Books

06.29.13

Gatsby in Asia

Welcome to the new Gilded Age. The Rockefellers and Rothschilds have nothing on the new money elite in China, Singapore, and elsewhere in Asia. Ross Perlin on Kevin Kwan’s new novel, Crazy Rich Asians, and the making of a new international bling class.

They feast on abalone and bird’s nest, buy up private islands in eastern Indonesia, imbibe only the choicest ginseng (imported from Washington State), zip over to the casinos of Macao, compared to which Vegas is “the kiddie pool.” They flaunt the hereditary titles bestowed by Malay sultans and Thai royals, the dried-up laurels of the Chinese Communist Party (“Outstanding Builder of Socialism With Chinese Characteristics”), the Hong Kong vanity license plates auctioned off for millions.

Even in today’s global Gilded Age, Asia’s 1 percenters are in a class by themselves. No one doubts that the Wall Street banksters and hedgesters are plenty gilded, that the Silicon plutocrats have a certain swagger, that the petro-billionaires of the Persian Gulf or the former U.S.S.R. can buy the sports teams they please. But the new Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Morgans are emerging in Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, and Beijing, the central nodes of the Chinese-speaking world. There the Chinese elite mediates between the Asian hinterlands, where speculation brings undreamed-of returns, and the supposed safe harbors of the West: luxury capitals like New York and London, diaspora centers like Vancouver and San Francisco, college towns and fancy suburbs everywhere.

What makes the Asian moguls different? Skilled mercantilists and capitalists, they can’t be dismissed out of hand as sheiks born under a lucky star or brainless, venal oligarchs. As Rockefellers and Vanderbilts once did, they stand as empire-builders astride the world’s fastest-growing firms, at the helm of the most dynamic economies. Just as the Rothschilds scattered their progeny among the capitals of Europe, the Asian elite maintains a presence in Taipei and in Tokyo, in Bali and in Bangkok, in Shenzhen and in Sydney. Unlike our hometown billionaires, many of them still make stuff, or at least their peons do. As passionately as they imitate the Euro-American elite they’re busy eclipsing, they seem to have a style, ethic, and worldview all their own. If it turns out to be an Asian Century, Jack Ma will seem more relevant than Jack Welch, Li Ka-shing cast a bigger shadow than Warren Buffett, Sir Run Run Shaw leave a greater legacy than Rupert Murdoch. Yet you probably don’t know who any of them are.

Or as a character in Crazy Rich Asians thinks to herself, surrounded by designer-clad Singaporean harpies: “This crowd made Upper East Side girls look like Mennonites.” This entertaining debut novel by Kevin Kwan, a New Yorker raised in Singapore, shows that Gossip Girl with (Overseas) Chinese characteristics has an added edge, an arriviste intensity somewhat lacking these days on Park Avenue and Pall Mall. The Asian jet set depicted by Kwan may be chasing approbation from the global elite (in some cases even seeking assimilation into that elite), but its members are fully confident that their hour has come, that their actions are fundamentally shifting the balance of power. Their decadence is still news.

Kwan sets up a familiar clash between old money and new, between the “mothball families” who lunch at the Colonial Club, “impervious to the flash of money, especially Mainland Chinese money,” and the mining and manufacturing magnates who’ve come to Singapore to transmute their renminbi into symbols of status and taste. But “old money” is relative here, given that the Chinese-speaking world has no real ancien regime to speak of. A more obvious and interesting fault line separates the “Overseas Chinese”—long resident in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and California, at once more Westernized and more traditionally Chinese—from the Mainland princelings and entrepreneurs shaped by decades of Communist Party rule. Will the latter group ultimately swamp or absorb the former, with Mandarin displacing Cantonese and political muscle counting for more than commercial verve?

The storyline of Crazy Rich Asians indicates a partial answer, but Kwan gives far more space to salacious gossip, sartorial splendor, and milder forms of debauchery. At least for this sliver of society, gone are the days of frugality and restraint, of the famous Asian household saving rates, of legendary work ethic—conspicuous consumption and its attendant vices are all the rage. “I’m telling you, this so-called ‘prosperity’ is going to be the downfall of Asia. Each new generation becomes lazier,” says Dr. Gu, the novel’s transitory Greek chorus intoning amid all the brand names. “They think they can make overnight fortunes just by flipping properties and getting hot tips in the stock market. Ha! Nothing lasts forever, and when this boom ends, these youngsters won’t know what hit them.”

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This photo taken on October 26, 2012 shows a worker at the construction site for a luxury property development in the suburbs of Shanghai. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty)
A more obvious and interesting fault line separates the “Overseas Chinese”—long resident in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and California, at once more Westernized and more traditionally Chinese—from the Mainland princelings and entrepreneurs shaped by decades of Communist Party rule.

Raised in California by a not-so-crazy-rich Chinese mother, Rachel Chu is an economics professor at NYU, accompanying her dreamboat boyfriend to Singapore to meet his family and attend the wedding of the season. The setup allows Kwan to put Rachel (and the reader) through an ostentatious crash course in the life of the Asian elite: a refined party to witness the rare nocturnal blooming of the tan hua flower; elite shopping in an atelier frequented by “all the Mainland Chinese, Mongolian, and Indonesian fashionistas who want the latest looks, and many of the privacy-obsessed Brunei princesses”; a bachelorette party on a private island resort, as vicious as it is hedonistic. The over-the-top centerpiece is the wedding itself, reported to cost “way more than forty million,” between flying in the Vienna Boys’ Choir and transforming an island known for war crimes into “a vast banquet hall set amidst the indigenous tropical rain forest.”

Will Rachel gain admission to Fantasy Island (i.e., upper-crust Singapore) or be booted off, or flee in revulsion? The outcome is never in too much doubt; what we really want to know is what on earth will she wear to the next function. On almost every page, a suitcase must be “Goyard,” a tote bag is “Bottega Veneta”—the characters drink Veuve Clicquot, not champagne, and wear Rolexes, never just a watch. It would be one thing if there were an alternate universe of brands, offering a distinct aesthetic or a different take on luxury—which the Chinese world invented, once upon a time—but the rich start to seem so boring and, even worse, homogenous. No wonder it’s easy to strike up a conversation in first class. They attend the same schools and buy the same clothes and visit the same places and get into the same sort of trouble again and again. Even the moody and glamorous socialite Astrid Leong, Kwan’s Daisy Buchanan, pouts one too many times. Like some of the others, she’s at her most interesting in the West, a deluxe playground free of consequences, but stiffens into cardboard back East.

The new Asian elite could certainly use a Tom Wolfe or two, but Kwan is far too besotted for the task. Kwan’s satire nibbles but never bites, and we grow hungry for the snatches of local color he throws our way: Cantonese curses and homilies in Hokkien, descriptions of Malay egg noodles, and the city-state’s stylish architecture. He knows the terrain, but can’t (or won’t) see beyond the glitz. The world of the Asian 99 percent—just a few billion people—is nowhere to be found. No sense of whether “Asian values” (a dubious Singaporean construct) will survive the all-dissolving powers of capitalism. Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, published earlier this year, traced a kind of slumdog-millionaire tale, exposing the vast human panorama of the contemporary Asian scene: the hundreds of millions living in squalor, the migrant-worker flows, the superstition and spirituality, the viciousness and vitality of the Asian Horatio Algers. Kwan’s tale is an air-conditioned parlor drama by comparison, as cool and as comfortable—as bloodless, commercial, and apolitical—as the “new Asia” of elite malls and branded resorts is meant to be, provided you’re rich enough to shop there.