“Crazy Rich Asians” is one of those books that I have been repeatedly asked for my opinions about because it is set in Singapore and by association, I must have read it even though I did not. Out of curiosity, I did pick it up eventually and my verdict would be that it is very much a predictable book.
If you have watched the Gossip Girl series, this book is the Asian rendition about politics in the high society. The protagonist is Nicholas Young, who at the start of the novel passed off as a regular bloke living in a small apartment in New York with his girlfriend, Rachel Chu. One summer holiday, Nicholas decided to bring Rachel back to meet his family at home in Singapore and that opened up Pandora’s box.
Unknown to Rachel, Nick hailed from one of the richest families in the Southeast Asian country, which effectively made him an incredibly attractive bachelor up for dangle. Yet his illustrious family background also placed him within a complex web of extended family relations that intimidated Rachel with their sheer size, wealth and power.
“Nick is so inordinately good-looking, most of these girls have had mad crushes on him since childhood. Then you have to understand something about this family. There’s a certain mystique that surrounds them because they are so intensely private. Most people don’t even realize they exist, but for the small circle of families that do, they inspire a level of fascination that’s hard to describe. Nick is the scion of this noble clan, and for some of these girls, that’s all that matters.”
But what differentiates this book from Gossip Girl is the strong Asian flavor infused in the writing, most evidently seen through the utilization of a colorful mélange of Asian languages and dialects, which I attest to as being authentically Singaporean. Characters from the book spoke a mix of predominantly English sentences injected with Chinese and Malay phrases peppered with a dash of Cantonese expressions. Are you able to comprehend with the sentence below?
“Can you believe it? Alamak, a child from some divorced no-name ulu family! I’m going to tiao lau!”
On a more subtle level, the book also delicately describes the conundrum in the behavior and attitude of Southeast Asian Chinese, particularly those from esteemed traditional families hold, where they try to uphold eastern Confucian values while emphasizing on their capabilities to indulge in finer Western tastes.
For instance, Nick’s grandmother Shang Su-yi, the grand matriarch of their extended family, was what Rachel described as ‘a Chinese woman in the most traditional sense.’ But Su-yi’s choice of entertaining her guests would be over afternoon tea inside her temperature-controlled conservatory that seemed to have been transported straight out of the English countryside.
These cultural subtleties aside, underneath all the pomp and splendor, the story boils down to a basic concoction of love, greed and envy amongst the rich and the insecurities that plagued their lives manifested in their incessant obsession to outdo each other on the fashion front by showing up for family events in hard to purchase, next season’s haute couture pieces.
With all these culturally rich and interesting set up that the book laid out, the biggest letdown for me was how the central plot slowly unfurled to reveal a cheesy love story that ended abruptly towards the end… which for me, honestly relegates this book to become another one of the run-of-the-mill stories.