Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

crazyrichasians

It’s the wedding of the year and the who’s who of Singapore and the region have been invited, including Nicholas Young and his girlfriend Rachel Chu.

Rachel Chu? Of the Taipei Plastics Chus?

Nope. Just Rachel Chu. NYU economics professor.

Being brought up in California by her hardworking realtor mother means that she is just one of the hoi polloi, not the sort of girl that Nicholas Young of the “perfectly tousled black hair, chiseled Cantonese pop-idol features, and impossibly thick eyelashes” and, more importantly, heir apparent to both the Young and Shang fortunes, should be with, at least that’s what everyone in Singapore thinks. Everyone that is, who knows who Nicholas Young is. Because the Young family is so upper crust that one has to be upper crust to even know who they are: “a secretive, rarefied circle of families virtually unknown to outsiders who possessed immeasurably vast fortunes”. Even Rachel’s wealthy Singaporean friend Peik Lin who lives in a $30 million dollar house with a monstrous four-tiered marble fountain in the driveway hasn’t the slightest clue who they are.

So essentially this is a book about a young Asian-American being invited to meet her boyfriend’s ridiculously rich Chinese Singaporean family in Singapore. He assures her that “everyone will adore you” but of course they don’t. His suspicious mother even makes a trip to Shenzhen, China, to track down Rachel’s family background. Needless to say, it does not bode well for our innocent Rachel.

Despite this embarrassment of riches, Eddie felt extremely deprived compared to most of his friends. He didn’t have a house on the Peak. He didn’t have his own plane. He didn’t have a full-time crew for his yacht, which was much too small to host more than ten guests for brunch comfortably. He didn’t have any Rothkos or Pollocks or the other dead American artists one was required to hang on the wall in order to be considered truly rich these days. And unlike Leo, Eddie’s parents were the old-fashioned type—insisting from the moment Eddie graduated that he learn to live off his earnings.

This is a world filled with beautiful people, designer clothes, private jets, vacation homes, exclusive resorts, servants, chauffeurs and millions and millions (and billions) of dollars. It is very much as its title points out, about the crazy rich of Asia (mostly Singapore and Hong Kong). Singapore has the most millionaires per capita (probably due to our crazy property prices), and apparently has more billionaires than Tokyo,

“There are the Chinese from Mainland China, who made their fortunes in the past decade like all the Russians, but then there are the Overseas Chinese. These are the ones who left China long before the Communists came in, in many cases hundreds of years ago, and spread throughout the rest of Asia, quietly amassing great fortunes over time. If you look at all the countries in Southeast Asia— especially Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia— you’ll see that virtually all the commerce is controlled by the Overseas Chinese. ”

It is a life most of us can only dream about and through this book, experience it for a while, if you are so inclined. Such as a $40 million wedding:

Thirty-foot-tall topiaries in gigantic pots and colossal spirals of pink roses encircled the field, where dozens of whimsical gazebos festooned in striped pastel taffeta had been built. In the center, an immense teapot spouted a waterfall of bubbly champagne into a cup the size of a small swimming pool, and a full string ensemble performed on what appeared to be a giant revolving Wedgwood plate. The scale of everything made the guests feel as if they had been transported to a tea party for giants.

This by the way was just the reception. The church ceremony and the dinner being two completely different affairs.

Kwan says in a Vanity Fair interview that he had to tone down many parts of the book: “They say truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, but there’s such a thing as believability when you’re writing a novel. I did a lot more simplifying and cutting out of the decadence and the excess than I did of adding it on, if you can believe that.”

And be warned, there’s a lot of brand-dropping – VBH, Pierre Hardy, Alexia Mabille, Lanvin, Marie-Chantal. It might make you reach for that copy of Vogue the next time you’re at the bookstore.

As a Singaporean born and bred (although having for the past 4.5 years lived in California), I enjoyed this rare opportunity to read something set in Singapore by someone who is familiar with it – well sort of, Kwan lived there until he was 12 and now lives in Manhattan – although it is a lifestyle I am a stranger to. Well, it was fun to read of mentions of various schools preferred by the rich (Nicholas attended Anglo-Chinese School, as did his creator Kwan: ““Nicholas Young … sounds like an ACS boy,” P.T. chimed in. “All those ACS boys have Christian names.”), various disguised names of places (Kingsford Hotel = Goodwood Park Hotel?), and of course descriptions of our cuisine.

All the descriptions of food made me miss Singapore, because we are a rather food-obsessed country. Sigh….

There was the famous char kuay teow, a fried omelet with oysters called orh luak, Malay rojak salad bursting with chunks of pineapple and cucumber, Hokkien-style noodles in a thick garlicky gravy, a fish cake smoked in coconut leaves called otah otah, and a hundred sticks of chicken and beef satay.

Kwan does not hold back in this tale of excess. Among the many gems (literal and otherwise) include a 118-carat diamond brooch the size of a golf ball; a woman flies her saris to New Delhi to get them cleaned; a mirror in a closet that takes photos and remembers everything one wears; a state-of-the-art Ayurvedic yoga studio with inlaid pebble walls and heated pine floors in a private jet; a yacht with a karaoke lounge, a chapel, a casino, a sushi bar complete with a full-time sushi chef from Hokkaido, two swimming pools, and an outdoor bowling alley on the uppermost deck that also converted into a runway for fashion shows. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Kwan sums up his book: “It’s voyeuristic, it’s dynasty, it’s Downton Abbey, and no one’s told it from this Asian perspective.” No wonder the film rights have been snapped up. It would make for a fun movie to watch, and while this book has its issues (too many footnotes; and for an economics prof Rachel is rather naive and unworldly and seems more like someone just out of school) it was an enjoyable beach-y, summery read.

I have to thank JoV of Bibliojunkie for first bringing this book to my attention!

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8 comments

  1. JoV

    You read it! I like a book set in Singapore but not a great fan of excesses. I’ll probably roll my eyes once every page. It is not stocked in my local library yet. I’ll wait. :)

    Thanks for the mention!

  2. Claire (The Captive Reader)

    I’m currently the 48th person in line for this at the library so I don’t think it’s going to be my beach reading (at least not this summer) but sounds like it will be fun when I do finally get to it.

  3. imp

    I was in half minds about reading it. Now, I’m sure I don’t want to read it. Thanks for the detailed review and quotes! It more or less summarized what I think about it. Heh. I’m actually enjoying readers’ reviews of this book, probably more than reading the book itself. :P