‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and the new face of the 1 per cent
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Life & Arts news every morning.
Having arrived at a Singaporean airstrip in garish Ferraris and Lamborghinis, the bridal group head off by private jet to a tropical island. Meanwhile the groomsmen commandeer a fleet of helicopters and fly to a nearby container ship, its deck filled with imported showgirls and transformed into an exclusive nightclub-at-sea. As the evening’s celebrations reach their zenith, one reveller nonchalantly fires a bazooka into the night sky.
This bachelor party is just one of the scenes of absurd bling scattered throughout the new film Crazy Rich Asians, which opened in the US on August 15. It is also a scene of excess reminiscent of those I have encountered myself during five years of writing about Asia’s corporate hierarchies, and the vast fortunes they have made.
There are few more potent symbols of Asia’s new wealth than Antilia, the 170-metre residential skyscraper in Mumbai, a city in which I used to live. Often dubbed the world’s first “billion-dollar home”, rising amid the notorious slums of India’s finance centre, it belongs to industrial tycoon Mukesh Ambani, now crowned the continent’s richest man. The relatively old money on show in Singapore, the setting for Crazy Rich Asians and my own home for the past three years, can be a fraction more discreet. But the scale of the affluence accumulated over the last few decades is clear enough here too. “Remember, these people aren’t just rich. They are CRAZY rich,” as one character in the film puts it.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, much has been written about the growing power of the ultra-wealthy. Taken together, the rising sway of global billionaires — there were 2,208 in this year’s Forbes list, up from a mere 1,062 a decade back — has exacerbated problems from rising inequality to the populist politics this has engendered.
Yet such has been the concern about the super-rich in general that arguably rather less attention is paid to their changing composition, notably the shift to the world’s rising eastern giants. The US still boasts more “three-comma club” members than any other country, but the Asia-Pacific region now easily surpasses North America and Europe. China alone is all but certain to overhaul America’s billionaire lead, and in time, perhaps India too. Enter Hollywood.
Based on a best-selling novel of the same name, Crazy Rich Asians is a Jane-Austen-meets-Jimmy-Choo affair — a traditional romantic comedy set amid Singapore’s moneyed aristocracy. It tells the story of Rachel Chu, an economics professor at New York University and ABC (or “American-born Chinese”), played by Constance Wu.
As the film begins, she is dating Nicholas Young (Henry Golding), a dashing US-based Singaporean and fellow academic, described in the book as having “chiselled Cantonese pop-idol features and impossibly thick eyelashes”. Young invites Chu to visit his homeland, where he is to be best man at the wedding of an old school friend, albeit while failing to mention his place as the scion of one of Asia’s wealthiest families. Young’s mother, the family matriarch Eleanor, played with steely cool by Malaysian actor Michelle Yeoh, looks dimly on the American interloper.
The story that follows will be perfectly familiar to readers of Pride and Prejudice, as its low-born but morally virtuous female protagonist battles to find her place amid the snobbery of the upper strata. It turns an established Hollywood pattern on its head too, by featuring an entirely Asian cast — the first contemporary-set Hollywood film to do so since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. The result has been hailed as a milestone for its portrayal of under-represented Asian-American minorities as much as a fable of Asia’s economic rise.
Blockbuster movies often feature minor Asian characters, routinely handing sidekick roles to Chinese A-listers to win over audiences in Beijing or Shanghai. But Kevin Kwan, the Singaporean author who wrote Crazy Rich Asians in 2013, had a different idea. “I felt it was so important to do this right,” he said last year. “There was a lot of concern at the beginning that [Hollywood] would change all these crazy rich Asians . . . that Reese Witherspoon would be cast as the lead character.”
The 44-year-old Kwan has been critical of US film studios more broadly, both for their failure to develop Asian-American actors and also their inability to produce the kind of scripts that would let them flourish. In his own case, he passed up a lucrative payday from Netflix and optioned his book rights for $1, allowing him to retain creative control and hand production over to Jon M Chu, a US-born director of mixed Chinese and Taiwanese heritage. Well aware of the paucity of Asian actors within the existing US studio system, the duo ran an open casting call, turning up a number of unknowns, most notably in their choice of debutant Golding as their romantic lead.
