Category Archives: Books

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



Men Without Women

Haruki Murakami: Men Without Women

Another Murakami book has been published, with this one being  his fourth collection of short stories.

I had a rush of excitement when I opened the cover and started reading the first story. Murakami creates a world of mystery in the most ordinary of settings. He can write the most ordinary of sentences, and then switch things up a gear with just a few words.

For example: “At any rate, his lucky life continued for some thirty years, a long time, when you think about it. But one day, he fell in love.”

Now, that’s a great sentence isn’t it? And it’s the same throughout the book, with these knockout lines coming out of nowhere.

Although we’ve become familiar with his world of Tokyo night owls, jazz and strange phone calls, its as though Murakami has deliberately removed any traces of the quirkiness of his famous novels.

The women seem to have come out of forties noir films and the male characters are tougher than usual. Murakami has always had an affinity with American authors and the book’s title recalls the same name of a collection of stories written by Hemingway.

What we get here are seven stories which test the short story format to its limit but nearly always succeed. Four of the stories, which appeared in the New Yorker are included, the knock-out here being Kino. The prose is as crisp as ever. Sample sentence: ‘There was a girl Kitaru had known since they were in elementary school together.’  This being Murakami, its going to be the kind of sentence that alerts us that things are going to become interesting. In Yesterday, the Murakami-like character remembers a friend who deliberately apes the working class Kansai dialect. He also sings Beatles songs. Things become highly intriguing when Kitamuru suggests to Tanimura that he start dating his girlfriend since he is too busy with his exams to be able to concentrate on dating her.

Here’s another one from Kino:

‘Kino remembered the first time the man had come to the bar.’

Kino starts with the most basic of ideas, of a man being left by his wife, and takes us on the most extraordinary journey. Many of his stories have a film-like quality (although directors have struggled to get his work to translate on screen. But Kino (which is German for cinema) would probably make for a great thriller. There’s a jazz bar, which only has two customers, and a sexy woman covered in cigarette burns whom Kino sleeps with. Then the story gets darker:

‘Fall came, and the cat disappeared. Then the snakes started to show up.’

The story is laced with a ready- made soundtrack of jazz records, where the  music is described to enable us to almost hear it being played: ‘Kino sat on a stool and listened to the Coleman Hawkins LP with the title track “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” He found the bass solo amazing.”

Those of us who have read Murakami’s work will also find his solos amazing. Although I only wish that the last story Men without Women could have been stronger. Not only stronger, but with more direction. It’s about a man who remembers a relationship he had with a woman who has just killed herself. Only the way Murakami describes it is not as interesting as any of the other stories. I got the feeling that even Murakami wasn’t sure where he was going with that one.

But what a collection otherwise. I felt as though some of these experiences had happened to me, and maybe there are universal truths here that everyone can relate to. A short story can feel like the writer didn’t have enough ideas for a book but only a few scraps of story ideas. But there’s more than enough here. And like a lost lover, we remember the stories long after the affair is over.

Murakami’s novels are usually about lonely characters