reading report: Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan) 

There’s been so much buzz about about this book, especially since its movie adaptation was announced, that I felt obligated to pick it up. I’m very excited that a Hollywood is making a big budget film starring almost exclusively Asian actors–I love Constance Wu, as is my duty, and I think the film will give some awesome exposure to some very deserving Asian actors.

There’s a lot to love about this book. It satisfies that schadenfreude-based desire that compels me to read through DailyMail (what has Bella Thorne done now) on my Snap feed and flip through People magazine whenever I see it. I’m so far removed from the world of wealth and opulence Kwan describes that I can’t help but press myself up against the glass and gawk inside.

But Crazy Rich Asians isn’t as shallow as I expected. For one, I appreciate the dropped in commentary on bourgeoise society’s prejudice towards Asians, even crazy rich Asians. (Here Kwan writes with a sense of gleeful retribution–I count at least three scenes in which the Asian protagonists face discrimination and deal with it by slapping white people over the head with insane amounts of money.)

But more importantly, this book also highlights something that has often frustrated and embarrassed me about Chinese society: the fact that rich Chinese seem to associate “class” with imitating British and American culture. We meet a rich Singaporean woman whose dogs are named Trump, Vanderbilt, and Astor. We meet Singaporean heirs named Astrid, Alistair, Cassandra, and Camylla. Even in a world where Asia is churning out more and more millionaires every year, English language and culture remain the markers of the elite.

I see the same white mimesis and obsession with European luxury in my own thoroughly middle-class Asian community. My relatives fawn over Prada, Gucci, and Coach bags. Everyone I know has sent kids to be educated in the US or the UK. When I taught debate and rhetoric at elite Beijing private schools, my Chinese students all had bizarre Australian or British accents–the products of English tutors imported from the West. They wear Adidas, Nike, and Marc Jacobs. They vacation in Paris and London. In China’s upper class, the best new accessory is English culture credentials, which Kwan’s characters flaunt constantly. I’m glad to have picked up a book that brutally mocks that mimesis.

I should mention that I am not enamored with the writing style. The prose often gets so clunky that it throws me out. The POV shifts are confusing and inconsistent. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural–no one talks in complete sentences like that. We’re inundated with useless adverbs. We get hit so hard over the head with exposition that it feels like a bat. And the ending–my God, what an implausible, Hollywood-dramatic ending. (But was it satisfying? Was it a spectacle? Yes.)

But let’s not get too hung up on the quality of the prose. Honestly, this is one of those books that propels itself along by the reader’s sheer fascination with the subject material. Reading this book is like watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians–it’s hard to look away. So who am I to judge? The author’s only duty is to keep the reader hooked, and I read all the way to the end.

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