“Rich People Problems” by Kevin Kwan

With Kevin Kwan’s first novel Crazy Rich Asians (2013) now being turned into a Hollywood film, expectations for the third novel, the trilogy-completing Rich People Problems were high, with both Crazy Rich Asians and the sequel China Rich Girlfriend (2015) having been bestsellers. The new book sees author Kevin Kwan continuing his tales of life amongst the ultra-rich, with previous protagonist Nick Young to the fore (though not his ABC wife Rachel, whose introduction to Nick’s hugely wealthy Singaporean family, and their appalling treatment of her, had powered the first novel). There’s a considerable dramatis personae, with interlocking families, multiple generations and a family history going back to World War II (the full importance of which is only revealed at the end of the novel), all continuing from the previous installments. Thus, we are reunited with favorites like matriarch Shang Su Yi; the avaricious social climber Kitty Bing (née Pong), the beautiful Astrid Leong, whose relationship with Charlie Wu forms the main sub-plot; Collette Bing, whose marriage to a member of the British peerage spurs Kitty to ever-greater absurdities, and the preposterous Eddie Cheng.

The settings remain the places and experiences only immense wealth provides, from country estates to mansions, primarily in Singapore and Hong Kong, alongside popular haunts like Paris, London and Sydney. What’s fascinating for the outsider is the characters’ careful grading of the East Asian racial hierarchy (to wit, in descending order: “Chindo, Singaporean, Hong Konger, Malaysian Chinese, Eurasian, Asian American living in New York or Los Angeles, Asian Ameican working in private equity in Connecticut, Canadian Asian from Vancouver or Toronto, Australian Chinese form Sydney or Melbourne, Thai, Filipino from Forbes Park, American Born Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Mainland Chinese, common Indonesian.”) Money, race, family and background clash like an Asian version of The Forsyte Saga with greater levity and more shopping.

Kwan spends some time introducing the characters to the reader, with their petty jealousies, sibling rivalries and eyebrow-raising expenditure, before the engine of the plot is revved up. With such a large cast, this is useful, but this initial kaleidoscopic approach means the reader is waiting some time before anything of consequence really happens; and since Kwan wants to mock the world he is presenting, he gives a sample of its entitled, narcissistic behaviors. An airplane is turned around mid-flight, necessitating the dumping of a quarter of million liters of fuel; Kitty (now the wife of Jack Bing, China’s second richest man) spends €175,000 on a couture dress for her five-year old daughter Gisele, then immediately orders another two, as she wants one for each house (in Singapore, Shanghai and Beverly Hills); Eddie Cheng glories at attending Davos, but feels trumped when he meets a friend who has a superior delegate badge, the one for world leaders (thinking, “How the fuck did Charlie get one? All he did was run Asia’s biggest tech company!”); when news of Astrid’s new relationship is leaked to a gossip website, her estranged husband Michael Teo simply buys it in order to delete the article; and, perhaps craziest of them all, a character orders cosmetic surgery for her arowana fish (though since it brings one fish’s value from $175,000 to $250,000, it’s maybe logical). Kwan claims to have taken all these incidents from real life. If so, he’s encountered things that many writers would love to have dreamt up.

Kwan’s descriptive powers are considerable, and fully needed, as he turns from to art to architecture to fashion. He is extremely well versed in tailoring and couture, with many fine outfits described. Some may relish the descriptions of Oscar de la Renta and Alexander McQueen, but others might feel the label dropping excessive, even if it’s a reasonable replication of how the characters truly speak. Kwan’s feeling for and descriptions of architecture, interior decoration, food and art is as sensitive. Here’s one example:

[Kitty] felt as if she had been transported back to a royal banquet in eighteenth-century France. The room was a mirrored chamber decorated with baroque gold boiseries, gilt bronze mirrors stretching from floor to ceiling, and dozens of candlelit crystal chandeliers. An immense dining table that seated thirty stretched along the middle of the room, heaving with Meisen china, gilt silverware, and towering gold birdcage centerpieces filled with white doves. The room sparkled under the light of thousands of candles, and footmen with powdered white wigs and dressed in black-and-gold livery stood behind every Amiens tapestry-covered chair.

