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Crazy Rich Asians: A Critique of Chinese Culture

Crazy Rich Asians: A Critique of Chinese Culture

by Matthias Ang

Featuring: 
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, 2013, Penguin Random House


Kevin Kwan's breakout novel, "Crazy Rich Asians", is currently on track to be the first Hollywood movie featuring an all-Asian cast, although it is surely far more accurate to call it an all-Chinese cast. From having an American-born Chinese (ABC) as the main character, to setting the bulk of the action within Singapore and Hong Kong, "Crazy Rich Asians" is the first novel that sets out to comprehensively detail the lives and experiences of the wealthy Chinese diaspora with their byzantine family ties.

The book begins with a convoluted family tree that is stated to be "simplified" but luckily, there are a set of principal characters that the story primarily invests in within the Young family. They are Rachel Chu, the ABC protagonist and Nicholas (Nick) Young, her boyfriend; his scheming mother, Eleanor Young (née Sung), Nicholas's cousin and her husband, Astrid and Michael and finally, the enigmatic matriarch of the Young household herself, Shang Su Yi. Topping them off is the occasional snapshot of more distant cousins who are usually highly obnoxious people.

Kwan unapologetically makes it clear from the very beginning: this is not a story that will have any white perspective to supposedly make it more accessible. Right off the bat of the prologue, the most significant white character of the text is a racist hotel manager who quickly loses his job thanks to the sheer influence and wealth of his victims. It is a highly satisfying moment that symbolically details the crushing of white racism under the stylish heels of Chinese privilege. Gone are the days of attempts at assimilation into Western culture and power structures; now it is considered a disgrace to even mix with the New York elite. Gone too are the days of struggling and scraping for a living; now, fashion names fly fast and furious across the pages with such force that the European elites of old look positively modest. But what is never truly gone are the modes of thinking that haunt familial ties since the days of war and upheaval in Asia and this is where Kwan focuses the commentary of his novel, showcasing how such spectres still plague habits of the wealthy overseas Chinese.

The most obvious of these spectre that most readers--particularly Chinese--will notice is the need to 'show face'. From constantly looking Tattle-ready (a play on the actual magazine Tatler) as ridiculously enforced by Edison Cheng--one of the aforementioned obnoxious distant cousins--on his family to keeping in Su Yi's good books, as Eleanor Young so repulsively demonstrates through her furious undermining of her son's relationship with Rachel, there is no length too extreme to go in the name of upholding the family status. Even the matriarch Su Yi herself engages in this--coldly telling the couple at the novel's climax that she forbids Nicholas from marrying Rachel on account of Rachel's family background. "This girl does not come from a proper family" is reason enough. Throughout the novel, it is this particular mode of thinking that serves as the relentless driving force behind the plot and by the novel's end, Kwan has made it clear that it is by far the most toxic aspect of wealthy Chinese culture. Familial ties are turned into highly mercurial affairs with parental affection corrupted into a kind of overbearing, twisted manipulation.

            This brings readers to the second phantasm that haunts Chinese family ties: that of emotional abuse. The humour that Kwan injects into the novel through the sheer lists of fashion articles, their costs and the near-obsessive compulsive detail many characters pay to such things makes the abuse somewhat more palatable, if only because it is essentially the norm for almost every other relationship in the novel not named Nicholas and Rachel. Michael and Astrid, the other main couple within the Young family, provide a powerful example in this regard. From Michael being threatened by Astrid's multiple brothers prior to their engagement because of the family's wealth to having to resort to the pretense of an affair in communicating his despair with Astrid, being emotionally abusive has become the sole means of communication. On top of that, that Michael resorts to such a deed against Rachel shows the extent of the damage that spillover from abuse can cause.

Genuine expressions of affection are now a testing challenge. And what makes Kwan's commentary on emotional abuse all the more insightful is that it can be subtle as well and can spill from one relationship into another just as badly as overt emotional abuse. This is essentially the personal experience of Eleanor within the Young family and the biggest reason why she does her best to destroy her son's relationship with Rachel. Constantly reminded of her borderline pariah status by her mother-in-law, Su Yi, because of her own modest background and her cold relationship with her husband who would rather spend more time in Sydney, away from the family drama, Eleanor ends up pushing all of her anxieties onto Nick, to make him the darling of the grandmother, in the hopes that she might gain Su Yi's approval by proxy. Only Rachel, by virtue of her American upbringing, is able to show the way forward for a healthy relationship at all in the novel.

Is Kwan's novel ultimately a critique of the worst excesses of Chinese culture through Western eyes then? The perverse need to constantly "show face" and the use of emotional abuse as the basis of a typical Chinese relationship? Here, one might be tempted to groan that perhaps Kwan, because of his American status, has also fallen into the usual trap of Western-attitudes-are-better-than-Chinese and now sounds no better than a white author but I think this is simply a gross oversimplification.

Lying at the base of all of these issues is the family's gigantic wealth and what Kwan has therefore really done is to show how such wealth has amplified the negative aspects of Chinese culture. Perhaps Kwan's aim was never really about writing a novel to simply show a different class of Chinese to a Western audience; it was ultimately about defamiliarizing the Chinese audience with their own culture, that they might take a long, hard look at themselves. Being able to get picked up as Hollywood's first all-Chinese movie is merely a bonus. 

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Crazy Rich Asians is available on Amazon and at all leading bookstores.