“I liked Crazy Rich Asians. Am I racist?” is what someone asked me after reading Kevin Kwan’s first book a couple of years ago.
Well, shit. I liked Crazy Rich Asians, too. And I loved China Rich Girlfriend, Kwan’s soon-to-be-released follow-up (Doubleday Canada, June 16). I’m Chinese. Am I racist?
I’ve read a lot of Asian literature, stories about the mah-jong tile, like a magic carpet, riding on the four winds, transporting the reader to the Far East to learn about an ancient culture, illuminating the immigrant’s journey, giving voice to our ancestors and the origin of old customs. Um, I might have written a book about that myself. Of course those stories have value. Of course they are important. Because every culture wants to be understood and respected. Which is why, for so long, our stories have been told so… seriously. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be taken seriously. I feel like that focus on profundity is not unlike what female actors have been pushing up against in film and television recently. It’s the curious case of the Strong Female Character. Does she always have to be “strong”? Can’t she be complicated? Morally compromised? Irrevocably flawed? Similarly, does the Asian story always have to feature an Asian character who finds the answers in a magical piece of jade after a cup of jasmine and ginger tea?
Books like Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club have shown the world the beauty of Asian spirituality. Books like Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend celebrate, even revel in, our superficiality. And that is totally OK. If white people can have both Steinbeck and Gossip Girl, why can’t we?
China Rich Girlfriend is actually more like Gossip Girl and Dynasty and the royal family of England all at the same time. Kwan’s characters behave hideously—and it’s hilarious. The comedy is in the often uncomfortable generalizations about being Chinese. Like how they’re shitty tippers, and they never want to pay taxes. This is my mother. She’s not rich but is definitely crazy.
And, like the characters in the book, she too observes the Chinese Hierarchy. It’s the ugly part of Chinese culture that Kwan is not afraid to illustrate and criticize: that certain Chinese people, from certain territories, are considered superior to others. Chinese from Hong Kong and Singapore are often ranked highest because they’re perceived to be more sophisticated, mannered and elegant. Those from Taiwan come after that. And at the very bottom of the Chinese totem pole are the mainlanders, those who come from China proper and are raised under communist influence, and therefore considered to be coarse and uncultured, qualities only exacerbated by money. A lot of money. China is producing more billionaires than any other country in the world; it’s estimated that in just two years, China will have more billionaires than the United States. And that’s crazy indeed. Because just 10 years ago, there were only three of them. So there’s rich, and then there’s China Rich. China Rich is basically supporting the luxury market. But they still can’t get into the right clubs. This is a story you’ve heard before. This is a story you don’t have to be Chinese to understand. Remember when Alexander McQueen allegedly banned Victoria Beckham from attending his show in 2001 because, even though she could spend the money, she was considered too crass, too “chav,” to be seen in his clothes?
In one of the funniest chapters in China Rich Girlfriend, a former mainlander porn star who marries into obscene wealth hires a “status consultant” to help her get in with the social elite. She’s eventually presented with a guidebook that coaches her on what to wear, what to say, where to eat, what to read and even how to pray. The entire manual is hysterical. But this is the best line: “You should under no circumstances wear Roberto Cavalli ever again.”
Say it in an Anna Wintour voice, like she’s talking to Kim Kardashian. China Rich Girlfriends don’t have to be Chinese.
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