Upstairs, Downstairs | Daily News

Upstairs, Downstairs

Here’s how a character in Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel describes a fashion disaster. “Never, ever wear green chiffon, unless you want to look like bok choy.”

In another story, in another place, I might have laughed. But not with this story, not with the movie based on the story gaining international acclaim, not when the title of the book, and the movie, summarize all of us as, “Crazy Rich Asians.”

As a ‘poor’ Asian (‘poor’ when it comes to material wealth), it hurts to think that thanks to Kwan’s novel the rest of the world will now see us Asians as a new species of ostentatious nouveau riche who have no qualms about being vulgar conspicuous consumers.

The way Kwan portrays us, we are so rich we send our “saris back to New Delhi to be specially cleaned.” We play with extraordinary toys such as a climate-controlled closet the size of an aircraft hangar, where the cashmere and furs are maintained at a lower temperature than the displays of shoes; and screens project images of models wearing each item together with dates and locations of where the item was previously worn, so that the owner will never “repeat an outfit”.

In other words, according to Kwan, we Asians are not just rich but also absurdly crazy. We lead fairy tale lives, slightly modified to fit our surroundings; instead of cupcakes we make dumplings; instead of whist we play mahjong but when it comes to parties and weddings we outdo the royals.

The book opens with a prologue where the “Crazy Rich Asians” first flaunt their peacock feathers in London in 1986. Shabby-looking members of the Young family are treated rudely in an elite hotel. They promptly pull strings, make one phone call and end up buying the entire hotel, while still standing at the reception.

Flash forward to 2010, when one of the Young boys, Nicholas, has grown up to have “perfectly tousled black hair, chiseled Cantonese pop-idol features, and impossibly thick eyelashes.” He also has a career as an academic in New York and a girlfriend named Rachel Chu.

The story is woven around Nick and Rachel. Rachel is unaware of Nick’s vastly affluent family. When the story begins their relationship has become serious, and Nick invites Rachel to accompany him to Singapore for the wedding of a friend at which Nick is to be Best Man. Nick wants Rachel to finally meet his family.

It is hard to figure out if Rachel Chu of the Taipei Plastics Chus, who happens to be a professor in Economics at the New York University is unbelievably naive or downright unintelligent, not to have known, or suspected that her long-term boyfriend is the Prince Harry of Singapore. Only when they take their seats in first class on the way to meet his mother does Rachel realise Nick might be slightly richer than she thought. Apparently, she has never heard of Google.

Or, more likely, the author wants her to be naive because her squeaky-clean naivete is a foil to the intricate workings of the high-glamour Asian set around her. Chinese on the outside but all-American on the inside.

To Rachel’s dismay, therefore, everyone she encounters in the novel is extraordinarily rich or beautiful — usually both. There’s Astrid, whose poise and beauty are the envy of the whole of Singapore and who jets into Paris to gather haute couture collections before they even reach the runway; her chiseled, “fiercely handsome” husband, Michael, a Cal Tech-trained ex-Special Services Army man; Araminta, the bride-to-be, whose private jet contains a “library-slash-media room” and an Ayurvedic yoga studio; Shang Su Yi, the rich grandma who lives in a mysterious faux-European mansion on an estate in the middle of Singapore so private that even Google Earth doesn’t show it.

If this isn’t sugary enough the roll call of predictable characters who flirt outrageously with Mills & Boon cliche (“He was just so startlingly attractive ... with his stubble and the rumpled shirt”; “Then there were those piercing, deep-set eyes and the washboard abs rippling along his lean torso” and so on) is enough sucrose to give you a toothache. The comic touches make the worst moments:Stanford: “It’s that school in California for people who can’t get into Harvard,”“Mark’s not white, he’s Jewish — that’s basically Asian,” “Aiyoooooh, finish everything on your plate, girls! Don’t you know there are children starving in America?”

Almost no material object appears in “Crazy Rich Asians” without an announcement of its brand name. And it is astonishing that author Kwan, works them into dialogue, not descriptions. So we get: “Parker, put down those Pierre Hardy flats or I’ll poke your eyes out with these Nicholas Kirkwood stilettos.” And: “I wouldn’t have worn my new Roger Vivier heels if I knew we were coming to a place like this.” And, from a man unhappy with his suite at the Wynn Macau: “I’m not going to dirty my Tod’s setting foot in one of those rat holes!” There’s even a poor little rich kid who, when told to wear his Gucci loafers, asks plaintively: “Which ones?”

Do we really want to know? Kwan thinks we do. He wants us to know that Charlie Wu, of the tech billionaire fortune, is in love with Astrid, the granddaughter of the Shang Su Yi, who is unhappy that her grandson Nicholas is not dating the Rachel Chu of the Taipei Plastics Chus, but they are all going to the wedding of Araminta Lee, of the luxury hotel Lees, and Colin Khoo, of the Khoo Teck Fong fortune and — la — some big secrets might be revealed.

Sadly, ever so sadly, this is not who we are. Perhaps one percent among us will have new money to spend on a castle modeled on Versailles in Changsha, billion-dollar penthouses in Bombay, or to check into the Marina Bay Sands casino in Singapore, with its seven celebrity-chef restaurants. But the other 99% lead entirely different lives. That’s why it grates to have a book, written by an Asian-American so blandly summarizing all of us who live on this continent as “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Salt gets added to the wound when we hear Kwan say he wrote the book with a Western audience in mind. It appears he thought he could get away with it because he didn’t think people living in Asia would be interested in reading about themselves. He says he didn’t expect Asians to read his book because, “they have their own stories, this is old hat for them.”

Kevin Kwan got it wrong. We have read his book, watched the movie. This is no old hat for us.

It’s the wrong hat, altogether.


 

Add new comment