Their efforts draw easy comparison with this year’s breakthrough superhero flick Black Panther, which featured a largely black cast led by a black director. Yet even that movie featured a handful of Caucasians, including Martin Freeman’s comic turn as a CIA operative, in a role that almost seemed designed to give a small measure of comfortable cultural familiarity to predominantly white American cinema-going audiences. Chu’s film, by contrast, has no Caucasian characters at all.
That this should be so is all the more remarkable, given Hollywood’s racially chequered heritage with Asian-Americans, a group too often relegated to the roles of martial-arts aces or purveyors of ancient wisdoms, or indeed both, in the case of The Karate Kid’s Mr Miyagi. At its worst, many ostensibly Asian roles were handed to white actors, notoriously in the the case of Mr Yunioshi, a minor character in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, played in “yellow face” by Mickey Rooney. A number of more recent films that could have had prominent Asian characters have been accused of “whitewashing”, as when Scarlett Johansson appeared as the lead in last year’s remake of the Japanese anime classic Ghost in the Shell.
Yet beyond the boldness of its casting, Crazy Rich Asians is significant precisely for the light it shines on the rising power of Asian money. Kwan’s is a high society dominated by Chuppies (Chinese yuppies) and Henwees (high-net worth individuals, or HNWIs). His book opens with a proverb from the 14th-century Muslim scholar Ibn Batuta, who notes that “nowhere in the world are there to be found people richer than the Chinese” — a slice of ancient wisdom that at some point in the next few years will be true once again. The Asia-Pacific region has already overtaken North America as the world’s leading home for HNWIs, meaning those who have more than $1m in assets in addition to their main home. Collectively this group enjoyed wealth amounting to $22tn in 2017, according to consultants Capgemini.
Whatever its cultural significance, Crazy Rich Asians is most likely to win over audiences for the joyousness of its portrayal of Asia’s nouveau riche. One character thinks nothing of buying a pair of earrings for more than $1m, before scurrying home and ordering a team of servants to hide her purchases from her censorious husband. Another shells out $30,000 on plastic surgery for a treasured pet fish. A third dotes on pet dogs named Astor and Rockefeller, one of many nods to the ostentation of America’s Gilded Age. “I heard this wedding cost $40m,” an elderly matriarch says midway through the film, as she enters a church decked out extravagantly to resemble a tropical lagoon. “That’s too much,” her companion replies, shocked. “$20m is our limit.”
Crazy Rich Asians deals with the anxieties of immigrant identities, and it should come as no surprise that the effects of these financial changes are often felt most keenly among émigrés. The world’s two most important emerging economies, China and India, also boast its largest and richest diasporas, notably in the US. Families who moved from these countries to the US have long enjoyed a position of financial superiority. Yet as their nations of origin grow more prosperous, these tables are being turned, as the wealth of the homeland catches up with — and often exceeds — its once-privileged members abroad.
The most important player in this wealth shift from west to east will undeniably be China, and here Crazy Rich Asians is intriguing for the specifically Chinese nature of the wealth it displays. The film might be set in Singapore, but all of its characters are of Chinese descent, giving western viewers a rare insight into the interconnected nature of China’s own diaspora business elite, which dominates commercial life not just in China but throughout much of east and south-east Asia. At one point early in the film, Chu is introduced to a group of Young’s rich friends. A desperate game begins, in which she is assumed to be linked to one of the web of ultra-wealthy families that bear her name. Was she not one of the Malaysian packaging Chus? What about the Taiwanese electronics Chus? The Chinese instant noodle Chus?
There is a similar pattern to be found in India, a nation whose bulging ultra-wealthy class I came to know in researching my recent book The Billionaire Raj. India’s billionaire list now boasts more members than any country bar the US or China. Indeed, despite still being relatively poor, India has created wealth at the very top of its society more quickly than China did at a comparable stage in its development, and now suffers levels of inequality that by most measures exceed its fellow Asian giant. Yet even among India’s elite there are patterns not widely understood by outsiders, with particular constellations of families or regional and caste groupings dominating the networks of wealth that stretch out from New Delhi and Mumbai and out towards financial hubs such as London and Singapore.
