The world’s most expensive aquarium fish is the Asian arowana, which resembles a dragon and is believed to bring good fortune to its owner. A perfect specimen costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. To save money, a thrifty character in Rich People Problems — the final novel in Kevin Kwan’s addictive trilogy about Asian billionaires, heiresses, and WAGs — hires a plastic surgeon to improve a $200,000 fixer-upper named Valentino. “He was beginning to develop a droopy eye, so we gave him an eye lift. And he even got a very slight chin job,” the human tasked with Valentino’s care explains. Valentino is the least important character in a fictional world that includes kidnappings, sex scandals, inheritance drama, and a marriage proposal staged with the help of Bollywood producers. But even this sedated fish, who rides around Singapore in an Igloo cooler in the back of a Mercedes, enjoys a life so fabulous, I would happily read an entire spin-off novel just about him.
Rich People Problems arrives just as America’s horrified fascination with Asian wealth reaches a new high. The book takes place in 2015, when Donald Trump was drawing boos at rallies with the mere mention of China. I was halfway through the book when Jared Kushner’s family business was caught offering U.S. visas to Chinese investors for half a million dollars a pop. (Or, in the currency of aquariums, two Asian arowanas.) And yet Kwan’s trilogy — which includes Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend — are nothing short of a sensation, both at home and abroad. The books chart the fortunes of warring factions of three families, across three generations, as they migrate between Singapore and China. (And deal with gold-digging interlopers, undermining cousins, and literally poisonous femme fatales.) Warner Bros. is now shooting a Crazy Rich Asians movie — the first big-budget Hollywood movie with all-Asian cast in 25 years.
But whereas Joy Luck Club and many other Asian-American vehicles were about hard-working immigrant perseverance, Crazy Rich Asians is about over-the-top decadence — a world of billionaires whose penthouses include elevators for transporting Aston Martins up the sides of skyscrapers, and label-obsessed strivers with Picassos hanging over their toilets. (“I’m so sick of seeing Picassos,” an heiress gripes. “Every starter billionaire in Beijing has one. You know that in the last two decades of his life, the man was doing four paintings a day like some desperate whore? The market is flooded with mediocre Picassos.”) They take private jets to Paris to buy couture baby clothes. They purchase private islands as gifts. They make Keeping Up with the Kardashians look like a Dickensian tale of hardship.
Kwan possesses encyclopedic knowledge of snobbery in every corner of the planet — from Parisian haute couture to bespoke Italian suits to royal etiquette in Thailand to private kindergartens in Brooklyn to name badges at the World Economic Forum in Davos. When I ask Kwan what his research process was like, he is briefly silent. “There really was no research whatsoever,” he says of his first and third books. “It’s just stuff that I’ve downloaded in my life, through experience and overhearing the conversations bitchy socialites have with each other.” As it turns out, the most outrageous detail of Crazy Rich Asians is that the author, Kevin Kwan, actually grew up in this world. What Cecily von Ziegesar is to teenagers with trust funds, Kevin Kwan is to Asian heirs hitching rides on private jets: The descendant of a Singaporean financial tycoon, Kwan spent his childhood in the milieu he describes in these books. (A childhood friend who lived on “an enormous estate that had a sunken pond in the middle of the living room filled with baby sharks” inspired the aquarium-loving characters.) Kwan’s Americanophile father moved the family to a suburb of Houston, where Kevin attended a nice-in-a-normal-way public school before moving to New York to study art, eventually finding work as a creative consultant. When he returned to Asia “for weddings and for drama I had to deal with,” his American friends were curious, confused, and — most importantly — entertained by his stories.
