Crazy Asian wealth porn has its funny side

Gentle put-downs of America in the hit film are amusing, but should we be in awe of such super-rich individuals or repelled?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 August, 2018, 5:38pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 4:49am

I admit I enjoyed watching Crazy Rich Asians, though I did so with guilty pleasure. Some gentle put-downs of America were amusing.

A rich Singaporean father, played by Korean-American comedian Ken Jeong, reprimanded his children for not finishing their meal: “Eat your food. Many children are starving in America.”

Or when our heroine Rachel, played by Constance Wu of the popular American TV sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, was amazed by a butterfly garden while walking through Singapore’s Changi Airport: “At JFK [airport in New York], it’s all salmonella and despair.”

But amusement aside, it strikes me the whole purpose of the film exercise is to glamorise and legitimise the super-rich in Asia, many of whom are ethnic Chinese in real life. Should we, as the audience and hoi polloi, be tantalised and awed by the display of mega wealth, which has been described, by most accounts, as accurate. Or should we rather be repelled?

It’s not true that the rise of Asian wealth has been a neglected subject. A whole book genre has emerged in recent decades, though most on the subject, such as Joe Studwell’s Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, examine its historical, economic, political and social contexts.

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The film, and Kevin Kwan’s eponymous book on which it is based, ignore all that boring stuff and jump straight to the haute couture and jewellery. To put it uncharitably, it’s little better than Asian wealth porn.

But better not open the curtains too widely for the well-being of the super-rich; the pitchforks are never far behind. We do, after all, live in a combustible age.

The film has been compared with The Joy Luck Club from a quarter of a century ago, mostly because of its full Asian cast. The comparison is apt. Both have all the supposed typical Chinese family melo- and psychodramas. Crazy Rich Asians is really The Joy Luck Club with billionaires.

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I don’t know how the matriarchs of crazy rich Asian families think, though I do have some idea about how traditional Chinese mothers think. The film revolves around the rivalry between Rachel, a young Chinese-American professor of economics at New York University, and her fiancé’s mother, the matriarch in question.

Most Asian mothers would be falling over themselves for Rachel, PhD, who also speaks Chinese and plays mahjong, as a daughter-in-law. But maybe crazy rich Asian parents really are certifiable.