There is a telling scene in Kevin Kwan’s uproarious romp Crazy Rich Asians, where Astrid, the elusive granddaughter of Singapore’s conglomerate family the Leongs, went shopping in a haute-couture boutique in Paris. It is a scene ripped from Pretty Woman where the snobbish saleswoman had no interest in helping her. “Listen, cherie, ” she scolded Astrid. “Everything here is tres, tres cher. And it takes five months for delivery.”
Astrid’s then-boyfriend, Charles, phoned his banker in Singapore, who somehow managed to call the designer himself, and told him that it was THE Astrid LEONG, Harry Leong’s daughter, who was being refused of service. The saleswoman immediately offered them champagne and started treating them like movie stars. Charles then told Astrid to buy 10 dresses even though she didn’t need them. “The only way to get these ang mor gau sai (white people) to respect you is to smack them in the face with your dua lan chiao (big cock) money until they get on their knees.”
It is a mini-climax, “triumphant” moment both for Kevin Kwan and the readers. There is a clear agenda that Mr. Kwan is trying to push with this book. He wants to showcase Asian supremacy in a white-washed world. Every characters in this book are crazy damn rich, and every page of the book drops designer and fine artist names so frequently that it reads more like a Sex and the City yellow pages. These Singaporeans in their Carolina Hererra dresses and Goyard purses actually hired Cai Guo-Qiang to do fireworks display on a wedding! Every conflict in the book is solved by the existence of money. Lots of it.
But constantly smacking us with his dua lan chiao money for 527 pages becomes tiring after a while. I’m not even sure if Kwan’s equality agenda actually manages to give a positive impression on Asians in general. It is great that we have a major Asian writer in the publishing world. However, Crazy Rich Asians only reaffirms the stereotypes of Asians that we are already familiar with. Asians are damn rich yet brash and classless, work live and die for money, and still live in a feudal world. The only stereotype that Kwan is desperately trying to kill is the fact that Asians are still into those tacky, monogram-filled designers like Louis Vuitton. Singaporeans only want obscure designers now. No more Chanel. Say hello to Dries Van Noten and Azzedine Alaia!
Yet, I get the impression that these people somehow don’t deserve those immaculately-stitched Jil Sander pants simply because they don’t understand its essence.
It also doesn’t help that Kwan’s main character, Rachel Chu, an American-born Chinese who teaches Economics in NYU, is as boring and devoid of personality as ever. Her fish-out-of-the-water story of being the girlfriend of conglomerate Nicholas Young without knowing who he really is, is as predictable as it gets. It is no wonder that Nicholas’ mother, the fun and feisty Eleanor Young, tried so hard to break up their relationship.
Nevertheless, Kwan has a great way with words. His sentences are so much fun to read that you can easily forget about content and characters. When Rachel went to Singapore’s most prestigious boutique to find a dress for a wedding she’s attending, the stylist immediately told her, “NEVER, EVER wear a green chiffon unless you want to look like bok choy that got gang-raped.”
Some moments of the book read like a true insider anecdotes and gossips on the Singaporean high society. It’s a roman-a-clef in the same spirit of Capote’s “La Côte Basque 1965.” However, Kwan is too ingrained in the society itself that I only wish he would step outside for a moment and look at the whole picture from the outside in. Instead of from the inside out.
Crazy Rich Asians (Anchor Books, 527 pg) is available in aksara bookstore.