Kevin Kwan’s brand of giddy wealth porn arrived in 2013 with “Crazy Rich Asians,” not a moment too soon to rescue a worn-out and useless genre.
The vulgar rich had taken over reality TV, fictionalized TV (which seemed tepid by comparison), the occasional freakish documentary (like “The Queen of Versailles”) and the kind of fiction that heard its sell-by knell when “Bergdorf Blondes” and all its copycats came along. There was nothing new to be said about crass New Yorkers, Texans, Hollywood types or even tech billionaires. A whole money-wasting continent had been milked dry.
But along came Kwan with a knowing attitude and all of Asia at his disposal. His Asian readers may get his à clef references best, but it barely matters whether Ming Ka-Ching is the real name of Hong Kong’s second-richest man.
If he doesn’t exist, Kwan has done well to invent him for “China Rich Girlfriend,” the second volume in what has been projected as a gossipy, good-humored trilogy that will follow the richest old families of Singapore, Hong Kong and a few from mainland China. They join in a single shared pursuit: watching in horror as their youngest generations squander money in ways so staggering that Western show-offs look like pikers by comparison.
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“Crazy Rich Asians” and “China Rich Girlfriend” have two nice, sensible main characters, just so these books can’t be called totally insulting. They are Nick Young, a humble New York University professor who comes from such a powerful, venerable family that he stands to inherit an estate in the heart of Singapore that’s the size of Central Park, and Rachel Chu, who was raised in the United States by her Chinese mother.
Rachel has never known who her father was, but this is the book in which she finds out. He turns out to be — you might want to sit down for this — such a wealthy and important Chinese politician that Rachel isn’t just rich. She is “China rich,” with those words used together as a single modifying phrase.
And it is “Kwan crazy” for her father to accept her instantly, even though he never knew she existed. In fact, if he didn’t have a wife who wouldn’t have anything to do with Rachel, this would be a much shorter book. But Kwan has so much more to pack into it.
He wants to fill it with lots of other, much more laughable new-money specimens, and to drop the brand names of everything they wear, eat, envy or acquire. He wants to explore their values, if that’s the word: It seems that everyone is flagrantly competitive, always boastful, with no sense of shame where conspicuous consumption is concerned.
Of course, we know the rules of this game: The more hateful a character, the more fun he or she is to read about. And most of the hateful specimens in “China Rich Asians” are social-climbing husbands who want their wives to be more decorative, even if the men are using the wives’ fortunes to make themselves look important.
It seems especially Eastern for a man like Michael Teo, who parlayed his initial success with a tech start-up into a marriage to Astrid Leo, who is one of “the Medicis of Asia” and quite an It girl herself, to blame her for their inability to social climb.
When Michael reads in one of the society columns that are hilariously reprinted here, misspellings and all, that Astrid’s jewels aren’t bling-y enough, he flies into a fury of inadequacy. This leads him to try to buy one of Singapore’s rarest architectural masterpieces and turn its ground floor into a museum for his car collection, which includes a car from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
Fortunately, his offer is turned down. Later, Michael talks to a magazine reporter whom he has stupidly let into his inner sanctum, his personal dressing room, where he keeps an original version of the Emancipation Proclamation to “be reminded of who I am.”
Oh, there’s so much more where that came from.