The lack of Indians in Crazy Rich Asians has even been a source of minor controversy in Singapore itself. In the aftermath of the publicity earned by the island nation’s Trump-Kim summit earlier this year, the film serves as a glossy two-hour advert for Asia’s richest nation in financial assets per capita. But that has not stopped criticism of its racial politics, most notably for its absence of ethnic Indian or Malay origin characters, two groups that make up nearly a quarter of the country’s population. “While I understand how tremendous Crazy Rich Asian is for Asian-Americans, they don’t seem to acknowledge that their film does the same sort of erasure of ethnic minorities that Hollywood does with white people,” says Kirsten Han, a Singapore-based writer.
Elsewhere Crazy Rich Asians has raised hackles for the nature of its Asian-ness, drawing questions about whether casting a bi-racial actor such as Golding — whose mother is Malaysian but whose father is British — was appropriate for a supposedly Chinese character. Yet the rise of the Asian super-rich the film represents will ultimately matter for its economic consequences too.
Both the film and book open with a flashback to the 1980s, in which the young Nick Young watches aghast as his mother is turned away by the racist manager of a fancy London hotel. She retaliates by calling her husband and having him buy the property on the spot — foreshadowing the more recent buying spree undertaken by Chinese tycoons scooping up western trophy assets, from luxury hotel chains to football clubs.
The backlash against developments such as these is unlikely to be confined to the west. As yet Asia has seen little of the populist turn that has of late come to dominate western politics, in part perhaps because the region’s economies continue to grow strongly. But over the coming decade, if the yawning gap between the rich and poor continues to grow at the pace it has over the last, a sense of resentment about the yawning divide between the elite and the rest could well brew.
At the heart of the film there then lies the larger dilemma of those torn between western and eastern values, most prominent in matriarch Eleanor Young. Although she sends her favoured son to be educated first in Britain and then America, Young fears that the values with which he returns will ultimately destroy their dynasty, and the wealth it has amassed.
“All Americans think about is their own happiness. It is an illusion,” she says with evident disgust. Referring to Asians of Chinese descent, she continues: “We understand how to build things which last.”
“This tension between western values and Asian values is something every young person in my situation struggled with,” says Aun Koh, a Singaporean with a distinct American twang, who grew up mostly in the US but eventually returned home to set up Straits Clan, an elite private members’ club. “Our country is now extremely westernised, but many of my friends still have grandparents who don’t speak English, and who still believe in a quite different set of values.”
Such sentiments are often found among Asia’s wealthy elite. On the one hand, despite their wealth, there remains a residual air of insecurity and unease linked to a deep-rooted, longstanding status anxiety relative to the west. Then there is the fear that despite their rising power, traditional Asian cultures are gradually being corrupted by pernicious outside influences, be they the risks of foreign girlfriends or profligate consumption.
Alongside this is an undeniable sense of rising Asian confidence, and with it a recognition of the growing failings of those once-admired nations of Europe and North America. “I can’t believe this place has a cinema and a butterfly garden,” Chu says early in the film, as she looks around with awe upon first landing at Singapore’s glistening Changi airport. Comparing it to the decrepit terminal she left from in New York, she adds: “JFK is just salmonella and despair.” Sitting around a lavish dining table, another character later cajoles his own spoiled offspring to eat their dinner. “There are a lot of children starving in America,” he notes.
Although they may be charmed by the romance of Crazy Rich Asians, western cinema-goers are ultimately unlikely to be comfortable with the geopolitical rebalancing upon which this rising Asian self-assurance is based, argues Parag Khanna, Singapore-based author of The Future is Asian, a forthcoming book. “This is a huge change, as it dawns on the west that Asians used to make things for us and now we are making things for them,” he says. “The point is there are more crazy rich Asians being created every day. This film will wake people up to that.”
James Crabtree is an associate professor of practice at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. His book ‘The Billionaire Raj’ was released in July
Letter in response to this article:
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published