An Identity Crisis in Crazy Rich Asians
Kevin Kwan’s novel Crazy Rich Asians may initially read as no more than an ode to fabulous wealth. Following the romance between Rachel Chu and her ultra-rich beau, Nicholas Young, every page is replete with lavishly detailed descriptions of couture clothing, private jets, and aristocratic infighting. It’s yet another derivation of our endless fascination with the rich, an Asian spin on celebrity tabloids and Gossip Girl.
But the novel’s seemingly superficial subject matter belies its themes of discrimination and racial insecurity. Crazy Rich Asians speaks to the deep-rooted fear that so many Asians struggle with today - that to be Asian is to be inferior, and that success results from eradicating one’s Asian identity.
The novel begins with a telling vignette. The Young family arrives at a posh hotel in London, usually reserved for the highest echelons of European society. The obsequious man at the desk refuses to admit a Chinese family onto the premises, despite the fact they’ve made a reservation. Though the novel doesn’t explicitly state why he refuses them, his thought process can be deduced fairly easily as the following: they’re Chinese, and therefore likely to be dirty, tacky, and obnoxious.
The power differential is highlighted with stark contrast: though the Young family is fabulously rich, they’re stymied by a lowly hotel worker on the grounds that they’re Chinese. Then, in the novel’s first display of outrageous wealth, the Youngs simply purchase the entire hotel, fire the racist employee, and go on their way. It’s a fantasy that many Asians - in fact, many non-Western cultures - have bought into: that by achieving greater economic success, we can finally receive the treatment we deserve.
The basis of this belief, however, is that at baseline Asians cannot - or perhaps, should not - receive the same treatment as whites. If we took a Chinese man and an Englishman who are the same age, have the same education, and make the same salary, then stood them side by side - the Chinese man would still be viewed as inferior. In most of Western society, it’s the Chinese man who will be refused entry to a hotel, who will be dismissed by everyone from shop owners to bus drivers as poor, cheap, and ignorant.
The escapist aspect of Kwan’s novel, at least for Asian readers, isn’t merely the impossibly luxurious lives the characters lead: it’s the idea that their wealth circumvents all possible discrimination. No longer do they have to worry about their ethnicity preventing them from dining in the best restaurants or vacationing in the most exclusive locations - if need be they can simply buy their way in, and boot out every racist worker while they’re at it. It’s this power, perhaps, which is far more alluring to readers than the descriptions of mansions and luxury cars.
The implied inferiority of Asians is further demonstrated when one looks at the richest and most desirable Asian characters in the novel - Nicholas Young and his cousin, Astrid. Nicholas is described as devastatingly handsome, but his features are unusual for a Chinese man - he has naturally wavy hair and “impossibly thick” eyelashes. (Most Chinese, Korean, or Japanese girls reading this article will identify with the struggle to style our board-straight hair and make up our tiny, stubby eyelashes).
Astrid is described as beautiful, but “not in a typical Hong Kong starlet way”, also with wavy hair, a delicate nose, and bee-stung lips. In short, Nicholas and Astrid are attractive because they don’t look like typical Asians. Furthermore, their upbringing has been designed to emulate that of old English money as much as possible. They attend boarding school in England, are educated at Oxford, and speak with slightly British accents. Nicholas even wears tweed.
The message of the novel is clear: the most successful Asians, in fact, are the ones who aren’t very Asian at all. They’re the ones who have consciously avoided fulfilling any stereotypes whatsoever, unlike the Chinese tourists in Paris that Nicholas’ mother speaks so disparagingly of. Rachel, having vowed to never date Asian guys, makes an exception for Nicholas because he doesn’t seem Asian - because he speaks with a British accent, and not a Chinese one; because he works as a history professor, rather than as a doctor or a lawyer.
In showcasing these conspicuously un-Asian Asians, Kwan is suggesting that the stereotypical Asian is undeserving of a narrative - similar to the way that Asian characters are shortchanged in most of Western media. Although Asians are prominent in his novel, for once not relegated to peripheral roles as math nerd or cheap restaurant owner, Kwan actually seems to be reinforcing the (false) belief in Asians’ inherent inferiority.
It’s unclear to what extent Kwan is aware of this - after all, his novel is so over-the-top, so outrageous, that at times he’s obviously writing with satirical intent. Other times he seems to be writing purely with a sense of fun, in which case it’s a little unfair to criticize him based on whatever cultural nuances that readers may glean. In any case, it’s refreshing to have a novel where Asians are the main characters, depicted as human beings who fight and scheme and cry and have sex.
I enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians, though it’s by no means a perfect novel. I hope it’s a sign of things to come - that the sizable Asian populations in the West will finally start seeing more proportional representation. That perhaps success will no longer mean consciously denying our identity, or striving for superiority by accumulating greater wealth. And that maybe we can start taking pride in who we are, regardless of whether we happen to be a stereotype or not.