Kevin Kwan’s debut novel, “Crazy Rich Asians,” is a delicious summer read. Funny, satiric, and dishy, it is at once an entertaining send-up of modern manners and a pointed put down of the excesses of Singapore’s gazillionaires.
It’s a story of three interrelated families – The Youngs, the T’siens, and the Changs – who go into hyper-alert when prodigal son Nicholas Young returns from New York to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding with Rachel Chu – his ABC (American-born Chinese) girlfriend in tow:
Nicholas, as it turns out, isn’t the impecunious NYU professor fellow faculty member Rachel thought he was. He will one day be the heir to one of the largest fortunes in Asia.
And so this exotic strain of gossip spread rapidly through the Levantine networks of the Asian jet set, and within a few hours, almost everyone in this exclusive circle knew that Nicholas Young was bringing a girl home to Singapore.
And, alamak! (Note: Slang for “oh dear,” or “Oh my god!.”) This was big news.
Kwan draws on the rich literary tradition embodied in the likes of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton to depict the tensions between old money and new – between Mainland Chinese and Overseas Chinese wealth — and to show how effortlessly snobbery subverts love. Along the way, he takes you into the over-the-top lives of Asia’s very, very rich – but not so famous. It’s a world of private jets, opulent resorts, and couture that unassuming Rachel, who was raised by a single mother, is totally unprepared for. As it turns out, she’s not just going to the wedding of Nicholas’s best friend from childhood. Peik Lin, a Stanford classmate of Rachel’s and native of Singapore, who comes from a nouveau — and terribly riche — family, explains:
“Don’t you know? It’s the wedding of the year! It’s been covered on every channel, in every magazine, and in about a million blogs!”
“Why? Are they famous?” Rachel asked, completely baffled.
“AH-LA-MAAK! Colin Khoo is Khoo TeckFong’s grandson! He comes from one of the reeee-chest families in the world! And Araminta Lee – she’s the supa-model daughter of Peter Lee, one of China’s reeee-chest men, and Annabel Lee, the luxury hotel queen. This is like Royal weeddeeng!” Neena gushed.
“I had no idea,” Rachel said in astonishment.
Guess what? Nicholas’s family is even wealthier than the Khoos. His grandmother lives in a palace in a sizable, protected and un-google-able park-like estate in the middle of Singapore, where property is at a premium.. Rachel’s friend Peik Lin’s property developer father — the Donald Trump of Singapore — has never heard of its existence, so thoroughly has the clan protected their privacy and wealth. When Peik Lin drops Rachel off at Nick’s grandmother’s mysterious compound, she is dumbstruck.
For the first time in her life, Peik Lin was at a loss for words. She stared at Rachel with a sudden intensity, and then she said, almost in a whisper, “I have no idea who these people are. But I can tell you one thing – these people are richer than God.”
And that’s what makes “Crazy Rich Asians” such crazy good fun.
Rachel is confounded that Nick didn’t prepare her for this crazy world.
“What should I have told you,” Nick asked, genuinely perplexed.
“All this,” Rachel cried, waving her hands around at the opulent bedroom they were standing in. “The fact that there’s an army of Gurkhas with dogs protecting your grandmother while she sleeps, the fact that you grew up in friggin’ Downton Abbey, the fact that your best friend was throwing the most expensive wedding in the history of civilization! You should have told me about your family, about your friends, about your life here, so I could at least know what I was getting myself into. . . . Now I feel like I don’t know who my boyfriend is anymore.”
Kwan, who grew up in Singapore, studied fashion photography at Parsons School of Design and knows his Chanel and his Jimmy Choos, so there is plenty of high-end shopping going on in preparation for the Khoo nuptials. There are also plenty of posh private planes – and private island retreats — and peeks at Singapore’s famed black and white houses. It’s a crash course for Rachel, who meets and charms stylish cousins of Nicholas – but who runs afoul of his fantastically snobbish mother. Will the couple’s love prevail?
It’s crazy, but this is pretty much the perfect vacation read.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.