How Asia Got Crazy Rich

What the film’s central conflict turns upon is not simply strife between rich and poor, Asian and American, but rather the friction between different forms of accumulation—landed rents, financial interest, industrial profits, et cetera—that are historical in character and can be located throughout the diasporic division of labor that has evolved across Asia the past half-century. These tensions are a palpable reality in everyday life in Asia today, bubbling up periodically in the tabloid press, from the Kyoto locals who deride the recent influx of Chinese tourists as “pollution” to Hong Kong TV commercials in which Chinese actors wear dark makeup to portray Filipina domestic workers. Such economic racism is perhaps the clearest marker of all of modern Asia’s shared resemblances with Europe and America.

Toward a materialist history of Crazy Rich Asians

Still from Crazy Rich Asians

True to its title, Crazy Rich Asians features two hours of Asian people doing crazy and rich things. They purchase million-dollar-plus earrings; they fly helicopters to a bachelor party hosted on a floating container ship; and they host a wedding in an interior botanical garden, in which the bride walks down the aisle knee-deep in an artificial creek. Based upon Singaporean-American novelist Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel, the film centers on a middle-class Chinese American economics professor, Rachel Chu, who travels back to her boyfriend Nick Young’s childhood home in Singapore and is introduced to his friends and their unfathomably opulent lifestyles. Its central tension pits Rachel’s American-bred individuality against the traditional, familial piety of Nick’s mother, Eleanor, who insists upon keeping the largest real estate and financial empire in the southeast Asian city-state within the families of the Singaporean elite.

The film has enjoyed substantial critical approval and been rewarded by box office numbers. For its champions, it succeeds in widening the Hollywood universe to include an underrepresented American minority group, portraying it in exceedingly optimistic terms. Many have echoed the director’s claim that “it’s not a movie, it’s a movement.” For its critics, the film is a disappointing foray into representation, obeying romantic-comedy formulae at the expense of saying something edgier about Asian-American life.

What is shared between these views is the choice to judge this film solely upon the basis of its portrayal of Asia, Asians, and Asian Americans, without a history or even acknowledgment of how they became so “crazy rich” in the first place. Without dismissing the film’s significance for so many, it should be recognized that the “Crazy Rich” and “Asian” in its title are performing different roles in the story. On the one hand, “Asian” provides political cover to “Crazy Rich,” as the film markets itself as a celebration of diversity rather than a celebration of the elite in an age of historic inequality, including within Asia and for Asian Americans themselves. On the other hand, neither is the “Crazy Rich” incidental, for to be wealthy is what marks the Asian characters as modern and relatable, even endearing.

This comes out clearly when Kwan’s story is contrasted against Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. That older film drew upon stories from the life of Tan’s mother, spent in Republican-era Shanghai (19111949), and it featured stock imagery from turn-of-the-century China: opium dens, concubinage and rape, arranged marriages, and foot binding. I can recall such scenes because they have been seared into my brain since I was 9 years old, dragged to the theater by my Taiwan-raised yet pro-China parents (an important distinction these days), and made slightly nauseous imagining the world my grandparents had left behind. The Joy Luck Club suggests that strong family bonds were what helped Chinese women weather and ultimately escape an oppressive, traditional society. Crazy Rich Asians turns that idea on its head. The conflict between Rachel and Eleanor conveys that strong family bonds are obstacles to empowerment for a new cosmopolitan Chinese diaspora that values individualism and romance. There is an implied historical process here, then, from old Asia as the antithesis of western individualism transformed dramatically into a new Asia embodying the future of capitalism.

The film has also come under criticism for presenting only a narrow slice of the Asian experience. Despite casting ethnic Japanese, Korean, Malay, and Filipino actors, it is ultimately rooted in the international history of the Chinese diaspora and its particular brands of capitalism. It also focuses exclusively upon the diaspora’s most elite segments.

But Crazy Rich Asians was written as something loosely inspired by Kwan’s own lived experiences, and the result is a story that has more nuance than most English-language works about the Chinese diaspora. Rather than chide him for not writing a more inclusive story, it seems more useful to ask why Kwan’s tale, based upon his idiosyncratic childhood as the scion of a Singaporean banking family, has resonated so strongly with a wider audience. What has it meant in the past, and what does it mean today, to celebrate Asian wealth?

