Book review: China Rich Girlfriend - sequel to Crazy Rich Asians
Featuring a riot of Chinese conspicuous consumption that takes in Shanghai, Paris, Silicon Valley and Hong Kong, Kevin Kwan's second book is a perfect summer read
There is no better season for a Kevin Kwan novel than summer. When the Singaporean-born author's debut book, Crazy Rich Asians, debuted in June 2013, it wasn't long before its sparkly gold cover could be seen on beaches from St Barths to Nice to Malibu, and maybe even Hainan, held aloft by fashionable women in Gucci shades and Missoni bikinis.
And with good reason: Crazy Rich Asians gave readers access to a world that not only a few entered, but also few truly knew about - the world of old Asian money. We're talking about grande dames in cheongsams and tiaras who swanned around in family palaces (never mere mansions), tycoons who bought entire resorts on a whim, and young heiresses who basically kept the likes of Stella McCartney in business.
The book was not only a takedown of the mindless consumerism of the snobs and arrivistes of the moneyed East. It was also a surround-sound celebration of Asia's material success, its rise in the global economy and its throbbing, growing power. Crazy Rich Asians announced to the literary world that Asians had fully arrived, toting their Vuitton trunks behind them (well, the servants toting the luggage). Kwan's tales of outrageous, inventive excess and social manoeuvring left everyone who cracked open its pages guffawing.
As soon as Crazy Rich Asians sashayed up The New York Times' bestsellers list, the author signed on to write the sequel, and many rabid jet-set fans all over the world panted for its arrival.
And so it is a great joy to say that China Rich Girlfriend does not disappoint - for the most part anyway. True, the sequel does start off with pathological name-dropping, over-the-top scenes of frenzied shopping and high-society bad behaviour that Crazy Rich Asians made its brand, but the story quickly deepens into a much more intricate, surprising and relevant narrative.
Kwan has shrewdly shifted the focus from Singapore to Shanghai, Hong Kong and even Silicon Valley, and what better way to explore the cutting edge of radically changing Asian social morés than to focus on its new epicentres of action? Many of Crazy Rich Asians' central characters are back: the strangely sensible but can't-touch-this rich Nicholas Young; his modestly raised Chinese-American fiancée, Rachel Chu; Nick's preternaturally chic cousin, Astrid Leong, and her déclassé problem husband, Michael; Nick's scheming high-society mother, Eleanor; and Kitty Pong, a former mainland Chinese porn star who has managed to marry a crazy rich Hongkonger and is plotting her ascent into Asian respectability.
Add to this colourful crew new personalities who represent China's nouveau super-rich, most notably Colette Bing, the daughter of China's third richest man, and Carlton Bao, a Shanghai princeling who bears an uncanny resemblance to Rachel. Cue the ominous music, as this is where the plot thickens.
At the start of China Rich Girlfriend, Nick and Rachel are heading off to the altar (a lavish but tasteful Californian affair that Nick seems to be bankrolling) when Rachel gets a surprise visit from a man who turns out to be her father. Without spoiling any of the book's major twists, let's just say this leads to the newlyweds honeymooning in Shanghai, where they meet up with Carlton and Colette, who take them on a no-holds-barred romp through China's state-of-the-art consumption, which includes Colette's eco-obsessed Shanghai manor, a sprawling compound; to Paris for a weeklong spree of designer shopping and haute cuisine dining, as well as an illegal drag race of Lamborghinis and Ferraris; and to Hong Kong, where Kitty claws her way to the Peak while Rachel comes close to death in an exclusive hospital because of a mysterious poisoning.
China Rich Girlfriend is an engaging page-turner with a multi-layered, inventive narrative. Kwan has clearly taken a few lessons from one of America's great social satirists - think Tom Wolfe set loose on the wealthiest enclaves of Confucian Asia. One of the most hysterical chapters features Corinna Ko-tung, an old-money Hongkonger who advises social climbers on how to overhaul their public profiles and rewrite their less-than-illustrious pasts.
Ko-tung writes a scathing but on-the-mark brief to her new client, Kitty, now Mrs Bernard Tai, that rips to shreds everything from her appearance - "First of all, the breast reduction was one of the most astute moves you could have made, and your physique is now optimal. Before your surgery, your hourglass figure only served to fuel the rumours of your cinematic extracurricular activities, but now you have the body shape considered ideal to the women you hope to cultivate - delicately emaciated, with just a hint of a well-managed eating disorder" - to her transport: "You should no longer be chauffeured around in that Rolls-Royce. I have always felt that unless one is either over 60 years of age or in possession of a silver helmet of hair that resembles Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's, being seen in a Rolls-Royce is completely ridiculous. Instead, please purchase a Mercedes S-Class, Audi A8, or BMW 7 Series like everyone else." Written as parody, Kwan's heavily researched primer will no doubt be cribbed by many a wannabe Asian socialite.
And yet, for all its delights, China Rich Girlfriend does have its share of clunky moments and characters. For example, Rachel, the novel's moral touchstone and voice of reason, is as dull as boiled rice. Even her diary reveals little of her life; this all-too-level-headed Chinese-American seems to have been written as little more than a point of contrast to the mainland characters' over-the-top grabbiness and flamboyance. For the most part, the characters in the book don't seem to grow and change all that much, not enough for literary fiction anyway. Many feel more like symbols of the different worlds they represent rather than fully-realised people. Kwan, however, nails the portraits of the catty, middle-aged society matrons - perhaps channelling the gossipy, conniving upper-class femmes who surrounded him as a child?
These few flaws should not dissuade readers from picking up this super-fun sequel. Kwan has clearly done a laudable amount of research about the mainland's rising society. His sequel is not only dazzlingly creative (a private jet decorated to look like a Balinese resort? Take me there, please!) and rollicking good fun, but also ambitious in its scope and dimension. With China Rich Girlfriend, Kwan shows readers that to get rich is one thing, but to get crazy rich is glorious. He also proves his standing as one of the few authors talented, confident and savvy enough to engage an international readership and serve up the New Asia on a gleaming 24-karat gold platter.
China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan (Doubleday)
For this story and more see The Review, published with the Sunday Morning Post, on July 12