, Southeast Asian people were, at best, represented only by Mulan – a very Chinese or East Asian princess. Southeast Asian culture is distinct from East Asian culture in important ways.
Southeast Asian skin tones are not represented in Mulan. While many Southeast Asians have links to Chinese heritage, not all do. Mulan’s East Asian context largely subscribes to polytheistic Mahayana Buddhism, Confucian and Taoist beliefs. Southeast Asian cultures – particularly Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia – tend to follow atheistic Theravada Buddhism, mixed with a fear of unseen animistic spirits (represented in the movie by the purple druun) and Hindu Ramayana mythology. The movie gets at these deep worldview issues with impressive skill.
On the day I saw the film, I noticed a Malaysian woman leaving the theatre in tears as the credits rolled. She kindly answered my inquiries about what had made her feel so deeply:
“This movie… it’s like Disney’s love letter to us [Southeast Asian cultures]... It’s the little things, the fruits, the foods [and textures, mythology, traditional music, garments, gestures of respect, martial arts, scenery, word play]…the level of care they took. Google Raya and the Last Dragon and you can read how Disney commissioned a team of consultants to research those details.”
Although Raya has been criticised for blending diverse Southeast Asian cultures, the recognition of distinctive cultural details and the beautiful care taken to produce the film clearly resonated with this woman, as it had with me. It filled us with a deep, full experience of emotions which reverberated against our life experiences. It became personally meaningful to us both.
Only 1 per cent of people in traditionally Buddhist societies accept Christ
For some years now, I have sought to understand how the gospel might be shared among Southeast Asian people, including my own Thai family, who have traditionally resisted missionary effort. Despite centuries of missionary presence, in traditionally Buddhist societies only 1-1.5 per cent accept Christianity. The gospel is viewed as foreign.
How could it instead be shared in a way which truly resonates, reverberating against Southeast Asian worldview and formative experiences as the movie did? The answer may be in the movie itself.
If we wanted to, we could mine Raya for a trove of ways to argue the limits of Southeast Asian belief systems for eternal salvation. Perhaps the biggest lesson Raya teaches Christian audiences is about trust. Apologetic arguments don’t build trust. Raya clearly illustrates why trust is so hard to come by in Southeast Asian cultures. If you are not known to a community, how can they trust your words?
It teaches us that it takes time and vulnerability to make the first step to overcome mistrust. This is why it helps to empower Southeast Asians to share the gospel with other Southeast Asians. They are known quantities, where foreign missionaries fit a different category.
The last dragon, Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), even offers ways to go about building trust when it is lacking. We might first present our Southeast Asian friend or neighbour a small material gift to suggest, “You can trust me. Can I trust you?” Then, wait and see if it is reciprocated. The gift may be given directly, or indirectly through a mediator, and can be given no matter what has come before in the relationship. Sometimes the answer is “No, I don’t trust you”. And we need to respectfully stop there.
A key theme of the movie is the Southeast Asian emphasis on “we” (the group) coming before “I” (the individual). Could individual Australian Christians’ trust-building attempts be bolstered by group action?
How can our churches offer a “love letter” to Southeast Asians?
What could be Australian churches’ collective love letter to the Southeast Asians among us? Well, perhaps Australian Christian communities could do as Disney did. We could start our love letter by investing in understanding the cultures of Southeast Asia, or Asia more broadly, by sharing experiences.
Humour me for a minute. What do you think might happen if we celebrated Lunar New Year in most churches with even a small Asian presence? Although largely an East Asian tradition, Lunar New Year is recognisable to most Asians, perhaps broad enough to implement in culturally heterogeneous Australian churches. It is also an established tradition which has been re-theologised by Christians in Asia.
If we planned ahead, Australian churches could order traditional “red packets” from Asia with scriptural proverbs about good stewardship of money, prayers and thankfulness to God for prosperity. We could enjoy Asian feasts and the fun of festival atmosphere (akin to Talon in the movie), which Asian migrants miss and, at best, find substitutes for in private homes or perhaps government events.
Celebrating Lunar New Year may take an act of vulnerability on the part of the established church. It is culturally different and there may be concerns about syncretism with traditional Asian religions. However, taking that risk would recognise and validate Asian Christianity in Australia and convey our trust in Asian Christians’ ability to handle the word of God and mitigate risks of syncretism. Could it also make church appear less culturally English or “foreign” to the Asian visitor?
As the Sisu, the last dragon said, “When [the other dragons] put their faith in me, it empowered me beyond what I could have imagined”. If ever we want to engage in meaningful dialogue with Southeast Asians, the most empowering thing we can do is offer our trust.
Amanda Mason is an evangelist and community chaplain with Evangelism and New Churches. She used a fellowship with Anglican Deaconess Ministries in 2020 to create resources for churches to use when discipling believers from Buddhist backgrounds.