Kevin Kwan’s 2013 book, Crazy Rich Asians, tells a modern tale of the ultra-rich Chinese diaspora in Singapore. The novel has now been made into a movie coming out August 17th that stars Constance Wu of Fresh off the Boat fame. The book follows three families - the Youngs, T’siens, and Shangs. The central protagonists are Nick Young and his girlfriend, Rachel Chu. Nick is from an old money, ultra-rich Singaporean Chinese family. Rachel is an American-born Chinese (ABC) who grew up middle-class in Cupertino and has no clue about Nick’s family background. They’re both professors at NYU which is where they meet and begin dating. The plot of the book surrounds Rachel’s visit to Singapore, being initiated into Nick’s ultra-rich family (who have no idea she exists), and the hijinks that ensue.
One enjoyable and unique thing about the book is the sprinkling of Malay, Mandarin, and Cantonese phrases in dialogue throughout. It’s classic Chinglish. That’s a real way Chinese people in Westernized countries speak. Alamak! OK lah. Yow mo gow choh? This book is a fast and fun read. It’s also fascinating social commentary. Here are some lessons I gleaned from the book:
1) Racism is a function of homogeneity and elitism: This should come as no surprise and yet rich, white people are often scapegoated as having cornered the market on racism. There’s both a subtle and overt racism depicted throughout the book. The servants in the ultra-rich Young and Shang estates hail from Mainland China or the Philippines. Kwan comments, likely tongue in cheek, that the Mainlander maids were better at cleaning whereas the Filipino nannies were better with children. You could argue the more homogenous your social group is, the greater the likelihood and extent of your racism. And certainly the ultra-rich have a homogenous social group. If you’re a middle-class person, how do you have a conversation about schools with someone who owns a private jet?
Among Chinese, overt racism is a function of seeing one’s self as part of a distinct and superior tribe. This means among Chinese people it’s socially acceptable to look down on members of others tribes i.e. foreigners. And because Chinese people view each other as members of the same community, we tend to be more personally intrusive and opinionated with fellow tribespeople. I remember at my previous Chinese church an instance where a mom, in the parking lot, greeted a recently returned college student, by shouting in Mandarin: “Welcome back! Wow, you’ve lost weight!” This kind of public commentary on appearance is completely typical. That’s what evidenced in the book where it’s socially acceptable to ask a stranger or acquaintance point-blank: “Who designed your dress? How much did it cost?”
2) Christianity cuts both ways: Kwan has fun satirizing the superficiality and social insecurity of these ultra-rich Chinese Singaporeans. And he takes particular delight in skewering their Christian faith. The opening chapter in Singapore takes place at a women’s Bible study:
Here, sheltered from the equatorial heat, these longtime friends would sprawl languorously about the room, analyzing the Bible verses assigned in their study guides. The place of honor on Carol’s Qing dynasty Huanghuali bed was always reserved for Eleanor, for even though this was Carol’s house and she was the one married to the billionaire financier, Carol still deferred to her.
The reverie of "Bible study” (gossip and eating) is interrupted when one of the husbands enters the room with an insider stock tip. The scene concludes with Carol's prayer: “Please watch over Sister Eleanor, Sister Lorena. . . as they try to sell their Sina Land shares. . .” and Eleanor’s secret prayer about her son’s girlfriend’s ethnicity “A Taiwanese girl! Please God, let it not be true”
But there seem to be some other moments where Kwan has a more positive view of Christianity:
He wanted to see the joy return to Astrid’s face, that glow he had witnessed all these years ago at the bonfire on the beach. He wanted to pass it on.
One of the most surreal moments in the book comes when a tertiary character, Charlie helps one of the protagonists because of his Christian faith or more specifically a Christian song. Charlie's parents are Taoist but during adolescence his mother forced him to attend First Methodist Singapore in order to social climb. The earnestness associated with being a first-generation convert is precious. It’s how my wife and I hope to raise our kids - where we model faith but they meet Jesus on their own terms. I’ve observed church exposure during early childhood can inoculate with a mild form of Christianity that makes one immune to the real thing. Being a first-generation convert during adolescence often avoids the inoculation. Kwan actually quotes the lyrics to “Pass It On”, which was my generation’s youth retreat campfire anthem. I can’t tell if he’s excoriating or exalting Christianity here but I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say it’s some of both.
