Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (Anchor Books, 2013)
Crazy Rich _________________. Fill in the blank with almost any ethnicity on the face of the earth, and the story will probably be similar from culture to culture. At the economic apex of every society one can expect to have the wealthiest, most self-indulgent, controlling people. When taken from that point of view, even though Kevin Kwan’s novel focuses on the Chinese, the themes are universal; family strife, consuming competition to get ahead, and love conquers all being a few of the messages that Kwan presents in the hilarious Crazy Rich Asians.
Crazy Rich Asians, is a fun read, and provokes laughter as Kwan presents characters who are obsessed with displaying their wealth, while presenting a facade of humility in public. Family hierarchy is everything; and the Chinese depicted in the novel are extremely concerned with one’s lineage. Pecking order is of the utmost importance, as is seen continually through the book, particularly in seating arrangements at major social functions.
The plot is simple. Nicholas Young, the dashing scion of an established and rich Chinese family asks his girlfriend, Rachel Chu, to join him for a summer in Asia, a sojourn that includes the wedding of his best friend, Colin Khoo, in Singapore. Nicholas, an Oxford scholar, who majored in history and law, seems to be a self-made man to the lovely Rachel, an economics professor at NYU. Rachel has come from humble origins. She was raised by a single mother in the United States, and does not remember her father at all. Nick has not been in the least forthcoming to Rachel about his heritage or the scope of his family’s extreme wealth. And that is where the fun begins.
Books about weddings are generally playful and allow for stereotypical characters to step onto the stage; but Kwan has taken his stereotypes so over the top that they are ridiculous and very funny. The wedding of groom, Colin Khoo, Singapore’s most eligible bachelor, and his fashion model fiance, Araminta Lee, promises to be the social event of the century, estimated to be costing the families $40 million dollars. What could possibly cost that kind of money, even for the most extravagant of affairs? As average folk, most of us cannot even fathom the events that are about to take place, and I’m not just talking fancy firework displays and ice sculptures.
The novel is presented in the multiple-character point of view, allowing for the key players to take center stage as the story unfolds. Nick’s controlling mother, Eleanor, does not approve of her highly desirable son’s choice of girlfriend, and makes every attempt to sabotage their relationship. Nick’s fabulously wealthy grandmother, Shang Su Yi, lives in a mysterious, hidden estate on prime property in Singapore, a place that floors Rachel the first time that she sees it and begins to question just who Nick Young really is. Shang Su Yi adores her grandson, but is wary of his taste in women, adding to Rachel’s growing angst about the kind of life she would have to endure if married to Nick. Even the sleek, young women who are guests at the wedding play a sick prank of the unsuspecting Rachel, worthy of the behavior expected of vicious middle school girls.
One of my favorite characters in Crazy Rich Asians is Nick’s cousin, Eddie Cheng, who serves as Nick’s private banker. Although Eddie’s parents are very wealthy, they have chosen to live in a modest home, never flaunting their fortune. This is highly distasteful to Eddie, and in an effort to exhibit his wealth, he continually makes an ass of himself in the way that he attires himself and his family. This is best seen in an episode where the Chengs are dressing for the Khoo/Lee extravaganza, and Eddie’s six year old son spills something on Eddie’s expensive tux, ruining the fine material.
Eddie screams at the laundry maid, threatens to beat his child, and argues with Fiona, his wife. “Fucky fuck, he’s ruined everything! The monochromatic fashion statement I was planning for the whole family is ruined because of him,” Eddie shouts.
Fiona retorts, “And you’ve just ruined the whole trip for me! I’m so sick of all this. Why is it so damn important for us to look picture-perfect every time we walk out the door? Who exactly are you trying to impress? The Photographers? The readers of Hong Kong Tattle? You really care so much about them that you’d rather hit your own son over an accident that you caused in the first place by screaming at him for wearing the wrong cummerbund?” (p.392)
This incident epitomizes the lengths at which the “crazy rich Asians” will go to stand out of their crowd of supercilious, social climbing, society.
Aside from the delightful characters, Kwan’s prose is excellent. He has a flair for describing the over-the-top fashions that the Chinese women (whose first names like Astrid, Cassandra, Araminta, Victoria, and Sophie are incongruous with their culture). For months magazines, fashion bloggers, and gossip columnists had been speculating on Araminta’s gown, but all gasped as she appeared on her father’s arm, “in a classically inspired wedding dress designed by Valentino, whom she lured out of retirement to make precisely the sort of gown that generations of European princesses had gotten married in, the sort of gown that would make her look every inch the proper young wife from a traditional, old-money Asian family.” (p. 369) The gown “featured a fitted high-necked lace bodice with long sleeves, a full skirt of over-lapping lace and silk panels that unfurled like the pearls of a peony as she moved, and a fifteen-foot train.” (p.369) Kwan’s descriptive language puts as at the crazy rich wedding as if we were actually sipping from flouts of champagne at the affair.
Crazy Rich Asians is perfect fodder for a film version, and, in fact, the movie currently is enjoying major success at the box office. Asian audiences are delighting in the fact that the movie has given opportunities to Asian actors to perform in a movie that is about them. We should all celebrate the fact that opportunities are finally reflecting the diversity of people in world-wide cultures. (I can’t help but remember the film version of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, made in 1937, an Oscar winning film which starred Paul Muni as the Chinese farmer, Wang Lung, and Luise Rainer as his wife O-Lan. Muni, a five time Oscar nominee started out in Yiddish theatre, and Luise Rainer was a German-American star, who was the first actress to win more than one Academy Award. While box office attractions, a Jew and a German playing Chinese peasants is hardly representative of Asian culture).
Happily, there are two sequels to Crazy Rich Asians, so when you finish the first book, you can move right along to Crazy Rich Girlfriends and Rich People Problems. Have fun; attend the Khoo wedding, and laugh at the eccentricities of those crazy rich Asians!