In his breakout novel released just yesterday, Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan gives us a glimpse of what it’s like inside the lives of Asia’s über-rich. As Entertainment Weekly quips, the novel works on two levels – depicting the lives of Asians who are crazy rich and who turn out to be in fact crazy.
Singaporean-born, Manhattan-based Kwan writes from experience, which shines through in the story. “This book really is, in many ways, inspired by my childhood,” Kwan told Vanity Fair.
The tale follows Singaporean born-and-bred Nicholas (Nick) Young, now based in Greenwich Village, and his girlfriend Rachel Chu, an ABC (American-born Chinese) economics professor at New York University who has little clue as to just how wealthy Nick’s family is.
As The New York Times notes, the characters in Kwan’s book are so “rich and vulgar” that they don’t even bother looking for a 30 carat-plus diamond that falls into a snowdrift. Yet one man proudly avowals the precision to which he sets the temperature in his climate-controlled shoe closet.
The story follows the couple as they make a trip to Nick’s hometown where he has been asked to serve as best man in his friend Colin Choo’s wedding. It proves to be an extortionate affair.
"You know this merger has been choreographed down to the most minute detail," Colin tells Nick. "It's good for business and anything that's good for business is good for the family … I have not been in the position to make a single choice since I was born, and you know that."
Kevin’s “merger” is with the daughter of a Chinese baron. Again: “good for business”. This literary matchmaking is true to life. Enormous houses, a penchant for culinary adventuring, glittery wardrobes and an obsession with brand names are among the trophies and pastimes fussed over by Singapore’s upper crust, who dutifully attend prep-schools and elite universities and refer to the UBC (University of British Columbia) as “the University of a Billion Chinese”.
In one chapter, the couple attends a dinner party at the palatial residence of Nick’s grandmother, who is holding the bash to celebrate the blooming of her tan hua flowers, which blossom once a decade and only at night. Just catching a glimpse of them in bloom is auspicious, we’re told. Nick’s cousin Astrid enters the scene, greeting Rachel.
In an excerpt provided by Vogue, Kwan writes: “Astrid was wearing the chicest outfit Rachel had ever seen—an embroidered Alexis Mabille white peasant blouse, pearl-gray Lanvin cigarette pants, and a fantastical pair of bejeweled earrings, very Millicent Rogers. So this was Astrid in her natural habitat.”
Kwan’s eye for these details is informed by his study of fashion photography at New York’s prestigious Parsons School of Design. But this doesn’t mean he condones what he sees.
“I find myself fascinated and appalled by consumerist culture, especially by the degree to which many Asian consumers have become fixated on acquiring brand name objects,” he told Read It Forward. “I’ve personally witnessed some of the most mind-boggling shopping sprees, where someone spends more in a single day than I make in a year.” Indeed, the book gives accounts of shopping binges that amount to millions of dollars.
As the dinner party gets underway, the guests enter an elliptical conservatory with wall murals of Chinese mountainscapes where, Kwan writes, “three enormous tables gleamed with silver chafing dishes, one offering Thai delicacies, another Malaysian cuisine, and the last classic Chinese dishes. Rachel came upon a tray of exotic-looking golden wafers folded into little top hats. ‘What in the world are these?’ she wondered aloud.”
Wonder she may, but Kwan’s depiction of Singapore’s elite borders on hyperrealist. He could have told a similar story by simply documenting any number of real-life weddings that take place on any given auspicious day in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau or Singapore. Indeed, the rise of Asia’s new rich, particularly within China, is a welcome development for those engaged in the luxury business – not in fiction, but in fact.
When the book’s central event, the wedding, finally unfolds, things are ratcheted up yet several more notches: singing by the Vienna Boys’ Choir, ferry rides to other islands, a performance by Cirque du Soleil.
“I’ve seen weddings even more over-the-top than this,” Kwan said. “So many aspects of and stories in the book I actually had to tone down! The reality is simply unbelievable.”
He added, “Sometimes I had to actually take details out, because my editor was like, ‘No one will believe this’. And I would say, ‘But this really happened’, and she’d reply, ‘It doesn’t matter. You’re going to lose readers because it’s going to seem so unreal that people would spend this much money, or do something this excessive’. So those parts were changed.”
Yet, reality speaks for itself. And lavish living is now in full swing on the Chinese mainland as well where the new rich are taking up the torch where the old money clans of Singapore and Hong Kong left off (see: $150 million dowry, eight-day banquet held in Fujian). Tomorrow we look at just how far China’s nouveau riche is taking this trend.