Mad about money

Author: Kevin Kwan.

SINGAPORE - In the deliciously funny Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, there is a hilarious scene where Singaporean rich girl Astrid Leong is poorly treated at a chic Parisian boutique because she's young, Chinese and ordinarily dressed.

After being snubbed by the racist French shop assistant, she leaves quietly. But outside the shop, she meets her rich, well-connected boyfriend Charlie Wu and tells him what happened.

Outraged, he insists she goes right back in the store and buys 20 dresses, each worth a small fortune.

He says: "The only way to get these ang moh kow sai to respect you is to smack them in the face with your tua l*n zh*** money until they get on their knees."

The italicised Hokkien words are too crude to translate here. But it certainly underlines a bolder, more ostentatious attitude among Asians, as the wealth of the world tilts East.

Although Asia's drive towards post-war prosperity began half a century ago for countries such as Singapore, the more recent rise of giants China and India have added an extra sheen to this side of the world, especially in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash that battered the economies of the West.

On the literary front, Asian novelists are keenly observing the rapid changes in their societies as the potent combination of money and opportunity within their countries are empowering a whole new generation of once-impoverished Asians. The results are now on bookshelves.

Acclaimed Malaysia-born novelist Tash Aw recently released Five Star Billionaire. The novel is about five Malaysian Chinese struggling to get rich or stay rich in booming Shanghai. It has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious book prizes in the world.

Meanwhile, Pakistan-born Mohsin Hamid's How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia tells the story of a penniless protagonist who struggles to make it big in his city - and does. Mohsin's previous novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and turned into a movie, now showing in Singapore theatres.

Then, there is India's Vikas Swarup - famous for his bestseller-turned-blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire.

He's released The Accidental Apprentice, which tells the sensational tale of an ordinary salesgirl who is given the chance to head a billion-dollar company and be rich beyond her wildest dreams.

Finally, there is Kwan's very funny Crazy Rich Asians, which depicts obscenely rich Singaporeans as they navigate the politics of wealth, career and family ties.

Since its release in June, the novel has received rave reviews in the international press and is now No 4 on Singapore Kinokuniya's Bestseller List.

Crazy Rich Asians is somewhat different from the rest in that it deals with those who are already rich.

It offers a jaw-dropping look at their fabulous lifestyles, which include travelling almost strictly in private jets and purchasing rare gems in the tucked-away corners of Singapore.

All four publications, released in the past six months, may be said to be capitalising on the zeitgeist of rising Asia, what with their sexy on-the-money titles and, in some cases, bling-bling book covers (Crazy Rich Asians, Five Star Billionaire and How To Get Rich have partially gold surfaces in some versions of their covers).

But they also examine the detrimentally dizzying effect money has on their characters, who, in their pursuit - or, in some cases, rejection - of wealth, willingly sacrifice love and family members.

Mohsin says: "I think (wealth) creates a kind of existential crisis. In urban Asia, many people are becoming distant from folk culture . . . The market tries to monetise anxiety rather than remove it.

"So people need to find new ways to explore and express what it is to be human, to deal with the fear that comes from being mortal."

Kwan, who was born in Singapore but now lives in New York, has a different view.

He says: "Readers have always been fascinated by stories of wealth, and every gilded age has had its chroniclers. England at the height of the Empire had Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, America during the era of the Robber Barons had Edith Wharton and Henry James, and the heady 1980's had Dominick Dunne and Tom Wolfe.

"The themes are not new. What's new is the location. As the locus of wealth continues to shift to Asia, I think we'll see more and more stories set here."

As Kwan points out, stories of moneyed Asians are not new. Looking at the Singapore literary scene alone, novels in the 1980s and 1990s like Philip Jeyaretnam's Raffles Place Ragtime, Hwee Hwee Tan's Mammon Inc, as well as Claire Tham's short stories, had - in differing degrees - grappled with the maladies that come with our material obsessions.

The difference between then and now seems to be the greater recognition such novels are gaining internationally. Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians, for instance, has been reviewed in almost every major international publication from The Financial Times in the UK to Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times in the US. Similarly, Aw and Mohsin's novels have gotten wide media coverage.

Collectively, the works seem to form a new wave of English novels by Asian authors that's quite different from the kind of bestsellers of the previous century, such as Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, Maxine Hong-Kingston's The Woman Warrior or Jumpha Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. These typically centre on Asian immigrants trying to adapt to new lives in the West.

Kwan says: "I do think we've come to a point where there is space that can be explored beyond those great stories of history, struggle and assimilation. But I'm not sure if my book is a continuation of that trajectory or more of an offshoot . . .

"Most of the characters I'm writing about . . . have been educated overseas, have the opportunity to travel a great deal and own multiple homes on different continents. And the characters in my book are not leaving Asia; they're thriving in Asia and buying up the rest of the world."

