About halfway through Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, I was quite ready for these crazy rich Asians to be eaten. Someone, I thought, needed to put an end to the madness of this ostentatious wealth, this world of private couture fittings and private jewelry shopping and private planes. “Private” being the key word here: some of the wealthiest Asians in this book are so wealthy that no one knows just how wealthy they are, or just how they became this wealthy. A past is often alluded to, in the manner of soap-opera style drama; someone may have been involved in the opium trade, someone else was around at the right time to buy up the right property.
And that’s basically what this is all about: the crazy rich Asians own a lot of stuff, but they are masters of property and secrecy. Their wealth is hoarded and guarded and kept, with the help of bourgeois capitalist law, within the family. Their livelihood, and the reproduction of their wealth, hinges upon the continued ownership of private property.
Alas, no such quick end to these characters was available to me. Kwan, obviously having too good a time writing the book, went on for over 500 pages and one had to trudge wearily along. “For my mother and my father,” he writes in the book’s dedication, and the supplementary PR material that came with my review copy of the novel includes an Entertainment Weekly interview with Kwan, whom the interviewer describes as having grown up “experiencing the lifestyle that this book articulates”. Ah, I thought. He grew up obnoxiously rich, and is now writing a book about the obnoxiously rich Asians that will be lapped up by Western readers because if there’s one thing a rich person knows, it’s how to make (more) money.
And if there’s one thing Western readers like in their Asians, its excessiveness. Excessively rich, excessively tribal, excessively fundamentalist, excessively oppressed, etc. (Also, excessive footnotes, some of which are downright bizarre: “hun tum” as a Malay word, for example, when it’s actually “hentam”; Chinese Singaporeans exclaiming “Alamak!” in contexts so strange that fellow Malay-speaking Malaysians might also find it quite bizarre.)
Going by the blurbs plastered all over the book, however, all of this worked, and who cares about the accuracy of the footnotes, as Western readers seemed to have really loved the hell out of this book. The blurbs say it’s “satirical”, “juicy”, “zany”, “hilarious”, “rollicking”, a “must-read”, “Dynasty on steroids”, and, according to one very enthusiastic blurber, “a cross between Jackie Collins and early Evelyn Waugh”. (Collins herself has weighed in and approves: it’s “a roller-coaster trip”, she says, “I loved it!”)
The blurbs set the framework for how this book should be read: It’s both fun and excessive, a satirical look at the high-flying jetsetting old Asian money crowd, but it’s also meant to be a commentary on this society, apparently, judging by the comparisons to Wharton, or Waugh, or Austen. In truth, this book is a cross between Jackie Collins, Sidney Sheldon, and Danielle Steele. There is glamour, intrigue, detailed descriptions of clothes by very expensive designers, detailed descriptions of very expensive home decor, detailed descriptions of the beauty of very expensive people.
What the novel lacks, however, is any sort of interiority or contradiction, or any attempt to wrestle with the implications of class society and the tensions between the rich and, well, the rest. At its heart, Crazy Rich Asians is a sentimental novel, and it holds the elites up as an example, no matter how screwed up they are. For all its “satire”, it’s an homage to the rich, moneyed families of Singapore, with a cautionary tale about how its outmoded Asian values need to be supplanted by modern, democratic Western values in order to stay relevant and, one presumes, to reproduce itself.
These liberal “outsider” Western values are represented by the literal outsider to this class, raised-in-America Rachel Chu, and her superrich but supermodern and supersmart and superhandsome and superkind wonder boyfriend, Nicholas Young, who hails from a family so rich that the family residence is so exclusive that it’s not on any map. Nicholas has transformed himself into an ordinary aww-shucks type of American history professor who is so down-to-earth and humble that he forgot to tell his girlfriend that his family owns, like, everything.
Indeed, this is a novel of instruction, as in how to acclimatise yourself to the elite ruling class if you come from more humble origins, as Rachel does. Rachel is constantly amazed or surprised or grossed out by how the (Asian) rich can be, but she does not object to class society or unequal wealth or exploited labour. Of course she doesn’t –she has a PhD in Economics. Submitting to the spectacle of the lifestyle of the rich and obnoxious is part of the praxis of becoming a well-respected bourgeois economist.
The affective modes of richness, such as it were, are strong and Rachel can only succumb on numerous occasions. One can’t help but feel good, surrounded by all the perks money can bring! Sweet-smelling floral sachets tucked into your laundry! Laundry that is done by someone else! Little bowls of rose-scented water in which to refresh your precious fingers! An army of maids and servants! And so on.
As such, Crazy Rich Asians is a lesson on how Rachel learns to love the rich — or accept them as they are, if the final sentence of the book is anything to go by. After all, if some of the old-fashioned Singaporeans are meanies, the new-generation of the elites are nice folk, as Kwan emphasises throughout the book. There’s Nick, wonderful boyfriend, a bit dense, but with a heart so pure and clean he’s the Singaporean Ned Nickerson, and in case you missed it the first few times: he’s so handsome and he’s so fit. (Some of Kwan’s breathless descriptions of the STUNNING BEAUTY of his various rich young things seem to be lifted straight out of Sweet Valley High. Straight nose, curved lips, lustrous hair, long legs, rock-hard abs.)