Crazy Rich Asians may conceal its own history, but its story only makes sense as part of a very recent pattern of ascendant wealth across the Pacific Ocean. Singapore, the setting of Kwan’s story, represents the quintessence of contemporary Asia’s lurid stories of excessive riches. It is well-known that while the Asia region from year to year generates the most income and features the fastest-growing economies in the world, these numbers mostly reflect the continent’s massive population. On a per capita basis, only Singapore can rival European and North American countries in economic power, boasting some of the world’s best airports, airline services, and universities.

According to its national mythology, Singapore has always been wealthy, whether due to its strategic location, or thanks to the British Empire and its ideals of free trade, imported when Thomas Raffles established the island city-state as an international entrepôt in 1819. There is much truth in this story. The Strait of Malacca was the main passageway between south and east Asia for centuries, connecting Arab and Chinese merchants by the 14th-century. In the 19th century, colonial Singapore functioned as a base for European militaries, firms, and banks, not dissimilar from Batavia (Jakarta), Manila, or even Hong Kong and Calcutta at the time. It was this environment that initially attracted waves of Chinese merchants and workers to come set up plantations and firms for opium, tin, black pepper, and gambier.

Still there isn’t a smooth path from British colonialism to 21st-century Asian capitalism. The Forbes list of richest Singaporeans today confirms that, yes, real estate and finance are the top sectors in this city-state with limited natural resources; Kwan’s own lineage can be traced back to the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC). But these success stories are 20th-century ones (for example, the OCBC was established in 1932): from the era of colonialism, but later than implied by Singapore’s nationalist myths. In fact, the crazy rich of Singapore are tied to a broader, more recent story of crazy rich Asia.

After independence in 1959, Singapore briefly attempted to unify with Malaysia to pursue a leftist strategy of national development via import substitution industrialization. But in 1965, Singapore separated again and joined a handful of small capitalist Asian countries in projects of export-led growth, inviting foreign investment, and promoting labor-intensive light industries to move up the global value chain. They were eventually dubbed the “four tiger” or “little dragon” economies: Taiwanese televisions, South Korean cars, Hong Kong wigs, and Singaporean semiconductors.

The “four tigers” era was deemed an economic miracle, marked by relatively egalitarian development and low unemployment. By the late ’70s and ’80s, they were facing diminishing returns. Rather than follow Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan into high-tech manufacturing, Singapore pivoted into invisible exports, offering those other economies the services of accounting, legal work, and management. The government also encouraged Singaporean capital to look abroad and invest in poorer Asian countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and China, while it opened the doors for migrant workers from South Asia and other low-wage regions. It has since become a hub for international finance, but new growth has come at the cost of widening inequality.

In this sense, Singapore is not a new type of society. A century before Asian industrialization, similar patterns of inequality and patrimonial capitalism animated the celebrated novels about the European bourgeoisie, like Mansfield Park and Buddenbrooks. What those dense family dramas demonstrated was that capitalism is not just a static marketplace but also entails long processes of wealth accumulation marked by different phases and logics. A charitable reading for Crazy Rich Asians is that it is doing for the late 20th-century Chinese diaspora what those novels did for the bourgeoisie of Western Europe.

The most prominent family in Kwan’s story are the Youngs, whose original fortune dates back to Nick’s Chinese-born great-grandmother, presumably at the turn of the 20th century. The Youngs got in on the ground floor of an older, Victorian-era wealth, viewed by its caretakers as sociologically distinct from the newer elites found across the Asia-Pacific. The unstated irony is that owning lots of land in Singapore—and Malaysia and China, not to mention London and Hawaii—made the Young family this fabulously wealthy only because the rest of Asia, along with its nouveau riche, made the region so economically productive in recent decades. These tensions across geography and generation appear at the margins of the romantic plot. Nick’s cousin explains to Rachel that in Asia’s richest circles, you will find Hong Kongers, “Taiwan Tycoons,” and “Beijing Billionaires.” These families are not equals. In the novel, Eleanor initially mistakes Rachel for the heiress to a Taiwan plastics company, which Eleanor calculates as “very new money, made in the seventies and eighties, most likely.” A more palpable clash emerges from the story of Nick’s fabulously wealthy cousin, a real-estate investor, and her rocky marriage to a middle-class software engineer who frequently takes business trips to Shenzhen, China—Shenzhen, of course, a symbol of China’s own movement up the global value chain since the 1980s, having absorbed light industry and electronics manufacturing from the “four tigers.”

