Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

All the money in the world

Something has been happening slowly in the world of  American TV and film.

The opportunities for Asian actors are growing. Put it down to Fresh off the Boat maybe, for making it clear that people are interested in shows about Asian people… Then there was the explosive Ali Wong, whose baby Cobra gig on Netflix  expanded the dialogue for women on stage far more than other female comics have done.

The last time they made a big movie about Asian people in America was The Joy Luck Club. Now it’s Crazy Rich Asians, the novel by Kevin Kwan which will be shown in America this year.

The book was published in 2013, and is now perhaps the most well-known book about Asians to have been published in English. There have been similar books that have told the Asian story such as Memoirs of A Geisha, The Joy Luck Club.

Constance Wu and Henry Golding

But Kevin Kwan’s book, which has led to two more novels, is different. The book takes place  almost entirely in Asian countries (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Hong Kong) apart from a brief epilogue which happens to take place in the lobby of a famous London hotel.

As the title points out, these are  not ordinary rich Asians. They are not the up and coming women who left China so that their daughters could have a better life. these are the daughters who already have a great life and they aren’t in a hurry to look for any opportunities abroad. They are super rich, filthy rich. They are Forbes rich.

Crazy Rich Asians is not a great novel, although it had good write-ups in the NYT. It has won no literary prizes. Yet is has done more than any other books or films have been able to do. It tells the story of how these crazy rich Asians live. It gives us the lowdown on what they like to do, where they go on holiday. As far as I know its all accurate. When asked how he could write the novel, which is based on real people, Kwan has said that he has a very good memory for people and places.

He must have had some great times, if what is described in the book happened for real. FOr example, he decribes a character having a flat white dleivered from Australia because he is disgusted by the standard of coffee served on his private yacht.

The book’s plot is so thin, it’s barely there. It’s central character (who I think will have a larger role in the film) is Rachel Chu, an American economics professor who is engaged to the son of one of the richest families in China. It’s like the novels of Evelyn Waugh or Jane Austen in its fasciantion with the class strucure and love of money.  The first book gives us a family tree so that we can keep track of the various Youngs and Tsai-Chens, and then the next two novels follow it up with additional family members.

The chapters have titles such as Shenzen, Singapore, Chiang Mai. It reads as part travel diary and sometimes the book simply wants to recommend as many sensual pleasures as can be fitted into one paragraph. Try this:

“As Alexandra approached the wrought-iron table where sweetly aromatic kueh lapis* and pineapple tarts were arrayed on Longquan celadon dishes, Su Yi was taking out a diamond and cabochon sapphire choker. “This one my father brought back from Shanghai in 1918,” Su Yi said to Fiona in Cantonese. “My mother told me it belonged to a grand duchess who had escaped Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway with all her jewels sewn into the lining of her coat. Here, try it on.”

Excerpt from chapter 6


Is it chick-lit? They have marketed it as so, but I suspect many readers of the book are male. The older women that make up the book’s dramatis personae are given full flight to exercise their excesses: detailing every purchase, every skin treatment. As a guide to these practises, there is much product placement. For example:

“Oooh! BBQ King! I love that place! I think they have the best siew ngarp in the world!” Lauren declared.”

For me, the best part of the book are perhaps the footnotes at the end of each chapter. They explain the very salty slang that these characters use, the food they eat, the people they frequently namedrop. Then there are the incredible descriptions of food that they eat. These footnotes have been dry and academic but Kwan said that he decided to change them so that they would be funnier).

Here is a guide to the book’s list of characters and who will play them in the film:

Nick Young (Henry Golding)

The son of a rich family, they tried to give him a relatively normal childhood. He was educated abroad and as such has an international outlook.

Astrid Teo (Gemma Chan)

Nick’s cousin who is determined to stop his marriage to Rachel.

Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh)

Nick’s mother, who is obsessed with wealth and privilege. She has most of the book’s funniest lines.

Rachel Chu (Constance Wu)

The daughter of a single mother is perhaps the book’s most grounded character and therefore could be the most boring. She is described as beautiful in the book and I’m concerned that Constance Wu is possibly a little plain-looking to play her.

GOH PEIK LIN (Awkwafina)

Rachel’s college best friend.

Goh Wye Mun (Ken Jeong)

Peik Lin’s father who doesn’t care how conspicuous he is or how he flaunts his wealth. One of the new money members of Singaporean society. I love the actor playing him, who has appeared in Fresh off The Boat as Louis’ brother.

Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno)

Singapore’s socialite idol and fiancée of Nick’s best friend. She invites Rachel to her bachelorette party.

The film is set for an August release in the US.

Jon M Chu has directed the Now You See Me films, so let’s not expect too much yet.

*a 7-layered steam cake from Singapore



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