In 2010, Kwan’s father died. “I spent six months with him, while he was ailing, and we talked a lot about his childhood and my childhood, just remembering this strange, surreal life we had back in Singapore.” He invented a fictional version of father in Philip Young, the absent patriarch of Crazy Rich Asians, a man who abandons the jet set for a quiet life in Australia. Philip’s son, Nick Young, is the story’s romantic lead: a humble NYU professor whose fiancé, Rachel Chu, doesn’t realize she’s engaged to a billionaire until the pair travel to Singapore for the first time. (Before Nick, Rachel’s life was of the Joy Luck Club variety, the American-born daughter of a hardworking Chinese immigrant.) Rachel, who will be played by Constance Wu, provides a neat excuse for other characters to explain the ins and outs of Singaporean society.
But Rachel also provides framework for thinking about what it means to be “Chinese” in a world where roughly 40 million people of Chinese descent live overseas, many in old families that settled in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and other Asian nations generations ago. Rachel is first-generation American-born Chinese and understands the Chinese diaspora primarily through her mother’s experience fleeing communist China. As a series of private jets usher her around the South China Sea, Rachel studies the social hierarchies of overseas Chinese in a half-dozen nations. Today, Kwan enjoys rockstar-treatment in many of those nations, where Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend were bestsellers. Last time Kwan was in the Philippines, there was a 300-person line waiting outside his 1 p.m. reading — which had started queuing at 7 a.m. (“Filipinos are the superfans,” Kwan observes. “They’re the most Americanized Asian country, so they get it on every level.”) When I ask how the movie is going, Kwan gushes about a shoot that just wrapped in Thailand, but said he could not disclose the next location due to rampant stalking problems.
I first heard of the book from New Yorkers who devoured the novels — one of whom claimed he “never read, except for” the Crazy Rich Asians series. It’s a type of fanaticism that, until now, I had only heard from children who “never read, except for” the Harry Potter series. Wealth, I realized, is the adult version of magic: an incredibly powerful but ultimately arbitrary resource that transfers primarily through inheritance. It has some logic to it— but also enough randomness that those without can hope for a spontaneous windfall in the form of an improbably lucrative investment or a secret inheritance. (Harry Potter and Rachel Chu were both thrust into lands of glittering palaces and gem-studded talismans after discovering secret inheritances.) Particularly in the rapidly growing economies of post-WWII Asia and post-communist China, the acquisition wealth has, at times, taken on a sort of magical quality — with all the confusion and trauma that can imply.
Near the end of Rich People Problems, a pair of scandal-plagued Singaporeans discuss inherited trauma. One is the son of the woman whose aquarium borders on the value of a golden visa. “My mother’s entire childhood was spent at the Endau concentration camp in Malaysia,” he says. “Her family was forced to grow all their own food, and they almost starved to death. I’m sure that’s why my mother is the way she is now. She makes her cook save money by buying the discounted, three-day-old bread from the supermarket, but she’ll spend $30,000 on plastic surgery for her pet fish. It’s completely irrational.”
The story is, of course, fictional — and a soap-operatic fiction at that. But the irrationality he’s describing strikes me as a real phenomenon, a sort of materialistic version of PTSD. It’s post-traumatic stress expressed through irrational behavior towards wealth, acquisition, and material loss. Discussions of prosperity are always tied to the past. Wealth is relative, which means every fortune is destined measured against the fortune — or poverty — that preceded it. “There are still people in Singapore who lived through the war,” Kwan reminds me by phone. “These were people who went through severe deprivation, cruelty, torture, watching a whole generation of people get massacred. And then to come out of that into post-war Singapore, when the British returned and prosperity crowded in over a couple of decades — many of them are now living much more prosperous lives, in many cases exponentially more prosperous. So how do you reckon with that? You might have a billion dollars in the bank, but you still remember what it’s like to be digging in the dirt looking for turnip roots.”
“And you see the inverse reaction, with the spending and the excess,” he continues. “Burying those ancient fears with wine and drink and Hermès handbags. Things like that.” He laughs. “I’m talking very loosely and very simplistically,” he says, but there really can be pathos in handbags. And there can be real political tension — and intergenerational agony — in indulgent novels about the socialites who carry those handbags.