The film’s producers allegedly sought to minimize the book’s details of specific stereotypes between Asian groups, wary of alienating unfamiliar audience members. But the distinctions are inescapable throughout the story, and the story in fact would make little sense without them.

Take the central tension between American Rachel and Singaporean Eleanor. It is no coincidence that Rachel is a trained economist, the quintessentially Anglo-American discipline. Since its origins as “political economy,” economics has led the modern change against landed wealth as parasitic and unproductive of social (viz., commercial) value, harmful to the general improvement of society. The film introduces Rachel through a dramatic application of game theory in the classroom, a set of ideas, along with the larger canon of neoclassical economics Rachel teaches, grounded in a normative criticism of the type of property monopolization and rent-seeking behavior that sustains Eleanor’s empire, and of which Eleanor is so protective. How else does her circle of friends have so much time for partying and gossip? If Rachel’s entrepreneurialism represents the promise of social mobility—in the film, she champions microloans as a strategy of uplift for women in the global South—then Eleanor’s aristocratic accumulation of land—perhaps the oldest form of wealth in human history—is conservative by nature.

What the film’s central conflict turns upon is not simply strife between rich and poor, Asian and American, but rather the friction between different forms of accumulation—landed rents, financial interest, industrial profits, et cetera—that are historical in character and can be located throughout the diasporic division of labor that has evolved across Asia the past half-century. These tensions are a palpable reality in everyday life in Asia today, bubbling up periodically in the tabloid press, from the Kyoto locals who deride the recent influx of Chinese tourists as “pollution” to Hong Kong TV commercials in which Chinese actors wear dark makeup to portray Filipina domestic workers. Such economic racism is perhaps the clearest marker of all of modern Asia’s shared resemblances with Europe and America.

One major difference between the current Asian bourgeoisie and their 19th-century predecessors is that the former has long sought to “catch up” with the latter. European and American wealth was consolidated at the outset of the most prosperous epoch in human history, and Asian societies decades later found themselves forced to expedite the same process through state action and studying foreign languages and technologies. To be powerful in modern Asia has meant having to live a layered life, constantly measuring the development of one’s own society against the putative originals in the north Atlantic. This dynamic is signaled in the opening scene of Crazy Rich Asians, the only one with a prominent speaking role for white actors. In a flashback to 1995, we see Eleanor and the Young family travel to London, where the hotelier at an upper-class hotel, the Calthorpe, turns them away once he realizes the “Young” family is actually Chinese. Eleanor’s recourse is to make a long-distance call to her husband, who promptly buys the hotel outright and transforms the staff from authority figures to subordinates. Eleanor speaks even more sharply in the book, telling the racist hotelier, smiling, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave the premises.”

The revenge fantasy is viscerally satisfying to watch on screen. Described on paper, though, it is clear how it points in two different directions within the modern history of Asian wealth: Asian capital’s struggles to establish its legitimacy in the eyes of Europe and the United States, balanced, conversely, by a consistent white fear of the economic power of Asia. The latter emerged at the turn of the 20th century with journalistic warnings of a “Yellow Peril” threatening the “white races.”

