One of the key families in the story, in fact, is so rich and so privacy obsessed that their mega-estate next to the Botanical Gardens and owned for generations isn’t shown on Google Maps or GPS; some of their members pay off the press in order never to be featured, so their existence is a complete mystery to many.
Our entree into their world is by way of Rachel Chu, a mainland Chinese-born economics professor. Born to a single mother who emigrates to the United States, dragging her daughter around the country as she works in various Chinese restaurants, Rachel is sensible, smart and non-calculating. Rachel meets Nicholas Young, a member of the wealthy mysterious Singaporean family, through a colleague at the university where she eventually works. They fall in love without Nick divulging his wealthy background, but when he invites her to spend an American summer in the city state to attend a wedding, Rachel discovers an entirely new way of living, and an entirely new sub-species of people, it seems.
These high-society people are, for the most part, simply horrible. When they aren’t plotting marriages for money they are hurling insults about their clothes and calculating their property portfolios and inheritances, or giving away or organising jewellery. In the midst of the scheming, Kwan incorporates plenty of tidbits about Singaporean-Chinese culture: the language, the food, and the history of Singapore and its Chinese community is meted out in bite-size snippets, mostly in footnotes into which he somewhat strangely inserts himself occasionally. The commentary can be scathing, too:
“Old-money Chinese absolutely loathe wasting money on long-distance telephone calls, almost as much as they hate wasting money on fluffy towels, bottled water, hotel rooms, expensive Western food, taking taxis, tipping waiters, and flying anything other than economy class.”
“Like most of the women in her crowd, Eleanor could meet another Asian anywhere in the world—say, over dim sum at Royal China in London, or shopping in the lingerie department of David Jones in Sydney—and within 30 seconds of learning their name and where they lived, she would implement her social algorithm and calculate precisely where they stood in her constellation based on who their family was, who else they were related to, what their approximate net worth might be, how the fortune was derived and what family scandals might have occurred within the past 50 years.”
A lengthy but speedy read, Crazy Rich Asians casts a light on Singapore’s vapid, ultra-wealthy. It’s enormously depressing to think about the vast disconnect between their wealth and what ordinary Southeast Asian life is like for millions of others; and what sort of environmental destruction in the region has been wreaked to create fortunes they spend (privately) jetting around to bachelor weekends or flitting to Paris to snap up the latest couture collections that will then languish unworn, for the most part, in state-of-the-art wardrobes.
If we had to choose one biting satire about Singapore, we’d edge more towards Sarong Party Girls for its clever and biting commentary on wealth and sexism in Singapore (and its beautiful Singlish), but for a voyeuristic read into the lives of the filthy rich in Southeast Asia, Crazy Rich Asians is fun, though at heart rather frothy itself.
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