Crazy Rich Asians by New York City-based Singaporean writer Kevin Kwan is a mock epic that centers on a clan of super-rich Chinese Singaporeans. It details the gossip, backbiting, and scheming that occurs when Nicholas Young, heir to one of Asia’s most massive fortunes, brings home his ABC (American-born Chinese) girlfriend, Rachel Chu, to the wedding of the season.
The book is a hoot, no doubt. Gloriously campy and absurdly soapy, it is a laugh-a-minute romp featuring the rich and Asian. (OK, OK, the rich and Chinese, but, whatever.) The novel’s female characters—Astrid, Nicholas’ glamorous cousin; Eleanor, his formidable mother; and Shang Su Yi, his eccentric grandmother—are richly drawn. (Nicholas’ is a bit of a “Gary Stu,” an annoyingly perfect character.)
And it’s through Rachel, the wide-eyed Asian-American interloper, that we view these mega-rich Asians’ excesses.
“Rachel’s squeaky-clean naiveté is a clever foil to the intricate workings of the high-glamour Asian set around her,” says Tash Aw, author of the forthcoming novel Five Star Billionaire, on NPR. “Chinese on the outside but all-American on the inside, she allows us to see the myriad nuances of intra-Asian culture that the novel goes to great lengths to show: the distinction between the old-Chinese traditions of Nanyang and contemporary Mainland habits; the snobbery attached to Asians who speak English with British rather than American accents; the history of the Peranakans; the fact that Singaporeans are considered by other Asians to be the most uptight of all overseas Chinese—the list is rich and colorful.”
So the question is, does Kwan’s portrayal of Singapore’s jet set ring true? “He gets the idiosyncratic details right: the market-savvy wives who day-trade and invest in property; the parsimonious practicality… ; the encyclopedic fashion knowledge; the Bible-study get-togethers; the way the whole milieu is interrelated by blood or marriage,” writes Janet Y.K. Lee in ELLE. “And he does a particularly good job of illustrating the divide, predictable enough, between mainland wealth and establishment money—an uneasy tension that is very real. In old-money parlance, mainland, when used as an adjective, has come to mean ‘crass,’ ‘in bad taste.'”
And the author is himself a crazy rich Asian, so there’s that.
But as I read, all I could wonder was what might you, my many Singaporean readers, think about Crazy Rich Asians? Well, you might find Kwan’s expository footnotes a little too earnest. To wit: “Alamak and lah are the two most commonly used slang words in Singapore.” Or: “The Straits Chinese, also known as the Peranakans, are the descendants of late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Chinese immigrants to the Malaya region during the colonial Era.” You would surely find his Singlish dialogue to be clunky at best. And you might bristle at the fact that, though much of the action takes place in multicultural Singapore, many of the book’s non-Chinese characters are “hired help.”
But do those things really matter? Crazy Rich Asians is a novel with the thinnest of plots that is as predictable as the many “society” beach reads that have come before it. The book’s only novelty is that it features rich, vulgar, brand-name-dropping conspicuous Asian consumers.
(Many thanks to Doubleday [Random House] for sending this book my way.)