When I first heard about Kevin Kwan’s debut novel, I was excited to give it a read. Growing up, the vast majority of fiction with Asian characters focused on an older generation of Asian immigrants – ones who lived in Chinatown – or historical fiction. Few were about modern-day lifestyles. While Crazy Rich Asians certainly does not deal with a typical middle class family in Asia or North America, it does take a different, fresh approach – something rarely seen in English language Asian American literature.
The story centres around Rachel Chu, a middle class Chinese American woman and her boyfriend, Nick Young, who is not just “wealthy,” but a descendant of an “old money” family. When Rachel accompanies Nick to his home in Singapore, she in for a shock of her lifetime. The extravagant lifestyles of the residents, from “it” girls to gossip rags (in Singapore and Hong Kong, at least, these publications don’t just focus on movie stars and musicians, but “socialites” as well), from designer fashion shopping sprees (even private shopping!) to private jets to random trips to Macau (Asia’s Las Vegas) and Hong Kong, it is not something that Rachel has ever seen in her life – a definite culture clash. Until their arrival in Singapore, Nick had largely kept his family’s wealth quiet. And it’s no wonder – his mother, Eleanor, doesn’t think her son is with the “right” sort of girl (i.e. not from the “right” family, did not go to the “right” school, etc…).
Though a bit exaggerated, Crazy Rich Asians also gives some insight not just into wealthy Singaporean culture, but of the region in general (including Hong Kong). For example, there is an importance of family and maintaining “face,” and the characters throw in some Cantonese, Malay, Hokkien and Mandarin colloquialisms (don’t worry, Mr. Kwan included footnotes). At the same time, there’s a great deal of over-consumption and, of course, colonial influences of the region – it actually makes me wonder if no matter how wealthy the Chinese in Singapore are, in the back of their mind, there’s still a bit of an inferiority complex which leads to the above-mentioned over-consumption and snobbery. One has BE over-the-top to make others aware of them.
In all, the novel was a good, mindless read and definitely an eyeopener or perhaps, surprising, for those who are not familiar with the culture. On the other hand, those who do know the culture will nod in familiarity at various anecdotes that the author alludes to throughout the story.
Crazy Rich Asians is now available in bookstores, including Chapters/Indigo/Coles and Amazon. The book retails at around $20 Canadian online.