But those early stigmas of Chinese and Japanese labor were qualitatively different from more recent stories of a postwar Asian elite purchasing foreign property as an investment. In the 1980s, Japanese investment into American treasury bills and property skyrocketed, culminating in the Mitsubishi Corporation’s 1989 purchase of a majority stake in New York City’s Rockefeller Center. Fully participating in this panic was Donald Trump, whose rhetoric in recent years has largely retained the same nativist themes but simply replaced “Japan” with “China” (“they come over here, they sell their cars, their VCRs, they knock the hell out of our companies,” Trump said of Japanese companies in a 1988 interview). It is Chinese investors who personify the threat of invading Asian capital today. Kwan’s Calthorpe Hotel scene appeared in 2013, one year before the Chinese Anbang Insurance group actually purchased a collection of prestigious American hotels, including Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria. But Kwan’s scene also predated the Trump Administration, which this past summer passed legislation to bolster a Committee on Foreign Investment tasked with limiting Chinese investment into the US on the pretense of national security.

All this is to say that for most observers in America by now, “Asia” has shed much of its earlier connotation as land of opium and concubinage, instead symbolizing the latest elite to ascend onto the world stage. For many American audiences, depictions of luxurious Singaporean parties will appear less as shocking revelation than as confirmation of a vague sense that the global economy is in transition. As satisfying as the Calthorpe hotel scene was, it is difficult to ignore just how much it mirrored “Yellow Peril” discourses by reductively portraying Chinese diasporic capitalists as a powerful and international economic force. It also points to the need to go beyond the very American, very management-inspired idea of “diversity” that would equate this film with “ethnic” movies centered on Black or Latinx American life. If modern racial categories have historically functioned as a way to make social inequality in market societies appear rooted in nature, then it follows that each of these groups has been typologized in different ways, owing to their different histories. The historic racist narrative of Black Americans was that they were lazy and undeserving of social mobility. The current narrative of Asian Americans is that they are too mobile, drilled in math and piano at an early age, hence unfair competition. This contrast in forms of racism should have been made clear, for instance, once journalists began openly to pit Black against Asian students in education policy debates. In this context, one wonders how the film will be received by the anti-globalization left or right. There is already a creeping sentiment of “Yellow Peril” in the US today, shared by all sides, suspicious of Chinese capital, labor, and college enrollments. The film borrows many of the same tropes but casts them in an innocent and humorous light. It is walking a fine line. Perhaps this is why Rachel must resolve the film’s encounters with the Singaporean capitalist sublime by insisting upon her individual desire, threatening to walk away from Nick’s family in the name of love, reassuring the audience that she may be Chinese by heritage but at heart remains unmistakably American.

The result is a certain ambivalence about Crazy Rich Asians and its reception. The film embodies an effort by the Asian diaspora to assert greater power in Hollywood, but many of them are already powerful economically, something that made both the story and its commercial success possible. It is fully understandable why the Asian diaspora is pushing for a formal equality with the European and American bourgeoisie before them; why the suggestion that Asians cannot also have the good life is a type of double standard or just textbook racism. But the substance of that equality takes the form of a highly destructive social behavior: endless wealth accumulation for its own sake, embodied in finance and real estate. So while the “four tigers” epoch successfully redistributed global wealth in a relatively egalitarian manner—as did other state-driven development projects across Asia, Africa, and the Americas—one fears that the future destiny of the new Asian bourgeoisie is to follow a by-now very old playbook of dynamic growth calcifying into a myopic old guard.

Such a scenario would validate the natural criticism that Crazy Rich Asians is yet another Hollywood film celebrating the economic elite, made more palatable by its guise of celebrating diversity. But is it plausible to read the story of crazy rich Asia another way, even against the grain of Kwan’s original intentions? The characters in Crazy Rich Asians, unsavory as their behavior may be, point also to what was made possible by 20th-century global development. That era witnessed the redistribution of wealth and power not only from a north Atlantic monopoly to its former colonies but also among classes throughout much of the world, raising living standards for many parts of the global poor. Many of these trends have been reversed in recent decades, but the Asian economy endures in global relevance. That is nothing to dismiss. Could we therefore point to crazy rich Asia as something worth holding onto, not as a celebration of the wealthy or even of Asia in particular, but rather as the historical possibilities of successful wealth redistribution from its former centers to the margins and from the top to bottom—as a resource for renewing a more radical vision of global development? That would turn out to be something much more worthy of celebration.

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