'Crazy Rich Asians' Will Have You Seriously Considering That the Rich Really Should Be Eaten

This tale takes pains to emphasise the difference between the crass newly-rich mainland Chinese (yay!) and the rich-for-like-forever distinguished Chinese families (boo!).

Crazy Rich Asians

Publisher: Anchor
Length: 527 pages
Author: Kevin Kwan
Price: $15.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-05

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.