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Review: Kevin Kwan's Rich People Problems is an audacious satire

Kevin Kwan’s novel Rich People Problems concludes his incredibly popular Crazy Rich Asians trilogy.

Giancarlo Ciampini

Title
Rich People Problems
Author
Kevin Kwan
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Doubleday Canada
Pages
398
Price
$32

I wish I didn't have to write this review. In a perfect world, I'd sign off after this paragraph. Because Rich People Problems, the final act of Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, is one of this summer's best breezy beach reads, an audacious satire that lifts the curtain on the jet-set 1 per cent of Southeast Asian multibillionaires. It is a fitting coda to a saga that inspires devoted readers to send Kwan their fan art of one of his fashion-plate heroines or book flights to Singapore to tour the real-life locations he so thoroughly describes on the page. I would end on a joke that his sprawling comedy of manners is a Downton Abbey for the rest of us – that is, the billions of Chinese in China, Southeast Asia and the greater diaspora of Chinese-hyphenate English speakers. And then I'd sit and wait for the publisher to blurb one of these sentences for the paperback printing of this plucky page-turner.

But in 2017, in a mix of better and worse, appreciating a set of bestselling books that is unapologetically Asian has implications beyond fan-boying over the lavish world of highest society that Kwan has created. That, finally, the discourse about cultural appropriation has rightly become part of the creative conversation is but a part of it. (I disclose here that I should be the last person to critically add to the full spectrum of discussion – I, in my own unapologetic way, filter Rich People Problems through my specific lens as an English-speaking Canadian of Chinese immigrant parents.)

What makes Kwan's work so fascinating is that, against the odds, without nary a blonde-haired, blue-eyed protagonist in sight, or even the slightest hint of an ethnic identity crisis, he's found a successful formula (three books!) that has even turned heads in that other place where people of colour still rarely tread: Hollywood.*

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*More on Hollywood later. But speaking of footnotes, Kwan employs them liberally in his writing to translate Chinese phrases, expand on cultural idiosyncrasies or take omnipresent jabs at his outrageous characters. Much like the manic pixie dream girl, it's a trope that needs to disappear, but he manages to turn them into welcome respites when readers need to take a quick breather from his admitted seat-of-his-pants pacing ("I don't have a notebook, it just all comes out of my crazy mind. I really don't keep an outline, I don't organize in any way," he recently told Cosmopolitan.com)

In 2013, when Crazy Rich Asians was published, it was too early to consider its greater legacy and enough to indulge in a guilty pleasure with characters that looked like me. We meet Rachel Chu, the American-born economics professor who falls in love with Nick Young, the unassuming history professor who reluctantly reveals he is the heir apparent to one of Singapore's richest family fortunes. It's not hard to imagine what his relatives thought of her unmoneyed bonafides.

The second book, from 2015, China Rich Girlfriend, still fell squarely in guilty-pleasure territory, this time adding a layer of nouveau riche gawking by introducing new-money billionaires from China to the mix.

In Rich People Problems, Kwan triples down on his gilded playground with an impending death: Su Yi, the matriarch of the Youngs, has fallen ill, bringing out aunties, uncles and cousins from every extended branch of the family tree seeking their share of her sprawling estate.*

*You don't need to be crazy or rich or Asian to know the knives that come out when family money is in play. It wasn't acres of prime land in Singapore, but my own mother rues the hundreds of thousands of dollars left on the table when we quickly divested of my grandmother's Kensington Market home – pre-Toronto real estate boom.

In the past few months, as I've watched how many white Canadian writers have chosen to die on this hill of cultural appropriation, I've thought longer and harder about my affinity for Kwan's trilogy and why I don't harbour as much for the other reading I've done in the North American Chinese milieu. At the turn of the century*, as a moody student, I had found some comfort in the modern Asian perspectives that were available. Terry Woo's Banana Boys (2000) embodied the social anxieties of growing up the children of immigrants in Canada. I saw parts of myself in the hopeless dating lives of the characters or the familial expectations, but I mostly saw the Gen X struggles of my older cousins, who came of age in a country that hadn't yet seen the critical mass of Chinese exodus ahead of the 1999 handover of Hong Kong. Madeleine Thien's Certainty (2006) opened my eyes to the tangled geographical web of Chinese migration and the stories that could be told beyond my family's own winding path to the West. I saw my Canada-England-Malaysia ties in her Canada-Netherlands-Malaysia ancestry, but I never saw myself in her work.

*Still very much a Joy Luck Club (1989) world.

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At the time of Crazy Rich Asian's publication, I was more enamoured of a different, footnote-heavy book from a minority voice, Eddie Huang's Fresh Off The Boat. His memoir was more or less the millennial update of Banana Boys, a brash, hip-hop-inflected coming-of-age child-of-immigrants story that dripped with enough swagger to make up for a few generations' worth of humble hustle. (I also reviewed his 2016 effort; I was not as taken.)

But to understand why a satire of unimaginably rich Chinese from Singapore – who, in a serious discussion of class in the Chinese diaspora for another time, would never give my upper-middle-class Canadian family a second glance – has suddenly taken on more cultural relevance than a singular personality such as Huang, look to Hollywood.

It was a pop cultural milestone in 2015 that Fresh Off The Boat was adapted into a sitcom on ABC in the United States.* There was some outcry over the casting of the show; lead actor Randall Park, for instance, is Korean-American. But it was a given that the production would showcase Asian talent to tell a fundamentally Asian story, and that in itself was enough of a win for the cause of diversity.

*That no Canadian network owns the broadcast rights to one of TV's most diverse shows is astounding.

With Kwan's researched eye for detail*, it's no surprise that an adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians is being filmed in Malaysia. But what makes it an even bigger milestone than an all-Asian sitcom, and what leads me to believe this will be the world's biggest movie next summer, is that Crazy Rich Asians, in a sense, will be stubbornly Asian and so its cast will feel hard won. The commitment to diverse talent has been the calling card of prerelease buzz, with Kwan and director Jon M. Chu feeling the need to make bold promises as such in interviews. It has the urgency of a battle cry rather than a pithy quote for Variety.

In print, Kwan's triumph of story was that he could tell one of excess and globetrotting and family intrigue that found buoyancy in the Asian perspective, rather than weighted introspection. For the screen, that light touch nearly burned the adaptation before it even began. Prior to the first casting announcement of Constance Wu, a rumour that her character, Rachel, might be changed to a white American was enough to send fans into a doomsday tailspin reminiscent of when Emma Stone played a Hawaiian character named Allison Ng in Aloha.

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*No really. At one point, in addition to costing six figures, Kwan describes a gown from the designer Giambattista Valli in exquisite detail, "from ivory tulle at the bodice and into a shimmering gold column, with a cascading train-length skirt embroidered with thousands of gold chips, lapis lazuli, and precious gemstones," and so on and so forth. It's enough description to make J.R.R. Tolkien blush.

I have high hopes for the film, and for Kwan's future projects. And if the upward trajectory of diversity in popular culture continues, I hope they will merit the blurbiest of capsule reviews.

Cliff Lee is an editor with Globe Life & Arts.

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