What’s most astonishing about this book is simply that it exists: a hardback blockbuster from a major American publisher, marketed to a North American audience, about the relatively new class of hyper-wealthy mainland and overseas Chinese–that’s not a work of political fear-mongering, but a frothy, thinly plotted chick-lit novel, endorsed by Jackie Collins and the author of Bergdorf Blondes. The book represents a tremendous step forward: rich, vacuous Asians are regarded with the same laughing derision, voyeurism, and object fetishism as the rich, vacuous Americans of the Paris Hilton/reality TV set. Instead of being cast as creditors, job thieves, and the end of American supremacy, gazillionaire Asians are mocked and envied as racial equals. Progress!
The prologue, set in London in the mid-1980s, centers on a Chinese family getting kicked out of the lobby of a prestigious hotel by its racist manager, even though they’ve reserved the penthouse suite. One quick phone call later, they’ve bought the hotel and politely fired the manager. I confess to finding the hotel revenge fantasy deeply seductive, as it encapsulates what second-generation immigrants have been promised: that if we work hard and play by the rules–that is, if we don’t try to change the rules or push for fair treatment–we will succeed above those who try to hold us back. (This assumes they won’t change the rules on us, as university admission boards have been quick to do.)
Most of the book, however, is devoted to a different, equally seductive kind of wish fulfillment: the lengthy, loving descriptions of food, clothes, shoes, cars, dishware, homes, resorts, and private jets that are a staple of the genre. The family in the prologue is part of an intermarried, multi-branch clan of profound wealth and prestige, and though there’s plenty of Austen-like scheming over marriage, the novel is mostly concerned with the extremes of their day-to-day lives. That the resorts are in Malaysia and Guangzhou, the homes are in Singapore and Hong Kong, and the feasts include nasi goring and char bee hoon add flavor and literary tourism, but the root of the pleasure isn’t new. Rich people, and their proliferation of stuff, are fun to inhabit, existing in a sphere so low on suffering that petty relationship drama and social faux-pas can consume them–and the reader–entirely.
While the book is frequently described as satire, Kwan’s light, indulgent chiding paints the superrich as spoiled, excessive, but ultimately harmless. A surprising moment of thematic clarity comes near of the end of the book, in a speech delivered by the American-born audience surrogate, Rachel. She (temporarily) decides she doesn’t want to marry her boyfriend because of his status- and lineage-focused, “richer than God” family. She tells him, “We Chinese are so obsessed with family names. I’m proud of my own name. […] I want [my kids] to love their family, but to feel a deeper sense of pride in who they are as individuals.”
After nearly four hundred pages of obscene, almost unfathomable overspending, Rachel’s criticism reads as a non sequitur. Chinese collectivism and filial pride is not what makes these people so oblivious and materialistic. They’re exactly like their counterparts in Western, individualistic societies.
A few pages earlier, another couple splits, also temporarily, for similar reasons. Michael, a self-made tech millionaire, can’t stand how his wife’s family looks down on him as nouveau riche–and for being only very wealthy, not astronomically wealthy. “Do you know how it feels to realize that my pathetic two-hundred-thousand-dollar bonus can’t even pay for one of your dresses?” he screams.
Michael built his tech company; Rachel is a Manhattan academic, and her single mother rose from humble beginnings to become a real estate agent in Cupertino, a high-end Bay Area market. They’re American-dream rich, not heirs and heiresses to longstanding dynasties. We’re supposed to see Michael, and especially Rachel, as better, more human, more grounded individuals because they work for their money. Again, this is not an eastern or western phenomenon–inherited wealth is problematic whether it’s tied to the Lis or the Astors. But these divisions amongst the global upper class, between rich and richer, feel almost meaningless in an era of such vast inequality and low social mobility.
Crazy Rich Asians is at its best as a funny, escapist trifle, letting some readers luxuriate in a familiar fantasy in a new setting, with new social rules and stereotypes, and letting others see themselves represented in this way for the first time. The casual, backhanded compliments made me laugh all the harder because they reminded me of the way my extended family talks, something I had yet to encounter in fiction.
They would acknowledge that Eddie was born into a prestigious family (even though his Cheng lineage was, frankly, a bit common), had attended all the prestigious schools (nothing tops Cambridge, well… except Oxford), and now worked for Hong Kong’s most prestigious investment bank (though it was a pity he didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor).
It’s when Kwan brushes up against social commentary that the whole concept falls to pieces. The soapy plot, such as it is, must have its villains and heroes, and if you think too hard or too broadly, they all resemble villains.
– Kim Fu is columns editor of This Magazine and author of the novel FOR TODAY I AM A BOY (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), coming in January 2014. She lives in Seattle. Visit her online at kimfu.ca.