Asia is a continent of extremes. As countries like China and India grow in global power and importance, I think more people are realizing this. Asia holds extreme wealth and extreme poverty in the same hand. Rich Crazy Asians (Doubleday Canada, 2013) focuses on the extremely wealthy population.
This is a novel. Novels don’t necessarily have the responsibility to teach or to grow minds or to expand ideas. But they can and they can do so beautifully. So when that opportunity is present and an author doesn’t take it, it can be disappointing. Kwan wanted to focus on the wealthy population of Asia, particularly Singapore and China. Does he have a responsibility to also focus on the impoverished of these nations? No. But what if he had? What if he had compared the insanely rich with the insanely poor? What if he had discussed where some of that wealth comes from? Or on whose backs it’s made?
There’s a scene in Rich Crazy Asians where some of the wealthy wives go to the city of Shenzen in China and visit what is essentially a mall full of illegal knock-offs. They can afford the real thing but they buy the fakes. I’ve been to Shenzen. It’s a Chinese city on the border of Hong Kong. For many years, before Hong Kong returned to being part of China, it was where peasants and workers gathered, hoping to make it across to Hong Kong, hoping for a better life in a wealthier land. Today it’s filled with factories where those same people and their children work long hours, for low pay, in conditions that just don’t exist in North America. Rich Crazy Asians treats it like a spa town, a playground for the wealthy. There’s no addressing where those knock-offs come from or who makes them.
Knowing what I know about Shenzen made me hate these women and their lifestyle. It told me something entirely different about who they were and what they held to be important. So why doesn’t Kwan illuminate that aspect for us? Does he expect his readers to already know the truth about the city? No, he’s clearly writing for an audience unfamiliar with Asia. My overwhelming feeling while reading Rich Crazy Asians was that Kwan wanted to show a North America audience that Asians can be wealthy too. That WASPs don’t hold a monopoly on privilege. And this is absolutely true. North Americans can be guilty of believing a lot of stereotypes about Asia and one I hear a lot is that it’s a poor place.
That’s only one side of Asia and Kwan casts a light on the other side, one that many North Aemricans are unfamiliar with. He wants us to see that wealth and power and posh society exist there and he demonstrates that pretty well in this novel.
Let’s be honest – if Rich Crazy Asians were set in the upper echelons of North American society, I probably wouldn’t think that the author owes it to the reader to also focus on the lower classes and the poverty-stricken. Like I said, Kwan doesn’t owe it to anybody to teach his readers the history and economics of Asia. Yet, I’m disappointed that he took the easy route and seemed to pretend that these fabulous lifestyles are normal and that they don’t come at the cost of the majority of the population. Fiction has power and Kwan could have used that power.
Instead, Rich Crazy Asians is nothing but fluff. Granted, fluff set in another part of the world and so it has a newness that might appeal to some. If you’ve never been to Asia, it might seem exotic and that’s not a bad quality.
We follow Rachel Chan – mainland Chinese by birth but American through-and-through – as she travels with her boyfriend Nick to his home country of Singapore. Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick is heir to one of the wealthiest, most powerful families in the nation. He comes from the sort of upper class family with history and prestige that few of us will ever interact with. And he’s told her nothing about them.
It’s hard not to dislike Nick for being so ignorant of his own privilege and for doing so little throughout the novel to make Rachel comfortable in his very different world. We’re supposed to root for them as a couple (I think) but Nick is so thoughtless that I spent most of the book hoping Rachel would simply take off and backpack through Asia on her own.
Mostly, this novel felt like a way for Kwan to name drop his own prestigious upbringing. At one point, he includes a footnote with an anecdote from his own childhood, which tells us that he went to the fancy boys’ prep school he’s describing. The plot felt like it came second to his attempts to recreate this world and its characters and the book suffers for that.