There’s a feeling that Kwan enjoys describing this finery so much that his descriptions become nearly pornographic, offering tantalizing insights into the immensely wealthy which are denied to most. (He rather tries to have it both ways by having the art advisor Oliver T’sien call the room “a travesty”). And because practically every setting is equally moneyed (if not quite as fabulously overdone), there is little counterpoint to give a moral center or familiar space for the reader to hold on to. There’s no downstairs; it’s all upstairs.

Similarly, Kwan again peppers his novel with footnotes, sometimes jokey, sometimes didactic, explaining the references and allusions of his characters. This is useful in guiding us through an unfamiliar world. But, again, there’s a sense of Kwan trying to have it both ways: he wants to be both tour guide and satirist, to be an insider and outsider. It’s a difficult dual role to pull off, and it’s not always clear to what degree he is sending things up or glorying in their delights.

Kwan is however an excellent puppet-master, arranging his plots with cohesion and effortlessly manipulating his characters. The central engine of the plot concerns Tyersall Park in Singapore, a 100 acre property worth several billions of dollars, owned by Su Yi, the matriarch whose heart attack summons her far-flung family to attend to her final days. Of course, self-interest reigns as much as familial feeling, as Su Yi has not shared the provisions of her will but is known to have frequently changed it. Grandsons Nick and Eddie in particular are thought to be rivals for the inheritance, with male primogeniture counting for a lot, with Nick having been her favorite before their falling-out, and Eddie mounting an enormous, and transparent, campaign of obsequiousness and toadying.

After taking an overly generous hundred pages to establish the cast and their fantastically exclusive setting, the main characters assemble in Tyersall Park in the novel’s central section. At this point, you might expect the book to become a sort of country-house farce, for all the ingredients are there. Eddie becomes convinced he is the man who will inherit Tyersall Park and behaves monstrously (if to great comedic effect). Nick, eventually, emerges at the hero of the book. At the beginning he is still not in Su Yi ’s favor, having married his wife Rachel against Su Yi’s wishes and refused to repair the relationship. But when we first meet him, his background is rather taken for granted; we’re not filled in about him: he doesn’t behave appallingly, as with Kitty or Eddie, but we don’t really see him do much worthy of praise, either, beyond wrestling whether he should bury the hatchet with Su Yi and his concern that he will be seen as one more circling vulture. (The same can be said about Su Yi; we’re repeatedly told that she is a great woman, but as she falls ill early on, new readers won’t therefore realize her backstory. We do eventually learn of her courage and compassion during World War II, but we’ve gone nearly four hundred out of four hundred and fifty pages by then).

But rather than become a farce, the question of who will inherit Tyersall Park comes to dominate. As the estate’s importance is gradually revealed, the novel moves from social satire to a drama replete with intrigue: secret letters, revealed mysteries, bank safes, secret flights to private islands, and covert anonymous communications. One can almost feel the gears changing. (There remain farcical scenes, however: one prototypical “interfering Asian mother-in-law” episode between Rachel and Nick’s mother Eleanor concerning the former’s fertility is both jaw-dropping and belly-laughingly hilarious). Questions of inheritance take on great importance when there’s so much at stake, of course, but there are also the narrative imperatives of rewarding the good, punishing the bad and coming to a satisfactory conclusion to consider, and Kwan manages to hustle his story, and his trilogy, into an neat, effective, all-ends-tied-together ending.

Rich People Problems is ultimately frothy but fun; it’s a zippy read that you might well enjoy on the beach. As has been noted, it feels that Kwan’s sympathies really lie with the setting he is supposedly satirizing, but this might be part of the novel’s charm, if you enjoy reading about the lives of the one percent. Either way, Kwan is highly accomplished, able to handle a large cast, evoke a largely unknown world with deliciously vivid metaphors, produce memorably egregious characters, and make it all an entertaining read. If he could move out what has now been established as his comfort zone in terms of setting and character, and add more shade and contrast to his palette, he could move from the best-seller list to critical plaudits. Where he goes from here will be of great interest.

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A version of this was published in the South China Morning Post.