There is a point in wealth after which even the sky seems limited. For those who have made it to this gilded stratosphere—or were born into it—it’s not out of line to spend $300,000 on a pet fish and then hire a plastic surgeon to give it an eye lift and fix its crooked jawline.
This is one of many details in Kevin Kwan’s new novel Rich People Problems, the last in the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy that has garnered intense international buzz since the first book’s debut in 2013. It’s placed Kwan on the New York Times best-seller list and spun off to an upcoming Crazy Rich Asians movie starring Constance Wu, a game-changer in its own right as the first Hollywood romantic comedy to feature an all-Asian cast. (The last drama with an all-Asian cast was 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, a tale of immigrant Chinese women.)
What makes these campy novels so deliciously fascinating is that they sometimes read more like an insider crash course on uber-rich Asian society than satirical comedy. (Those pricey pet fish, called arowanas, are a real thing.) Embellished with snarky but informative footnotes, the novel is colored with Asian cultural context as the plot moves briskly through the decadent lifestyles of an extended Singapore-based Chinese family, the Shangs. Inspired by Kwan’s own childhood among Singapore’s wealthy, the underlying premise of extreme privilege led by characters who are unapologetically Asian—generously using Cantonese and Hokkien slang—remains a constant in the final novel but with a few new developments that underscore just how visible this loaded Asian narrative has become as the world adjusts to an increasingly powerful China.
It starts with the very title of the novel—Rich People Problems—which sheds the ethnic associations of its predecessors, Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend. For the first time, white people enter the Shang family tree, with mixed-race bloodlines introduced into the previously Asian-only brood through marriages with Brits. As the characters diversify, the series has also become globalized and achieved success across racial lines. Kwan has said that 80 percent of the book’s U.S. readers are Caucasian, a considerable statistic in a country where Asians are underrepresented in the media.
It draws this sizable non-Asian audience without diluting any of its cultural specificity. Many of the previous stories built around Asian characters have been framed in relationship to whiteness or built around the second-class tropes through which America has viewed us—the model minority, the immigrant worker, the masseuses who might also be sex workers. Even a more recent example like ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat is based on restaurateur Eddie Huang’s immigrant Taiwanese family and their experience navigating American life, a compelling portrayal in which white American culture is nonetheless an omnipresent backdrop as a contrast to Huang's upbringing. If Huang’s perspective is from this “fresh off the boat” demographic, the Asians of Kwan’s series never set on the boat in the first place. Probably for the very first time, these empowered, authentic characters live within their purely Asian world, and none of the usual stereotypes are part of the mainstream discussion.
One scene in particular made me simultaneously wince and laugh at its familiarity. It’s about a universal desire for heirs and a unique cultural lack of boundaries with private bodily functions. A Singaporean woman desperate for grandchildren invites her Chinese American daughter-in-law to lunch as a ploy to figure out when she’s ovulating, with a gynecologist station secretly set up in the next room to examine her ovaries for any abnormalities that would explain why the couple hasn’t had children yet. Of course, when the daughter-in-law finds out what’s happening, she’s infuriated at the interference into a matter that in modern American society would set off sensitivity alarms. The response from her mother-in-law and the mother-in-law’s friend, however, is telling of the traditional Asian mindset:
Eleanor suddenly stood up and began shouting, “What is wrong? Look at my hands, Rachel. They are empty! [...] Why am I not getting to cradle a baby? It’s been more than two years now, five if you count how long you’ve been sleeping with my son! So where’s my grandchild?” […]
Daisy spoke up in defense of her friend. “Don’t be so selfish, Rachel! You and Nicky have had your fun! It’s time to do your duty and give Eleanor a grandchild now! How many more years do she and Philip have to enjoy their grandchildren? The next time I see you in Singapore, I want you to be holding a big bouncy baby!”
While this particular situation is clearly hyperbolized—not everyone can afford to set up a private gyno-station in her house, nor are younger generations of parents quite so pushy—the conviction behind the mother-in-law’s intention is accurate: Children are pretty much investments for their parents’ future, expected to live their adult lives to better accommodate their parents in their old age. Asian parents tend to be less shy about inquiring into the personal details of their children’s bodies—periods, sweating, and sperm count—than the average American household.
All this to say that the popularity of Crazy Rich Asians among Asian and non-Asian readers alike shows that audiences can still respond to characters and details they may not necessarily understand. Cultural specificity, like the Confucian dynamics of a mother–daughter-in-law relationship, is not a barrier to entry; despite varying traditions across the world our underlying human desires remain the same. For an American audience to whom budgets are an unavoidable reality, the stories of these crazy rich Asians are more aspirational than relatable, but the gap is a product of their enormous wealth and not any racial differences. Buying an entire media company in order to squash one embarrassing news article, as one person does in the book, is arguably more unfathomable than the a preference for bird’s nest soup.
The series’ growing visibility and the ensuing sense of responsibility becomes even more evident in the historical flashbacks thrown into the latest book. Whereas before the characters’ greatest challenges were dealing with scheming in-laws and billionaire divas, we see signs of true struggle in the family matriarch’s memories of her youth during World War II. The personal and national devastation of the war are recounted through the matriarch’s loss of her brother and the splitting up of her family when Singapore, then known as the Gibraltar of the East, was overridden by foreign invaders. It’s a layer of social consciousness not previously present in the light-toned series, and it serves as a reminder that even the crazy rich Asians of today have paid a price to get where they are now.
These days, Asians are the most conspicuous consumers in the world, as anyone who’s seen the neon color–dressed, loud-talking tour groups power-shopping their way through every outlet mall and designer boutique in America can confirm. According to Kwan, they consume 70 percent of the world’s luxury goods. This is the modern Asian stereotype, one based on materialism and social status conferred through money, and the one that’s helped the trilogy reach critical and financial success.
Its influence has expanded beyond the publishing world, as even the movie industry has latched onto this new empowered narrative with the upcoming film. The economic timing is right, since Asian Americans are currently the fastest-growing nonwhite consumer group. It’s an unprecedented move, using an all-Asian cast for a romantic comedy, in a landscape in which Emma Stone can be cast as a half-Hawaiian and Tilda Swinton as a character who started out as an old Asian man. But it’s also a sensible one, considering that Asian Americans spend more per capita on movie tickets than any other ethnic group, plus even non-Asians are into Asian storylines based on the readership of Crazy Rich Asians and popularity of films like the Rush Hour franchise.
Just as the box office for movies like Get Out has shown the benefits of films that appeal to black audiences, so Asian viewers can wield the power of the purse. Kevin Kwan’s series is the latest and one of the first to harness this power for the mainstream. Gentrification has shown us that typically as more money enters a cultural space, less of the original culture remains, like my city, Los Angeles, where ethnic families move further east as hipsters take over. With Rich People Problems, we see that while it’s wealth and class that are the ultimate dividers between people, this increasing financial success doesn’t always have to spell cultural erasure.