Country Focus: Singapore
Crazy Rich Asians
By Kevin Kwan
Published by Doubleday, 2013.
Time period: Contemporary
As far as economics professor Rachel Chu knows, her boyfriend Nicholas Young’s only claim to fame is as NYU’s hottest history professor. Their two-year relationship has grown steadily more serious, so Nick invites her to spend the summer at his family’s home in Singapore. He wants Rachel to meet his parents and accompany him to his best friend’s wedding. Excited and a little bit nervous about the implications of the trip, Rachel agrees to go.
Rachel’s first hint that Nick hasn’t told her everything about himself comes at the airport when he steers her to the first class private cabin aboard a chartered luxury plane. She’d heard that Singapore claims the world’s highest concentration of millionaires, but never guessed that Nick came from money. She’s completely taken by surprise when she learns that Nick is the incredibly wealthy scion of three storied Chinese dynasties. Not only is the guy a poster boy for stealth wealth, but the wedding they’re attending – the one where Nick will play best man – is the most anticipated event of the year and will be graced by some of the wealthiest and most important people on the planet.
That’s not the only wedding Nick has on his mind. He plans on popping the question to Rachel sometime during the summer. He naively assumes that his mother and grandmother will as charmed by Rachel as he is, but they’re not about to let their pedigreed progeny propose to a nobody. In their minds, Rachel’s vague mainland Chinese ancestry and middle class existence earn her a big black “x” in the box marked Not The One. Will Rachel and Nick’s relationship survive their disapproval?
Kevin Kwan’s Singaporean soap opera soars. I couldn’t stop turning its glam-infused pages. Crazy Rich Asians‘ panoply of couture designers, elite brands, extreme bling, outrageous parties and palatial estates could have easily become tedious. Instead, they made this story pop. The glitz and expert pacing more than make up for Rachel and Nick’s one-dimensional characters and the unlikeliness of their relationship. Crazy Rich Asians’ appeal comes from style, not substance.
Kwan does include sustenance. According to one of his footnotes, Singaporeans consider food to be their national pastime and argue about it incessantly. I was jonesing for satay and the numerous other dishes Kwan’s characters dig into. The mouthwatering eats and the dialog peppered with phrases from Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin, Indian and Malay languages are two fascinating aspects of Singaporean culture that Kwan shares with the reader.
Kwan writes from first-hand experience; he grew up as one Singapore’s elite. In interview with Vanity Fair, he said that the ostentatious lifestyles his characters lead pale in comparison with their real-life counterparts; he had to tone them down in order to make them more believable. Love them or despise them, the mega-rich fascinate. Crazy Rich Asians‘ fashionistas and posh locales make for a fabulous, fun read.
As the car rounded one last curve, Rachel suddenly let out a gasp, grabbing Peik Lin’s arm. In the distance, a great house had come into view, ablaze with lights. As they got closer, the enormity of the place truly became evident. It wasn’t a house. It was more like a palace. The front driveway was lined with cars, almost all of which were large and European — Mercedes, Jaguars, Citroëns, Rolls-Royces, many with diplomatic medallions and flags. A cluster of chauffeurs loitered in a circle behind the cars, smoking. Waiting by the massive front doors in a white linen shirt and tan slacks, hair perfectly tousled and hands pensively shoved into his pockets, stood Nick.
“I feel like I’m dreaming. This can’t be real,” Peik Lin said.
“Oh Peik Lin, who are these people?” Rachel asked nervously.
For the first time in her life, Peik Lin was at a loss for words. She stared at Rachel with a sudden intensity, and then she said, almost in a whisper, “I have no idea who these people are. But I can tell you one thing — these people are richer than God.”