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It's A Rich Man's World

For real rich Asians, Crazy Rich Asians just scratches the surface of how the region's top one per cent live
Aug 31, 2018 5:50 AM

ANYTHING CRAZY RICH ASIANS CAN DO, crazy rich Asians - real ones, that is - can do better. Especially when it comes to extravagant weddings and other forms of rich people behaviour.

The film, based on Singapore-born author Kevin Kwan's 2013 bestseller of the same name and currently playing to packed cinemas, focuses on a severely under-represented segment of society: the extremely wealthy. Crazy Rich Asians is a useful primer for anyone interested in how Asia's one per cent - and one family in particular - actually lives and plays. But it's also a work of pure fiction and the first thing we need to point out is that it doesn't go far enough in its depiction of the super-rich. That's understandable in a two-hour movie and besides, all that excess can get boring.

So, picture this: a groom rides to the ceremony on an elephant's back. A bride receives a multi-million-dollar bungalow as a wedding gift from her mother. Another mum presents her daughter with a travel trunk (Louis Vuitton, of course) filled with exclusive jewellery. Meanwhile, guests at another wedding are flown to an exotic destination and entertained by A-list pop stars, while a high-profile couple spends "only" a million dollars on their son's wedding celebrations. Dropping hundreds of thousands and turning churches and hotel ballrooms into spectacular gardens is simply par for the course.

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These aren't party scenes from Crazy Rich Asians. They're just some run-of-the-mill examples plucked from real Asian weddings. If you watched the film, laughed out loud and shed tears but shrugged and said "so what?" in response to the wall-to-wall displays of opulence, maybe you're crazy rich too.

The film is a milestone in Hollywood history because it features an all-Asian cast (including many Singaporeans) in a rom-com about the courtship between the scion of a filthy-rich Singapore family and his Asian-American girlfriend. It explores the dilemma that faces eligible bachelor Nick Young (Henry Golding) when he returns to Singapore for his best friend's wedding. Nick's dragon mum Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) discerns that his girlfriend Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) isn't good enough for her son because she doesn't have the right pedigree and wasn't raised on traditional Asian values. "She's American," sniffs Eleanor dismissively.

The filial obligation versus individual happiness scenario plays out on a regular basis among top-tier families in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia, where social standing (or lack thereof) can be an obstacle to true love. "I know you're not what Nick needs," says Eleanor to Rachel in a devastating moment for the all-American protagonist. It's a sentiment that's repeated in real life, and the scene hits close to home for anyone who's ever encountered resistance from judgemental mums and status-conscious, old-money families with fixed ideas - plus a shortlist of desirable candidates - for their precious sons and daughters.

Kwan, 44, attended Anglo-Chinese School before his parents emigrated to Houston when he was 11. He has said in interviews that the film is a valentine to Singapore, but there's no little irony in the fact that despite being directly involved in a project that doubles as a US$30-million promo for the Singapore Tourism Board, he hasn't set foot here in years because he defaulted on his national service in 1990 and is on the country's wanted list. Some might argue that his book, and now the film, goes a long way towards making up for that misstep.

Now a US citizen, Kwan acquired much of the source material for his tongue-firmly-in-cheek book (and two sequels) by listening to his father's tales and talking to people with insight into the lifestyles of Singapore's rich and famous. Nick Young's family is an amalgamation of well-known families, and veteran observers of the social scene will be tickled by the barely-fictional name-dropping in Kwan's book, with its wink-worthy mention of names like KC Tang, Robert "Sugar King" Kwek and Ming Kah-Ching.

The blanket media coverage and major hype attached to Crazy Rich Asians is unprecedented for a film that started out with no major stars and questionable mainstream appeal, but non-Asian audiences have also identified with its universal themes and made it a winner at the US box office. It all bodes well for its rollout in international markets.

In the realm of the real crazy rich, whose son getting married to so-and-so's daughter and who wore which designer dress with what jewellery set are part and parcel of afternoon tea conversations among the tai-tai elite - especially if the guest list, wedding banquet and related festivities are deemed worthy of their attention. Theme parties, destination weddings, eye-popping decorations and even the invitation cards play significant roles in the crazy rich landscape.

The film features some stunning locations - Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay never looked prettier - but loses credibility because scions of wealthy local families are more inclined to splurge on a destination wedding at some exotic location, while the home portion of the proceedings is confined to an ultra-dressed-up ballroom. It's to director Jon M Chu's credit that Singapore gets the starring role and comes out looking like a few billion dollars.

The filmmakers make every attempt to get the details of the new world order right. Asians don't just play cooks, eye-candy or convenience store owners anymore. The ostentatious faux-Versailles mansion where Rachel's college friend Goh Peik Lin (played by the scene-stealing Awkwafina) lives, as well as her outrageous multi-hued outfits, perfectly define her nouveau riche roots. When her dad Wye Myn (Ken Jeong), dressed like a holdover from the disco era, chides his younger kids for not finishing their chicken nuggets, we realise that the shoe is firmly on the other foot. "Think of all the starving children in America," he says.

In another scene, Nick's glamorous socialite cousin and compulsive shopper Astrid Leong (Gemma Chan) presents a vintage Rolex Daytona to her husband Michael (Pierre Png). Only aficionados will care that it's the actual 1968 watch once owned by Paul Newman and sold at auction last year for a record US$17.8 million (the watch has limited screen time).

The subject matter in Crazy Rich Asians is antithetical to the rags-to-riches narrative in Slumdog Millionaire, an independent film with a predominantly Asian cast that was released a decade ago and which went on to win eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The two movies could hardly be more different but both share themes of identity and empowerment, evoking a strong sense of what it means to be Asian.

Crazy Rich Asians is seen primarily through the eyes of Rachel, an attractive, intelligent woman but a gweilo at heart who loves her mom (Tan Kheng Hua) and successfully navigates two cultures (represented in gaming terms by Texas Hold 'Em on one hand and mahjong on the other). In other words, she's a lot like someone you know.

Meanwhile, back in reality - members of prominent families in Singapore and elsewhere in the region are booking out entire theatres to watch the film among friends, looking for caricatures of people they know and speculating on who some of the onscreen characters are modelled after.

Crazy Rich Asians is both entertaining and imperfect, but it does extol the sort of genuine family values that a more typical comedy like say, Meet the Parents might not. All this, and some glorious food scenes too: could a Singaporean - crazy rich or otherwise - ask for anything more?