Then there’s Rachel’s friend, Peik Lin, who is a lot more “new money” than Nick, but still, so rich, so kind, and so helpful, with a generous shopping allowance that she gladly spends on Rachel, a wonderful home that she kindly opens up to Rachel, and a private plane, which she kindly puts to use for Rachel’s benefit. Then there’s Nick’s cousin, Astrid, SO BEAUTIFUL, LIKE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN ANY OF THESE MEN HAVE EVER SEEN OH MY GOD!!!, SO STYLISH, SO UNIQUE and SO SPECIAL, hence: KIND OF LONELY and KIND OF MISUNDERSTOOD. All-caps for Astrid, because Astrid is one of a kind, as Kwan takes pains to emphasise repeatedly, or hit you over the head with.
Astrid, who marries a middle-class “working” man based on his rock-hard body and their excellent sexual compatibility, with whom she has nothing to say on their initial dates, with whom she has nothing much to say even after their marriage, but whom she loves because … Well, I guess sex and a rock-hard body are important things for rich people. I mean, who knows what Astrid wants? She has enviable style. To be clear, she has the best and most unique sense of style, ever, And she has a flair for snapping up the most elusive and aesthetically-pleasing clothes and jewels, and is practically a goddess. What ever.
For contemporary society, where social relations are mediated by images, Kwan has written a novel about these characters as perfect images; throughout the book I did not feel like I was getting to know any of them, but it did feel like I was reading a Harper’s Bazaar profile and flipping through its society pages. But it would be wrong to claim that the book is as shallow as its characters and their aims and motivations, because, aside from ensuring its readers are slowly made to warm up to these crazy rich people, and thus are drawn into sympathising with them, the novel also takes pains to ensure that it emphasises the difference between the crass newly-rich mainland Chinese and the rich-for-like-forever distinguished Chinese families. It’s not just a novel that glories in class society and class difference; it actively paints mainland Chinese folk as contemptible and brash, signifying the worst excesses of capitalism.
For its hallowed rich characters like Nick and Astrid, for example, Kwan imbues them with a sense of Western modernity. Hence, the ideal world in Crazy Rich Asians combines the best of old Singaporean Chinese wealth with American capitalist ethos of hard work, meritocracy, and benevolent paternalism. Indeed, in the interview Kwan talks about how he wanted to “reveal this other side of Asia: Southeast Asia, where the Chinese have been wealthy for generations and have different ways of relating to money”, and he contrasts this to “Asian wealth, specifically mainland Chinese wealth, with these outrageous spending sprees and things like that coming out of mainland China.”
Crazy Rich Asians, then, is a not-so discreet spectacle of class difference within diasporic Chinese society, and a clear appreciation of the more aristocratic wealth of the Singaporean Chinese. Indeed, the novel also works as a promotional ad for Singapore, with Nick referring to Singapore as “one of the most progressive countries on the planet.” (Hahahahahaha. If this is the satire, I finally get it!)
Whenever Kwan wants to really poke fun at the rich, he’s at his least gentle when it involves the women. The rich older women, or the tai tai, as they are commonly referred to in Asia, are seen to embody all that is embarrassing and shameful about the rich. Men seem to come into riches as if it is their god-given right, through practical and grounded strategy, but women, women will claw their way to the top. The people who try to stop princeling Nick from being with his common American girlfriend, for example, are his mother and various ex-girlfriends and female scheming “friends”. In this sense, the excessiveness of the excessively rich is always identified as specifically female.
The men are usually more sympathetic characters; less superficial, and more “grounded”. There is one truly repulsive character in the form of a Hong Kong misogynist, racist, homophobic playboy, but the rest are generally well-meaning, if dim-witted and dull. And by golly, are they dull! While the male characters, barring Rachel, earn more of Kwan’s sympathy and less of his humour, they are cardboard cutouts spouting the kind of lines that you might see in Malaysia’s Cleo magazine’s annual Eligible Bachelors edition. They bond by complimenting the hotness of each other’s girlfriends (and the girlfriends must be hot, or they would not have reached girlfriend status in the first place), and they actually think things like, “he would dress her like the princess she was, and she would be his forever.”
Nick really realises Rachel is the woman he’s meant to be with on the day of his best friend’s wedding, when his best friend tells him she looks “smashing” and another friend tells him she has “the best legs on the planet”. Meanwhile, while Rachel exhibits understated and “natural” beauty — a less spectacular Astrid, if you will — which can slowly be incorporated into the Young family spectacle of lavish living as the optimistic ending indicates. Other female characters, like a Hong Kong actress named Kitty Pong, are lampooned for embodying — you guessed it — excessive sexuality, “fake” beauty (Kitty relies too much on the razzle-dazzle effects of makeup and this is a sign of an Artificial and Empty-on-the-Inside Woman, you see) and “trashy” sartorial aesthetics.
If you really want mindless reading, you can’t go wrong with Crazy Rich Asians. Kwan is not a terrible writer, if entertainment is all you hope to get out of your reading material; he does have a flair for a witty turn of phrase, on occasion, and the paper-thin shallow characters are so forgettable you could gladly put it down and put the book out of your mind in an instant if you needed to focus your attention on something else, like real life. If you’re someone who thinks Marx was right, however, this book will only further intensify the feeling that the rich are meant to be eaten. If more readers can come away with that feeling after reading it, perhaps then, in some wonderful way, this book can be said to serve a useful purpose, after all.