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It’s unevenly written; shallow and silly, yet Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (Allen & Unwin) is creating a lot of buzz right now. Vogue editor Anna Wintour called this debut novel “mordantly funny”, Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson snapped up the movie rights, it’s soaring up best-seller lists worldwide. And why? Because this is the blingiest, most fabulous, over-the-top read of the year – an addictive satire that is to rampant consumerism what 50 Shades Of Grey was to you know what.
Crazy Rich Asians is the story of three uber-wealthy, inter-married Singaporean Chinese families; people so rich that, when his wife is turned away from a stuffy London hotel by the racist manager, Harry Leong makes a call and buys the place. So rich that they have climate-controlled wardrobes, private jets with yoga studios and the power to make their mansions “disappear” from Google Earth. So rich that they don’t have money, they have fortunes.
Rachel Chu is about to enter their orbit but she doesn’t know it yet. When her devastatingly handsome boyfriend Nicholas Young asks her home to Singapore for the summer, he forgets to mention that home is a palace. He certainly doesn’t let on that he’s the heir apparent to a dynasty.
Nicholas is mad about American Chinese academic Rachel. But when word gets back to his family that he has a new girlfriend his scheming mother Eleanor swings into action, digging into her history to find out if she’s a gold-digger. Because if you’re a crazy rich Asian you have to go to the right schools, wear the right designers, live in the right real estate, have the right career and most importantly, marry the right person.
If not, then like Nicholas’ devastatingly beautiful cousin Astrid, you will end up having marital problems. Astrid has been faking poor – living in a relatively modest apartment – for the sake of her husband Michael’s pride since he’s worth billions less than her. She has to secret shop Parisian couture and precious jewellery to make up for her luxury deficit. So when she starts uncovering clues that her husband is having an affair, Astrid is heartbroken.
No need to worry too much about the plot because that’s not what this book is really about. Who cares whether they all live happily ever after? No, its big appeal is voyeurism. This is a window on the world of the Asian upper crust, an expose of their snobberies and excesses, their feuds, gossip and jealousies. It drips with designer labels, is lavished with extravagant parties, is gilded with sumptuous homes.
While it’s witty and lots of fun, in the end I did weary of the endless wealth porn. It all starts to feel a little bit one-joke at times which is a pity as Kwan could have got his point across with fewer designer names and less high spending.
In interviews he has claimed the book was inspired by his childhood growing up in Singapore. He hints at an insider view of the decadent world he portrays. And while it is hardly a subtle piece of writing it does show the clash between old and new money, different cultures and generations in a way that seems credible.