By Hilary Fong
The blurb of Crazy Rich Asians gives a sense of what it is about:
“Crazy Rich Asians is the outrageously funny debut novel about three super-rich, pedigreed Chinese families and the gossip, backbiting, and scheming that occurs when the heir to one of the most massive fortunes in Asia brings home his ABC (American-born Chinese) girlfriend to the wedding of the season. When Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, she envisions a humble family home, long drives to explore the island, and quality time with the man she might one day marry. What she doesn’t know is that Nick’s family home happens to look like a palace, that she’ll ride in more private planes than cars, and that with one of Asia’s most eligible bachelors on her arm, Rachel might as well have a target on her back. Initiated into a world of dynastic splendor beyond imagination, Rachel meets Astrid, the It Girl of Singapore society; Eddie, whose family practically lives in the pages of the Hong Kong socialite magazines; and Eleanor, Nick’s formidable mother, a woman who has very strong feelings about who her son should–and should not–marry. Uproarious, addictive, and filled with jaw-dropping opulence, Crazy Rich Asians is an insider’s look at the Asian JetSet; a perfect depiction of the clash between old money and new money; between Overseas Chinese and Mainland Chinese; and a fabulous novel about what it means to be young, in love, and gloriously, crazily rich.
Kevin Kwan, (the author of Crazy Rich Asians), was born and raised in Singapore. He is currently living in Manhattan. Crazy Rich Asians is his first novel. ”
My friend recommended this book when she learnt that I was taking a Singapore Literature module this semester. When I was researching on this book, I was surprised to find that it is a rather popular book which has gained many online reviews. Most of the copies at the public libraries were also on loan. Indeed, the first chapter of the book has a very Singaporean Style that can be found in most of the texts in our module. This novel showcases the multilingualism of Singapore and uses Singlish, with translation in the footnotes, explaining what “lah”, “leh”, “hor” and various dialects, like “ang mor”, mean. Most online reviews praise the humour and fresh perspective the book has to offer. However, personally, I felt that the form of this book is very similar to Lydia Kwa’s “The Place Called Absence”, and is a little hard to get through due to the various things it tries to play up.
A review on The Guardian comments on how Crazy Rich Asians presents a whole new wave of stereotypes in Asian texts today. [Read more here] The author of the review compares this book to past Asian texts which tend to exoticize the Chinese culture such as Kungfu and Confucius values while Kwan presents Asians with highly westernized lifestyles, names and education in his book, giving a fresh perspective to Asian texts and culture. I would agree with the author as Kwan gives a different side of Asians and plays on current stereotypes, such as Asians queuing at the stores of luxury brands when they visit places like Paris and Milan, and businessmen engaging in golf and buying over hotels. Kwan’s novel is not only set within the landscapes of Singapore, but also in other Asian countries such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. His choice of these cities seem very deliberate as these cities have very similar characteristics as Singapore. They have a small geographical area and a prosperous economy, with Chinese as the dominant ethnic group. More importantly, the dramatic plot of the novel parallels the popular Hong Kong and Taiwanese family drama TV series. Despite portraying all these cities as cosmopolitan and globalized, the sense of exoticization of Asia remains as Kwan throws in numerous names of streets and prominent sights of these Asian cities. In one of the chapters, the narrator describes, “the setting sun refracted its rays through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the recently completed penthouse apartment atop Cairnhill Road, bathing the atrium-like living room in a deep orange glow. Eleanor gazed at the early evening sky, taking in the colonnade of buildings clustering around Scotts Road and the expansive views all the way past the Singapore River to the Keppel Shipyard, the world’s busiest commercial port” (p 44). If the reader is familiar with Singapore’s landscape, he or she would know that a person has to be of a certain social class and affluence to be living in a penthouse apartment in that district. Hence, if the reader is unfamiliar with Singapore, the above-mentioned quote would just be a romantic picture of the city and he or she would miss out on the underlying implication of excess and luxury that Kwan is portraying.
Another example of Kwan playing up the idea of excess and decadence is his use of naming. In fact, naming is a problem for me as I was reading this text. In the first chapter of the book, Kwan dedicates a page for the naming of his characters (which reminds me of the biblical reference to the name roll found in the book of John):
“Celine Lim (Parsons School of Design fashion major) e-mailed her sister Charlotte Lim (recently engaged to venture capitalist Henry Chiu) in California, Charlotte called her best friend Daphne Ma (Sir Benedict Ma’s youngest daughter) in Singapore and breathlessly filled her in. Daphne texted eight friends, including Carmen Kwek (granddaughter of Robert “Sugar King” Kwek) in Shanghai, whose cousin Amelia Kwek had gone to Oxford with Nicholas Young. Amelia simply had to IM her friend Justina Wei (the Instant Noodle heiress) in Hong Kong, and Justina, whose Office at Hutchison Whampoa was right across the hall from Roderick Liang’s (of the Liang Finance Group Liangs), simply had to interrupt his conference call to share this juicy tidbit…” (and the list goes on) (p 15)
Kwan presents this as a way of showing how the identities of the rich are attached to their qualifications and family assets that are contained in the parentheses. On the surface, what is contained in the parentheses seems very glamorous and desirable. Yet, this overwhelming spam of names and identities becomes a very superficial and meaningless list on the page. The readers cannot identify and cannot identify with any of the characters, which could be Kwan’s way of metaphorizing the excess and decadence of the rich and the divide between the rich and the poor. The identification of the characters becomes problematic for me (possibly also because I am not a member of the high society) because of the way the narrative is structured. Similar to Lydia Kwa’s novel, the chapters speak about the different experiences of different people. In Kwan’s text, he uses a third person narration and tags every chapter with a name such as “Chapter 1- Nicholas Young” and “Chapter 2- Eleanor Young”. In doing so, he gives a focus to the chapter which is based on the story of a particular character, but on the other hand, as a reader who has a problem with identifying the characters, I got confused with who this character is and how he or she is related to the other characters. Similar to the sense of confusion I get while reading “The Place Called Absence”, I thought it would be better if such narrative structures are used in a film instead. In a film, the audience would be able see who is speaking and draw links to the overlaps in the characters and in the narratives (if Lydia Kwa or Kevin Kwan have intended for these overlaps).
Nonetheless, Crazy Rich Asians is a book that the readers can relate to very easily as it plays on very modern stereotypes and contemporary issues. Amongst the glamour and westernization of rich Asian families, Kwan has shown that traditional Asian culture is something that cannot be removed from Asian families, such as the belief that the family background of a girl has to match the family background of the boy in order for them to be suited for marriage. The dramatic plot and the simple language make this book a very readable and accessible one. This would be a good book for entertainment and a twist to the usual Singaporean/Asian texts, but its literary value has to take a back seat in my opinion.