3) The social importance of how and when you made your money: As with many cultures, it’s not just about how much money you have, it’s also about how you made it and when. Timing and vocation matter. The book reads like good historical fiction and inserts helpful commentary like this -
Well, first of all, you must understand that there are two kinds of Chinese. 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.
I have a Chinese Malaysian friend and I’ve been to the Philippines for business trips and based on conversation and news in those countries, observed there’s bitterness and resentment among natives against Chinese immigrants who tend to be affluent, occupy top positions at companies, and exercise considerable influence, similar to how many countries have viewed the influx of Jews.
Just as Asians are not monolithic socially, Chinese aren’t either. There’s a pretty nuanced and complex social hierarchy among Chinese. The Mainland Chinese from large metros (Beijing, Shanghai) look down on their fellow countrymen from smaller cities or rural areas. The Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan look down on the Mainland Chinese. And based on the book, the ultra-rich Singaporean Chinese look down on everyone. In the book, being a Mainlander (from Mainland Chinese) is looked down upon. They look down on the Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong because they came into money more recently. The ultra-rich Singaporean Chinese look down on everyone. I’ve noticed in my bay area social circles, getting rich from entrepreneurship does not bear the same status as making one's riches from being in a highly skilled profession such as law, medicine, or engineering.
My parents hail from Taiwan and Hong Kong and are part of the large wave of immigration in the 1970s. In my previous Chinese church, my parents’ generation of believers were over-represented in leadership and because of that, it was very difficult for recent immigrants from Mainland China to break through. They were indirectly excluded because of subtle, unconscious discrimination against them. It wasn’t intentional but part of the appeal of the church was to be a cultural refuge for a certain generation of immigrants. You may think I’m indirectly attacking my parents’ spirituality but quite the opposite as they’re the ones who pointed it out to me and have worked to combat this in the church and in their own thoughts.
Lastly, I’ve always been resentful about how my parents lacked taste and refinement in how they furnished their home. I remember being embarrassed about having my white friends over because how my house looked and smelled. Our kitchen was purely functional with a trifold cardboard box functioning as the stove backsplash because stir-fry cooking has tremendous oil splatter. We had mismatched furniture everywhere and there wasn’t a theme to anything. My parents come from impoverished backgrounds. My dad grew up in a tiny Hong Kong apartment. Gardening and being handy was not a thing. I don’t think my mom’s childhood home was much bigger. Taste and refinement come most naturally during childhood and like many immigrants of their generation, my parents didn't have that experience. New money doesn’t automatically translate into higher social status and certainly not the way old money does. The book does a great job distinguishing these different gradations and expressions of wealth and gave me a greater understanding of how diverse the Chinese diaspora is.
4) Tiger Moms are a real thing: Before helicopter parenting, there were Chinese moms. What distinguishes helicopter parenting from the prototypical Tiger Mom is that eventually, helicopter parents fly away when a child grows up. A Tiger Mom never stops hovering and that’s evidenced quite strongly by the book. I read an interview by Kwan and he stated although his plot is fictional, all the story elements were things he’s observed or experienced. Having been in the Chinese church for almost three decades, I can also bear witness to the lengths Chinese moms will go to intervene in their grown children’s affairs. Moms never stop raising their children, even after they’ve left the nest, gotten married, and had children. It’s part of the idolatry of Chinese culture. If you aren’t well-acquainted with Asian culture, you’ll read what some of the moms do in the book and be flabbergasted, thinking that it’s totally absurd and completely fabricated. It’s not. In Eastern cultures, there really isn’t a well-defined boundary between parents and their children and one of the radical ideas in the Judeo-Christian ethic is that your relationship with your spouse takes precedence over your relationship with your parents or children. And when you have an ultra-rich mom spending obscene amounts of money to intervene in her grown child’s affairs, it becomes hilariously over-the-top.
I’m looking forward to seeing the movie.