Indeed, whereas best-selling English novels by Asians in the previous century often depict Asians leaving their home for a better future in the West, the characters of the four novels are staying in Asia to capitalise on opportunities here - not elsewhere.

Associate Professor Walter Lim, the Deputy Head of Literature department at the National University of Singapore, is set to publish a book called Narratives of Diaspora: Representations of Asia in Chinese American Literature.

He says: "This recent phenomenon of the 'crazy, rich Asian' in literature is a logical development in the thematic concerns of Anglophone Chinese diasporic writing.

"Traditionally, wealth is associated with arrival and with success. Literary emphasis on crazy, rich Asians would by definition represent a narrative revisioning of the familiar historical and Orientalist emphases on Asians trapped in politically oppressive lands, violence and abject poverty."

Mohsin concludes: "I think many people are troubled by some of the political and cultural forms that the Asian economic growth is taking. And that sense of being unsettled by something is giving birth slowly to fiction."

Tales of the rich and those struggling to make it

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

By Kevin Kwan

$29.90, 416 pages

Crazy Rich Asians is quite possibly one of funniest social satires ever written about Singaporeans.

It reads like a cross between Anthony Trollope and Singapore Tatler. It is simultaneously stylish and tabloid-ish, grand and gossipy, well-written and, well, trashy.

The story centres round a super wealthy Singapore bachelor Nicholas who falls in love with the smart, beautiful but not-very-rich Asian-American Rachel Chu while studying in New York.

He decides to bring her to Singapore to meet his family and attend his cousin's wedding. But chaos ensues because Rachel, among other things, is too "poor" to be accepted into their snobbish circles.

Populated by eye-wateringly wealthy characters, this is a novel that's likely to make many a Singaporean choke in envy.

Any affluent Singaporean will now be convinced that the condo, SUV and 15 credit cards he has are nothing compared to the private jets, climate-controlled closet, 39-carat diamond ring and gold BMW the characters flaunt.

Kwan says he grew up among very rich Singaporeans and insists he's not making much of this up.

Rating: A-

HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA

By Mohsin Hamid

$30.98, 240 pages

Written in a wry and sober tone, it tells the story of an unnamed peasant in an unnamed Asian city - "one among many such organs quivering in the torso of rising Asia" - who climbs his way out of poverty one toe at a time.

He begins by selling fake DVDs and bottled water containing plain tap water, and learns to navigate the corrupt bureaucracy of the city to achieve business success.

Though the rags-to-riches tale is as old as time, Mohsin gives it a fresh spin by casting it in a format of the self-help book written in the second person.

Each chapter title sounds like a self-help exhortation: Get An Education, Work For Yourself, Befriend A Bureaucrat, Don't Fall In Love. Love, according to the book, is anathema to getting rich.

It doesn't give the story away to say that the protagonist eventually loses interest in money, preferring instead to cultivate the relationships he'd neglected en route to the top.

The twist imbues the tale with unexpected grace and compassion - though there are times throughout it when its droll style does get monotonous.

Rating: B+

FIVE STAR BILLIONAIRE

By Tash Aw

$23.50, 400 pages

Five Malaysian-Chinese struggle in booming Shanghai to get or stay rich.

There's Phoebe, a factory girl who uproots her life to come to the city; Gary, a hot reality-singing contest winner in Malaysia who's now trying to make it in the Chinese market; Yinghui, a businesswoman who's found success at the expense of her personal life; Justin, the man who loves her but is caught up trying to save his family's crumbling empire; and Walter Chao, a ruthless businessman whose machinations disrupt the lives of the other four.

Aw has a spare and elegant writing style which, despite its economy, manages to depict the chaos of a city that will eat you alive.

Like Mohsin in How To Get Filthy Rich, Aw parodies inspirational/self-guide guides with chapter titles such as Move To Where The Money Is and Pursue Gains, Forget Righteousness.

What emerges is a lyrical tale of ordinary beings who, despite knowing what it takes to get rich, aren't always able to stomach the sacrifices that success demands of them.

Rating: B+

THE ACCIDENTAL APPRENTICE

By Vikas Swarup

$32, 436 pages

If you're familiar with Donald Trump's reality TV show The Apprentice, where young tycoon wannabes jump through hoops for a chance work with him, then the structure of The Accidental Apprentice won't surprise you.

Here, Sapna Sinha, an ordinary salesgirl working in an electronics store, chances on Vinay Mohan Acharya, one of India's richest men.

Believing she may have the mettle to lead his billion-dollar empire, he puts her through a series of tests to prove her capabilities.

The tests, however, aren't anything like the ones on Trump's The Apprentice.

Rather, author Swarup uses the tests to show the myriad social problems facing India today - just as he had done in his previous novel-turned-film Slumdog Millionaire.

Though Swarup's writing style is a little plain and uninspired, The Accidental Apprentice is something of a potboiler that sometimes stretches credibility but generally engages you.

Rating: C+


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