Even though Kevin Kwan’s “Crazy Rich Asians” – with its over the top depiction of very wealthy Asians and their ludicrously extravagant lifestyles – makes for a fun and entertaining read, and further showcases unique features of Singapore, in particular, it is let down by its lacklustre character development as well as an abrupt and unsatisfactory conclusion. With character development, there is first the packed cast of characters who are, narrative-wise, not meaningfully connected to one another beyond their family or fraternal relationships, and beyond the themes of dysfunction and superficiality as a consequence of their wealth and status. Second, often portrayed as passive victims of (family) circumstances, the characters exhibit little to no growth or development.
These characters include the couple of protagonists Nicholas Young and Rachel Chu, who despite their credentials as well-educated professors in New York University appear incapable of standing up for themselves or pushing back against bullying behaviours when they are in Singapore. Young’s refusal to make sense of his family background and to explain it to Chu – even after being urged to by his well-meaning cousin, Astrid Teo – is compounded by his absence whenever she is on the receiving end of abuse or snobbery. She is, in other words, thrown into the deep end with no help whatsoever. Chu, along this tangent, is frustratingly disempowered, and this uncomfortable dynamic means the couple lumbers to an inevitable conflict with Young’s family, as the reader is left hanging in the end.
“Crazy Rich Asians” has since been adapted into a film (this writer has not watched it yet), and while the ensuing discourse has focused on questions of representation and whether the Singaporean challenges with poverty and inequality have been overlooked, it is not difficult to see why Kwan’s novel – with its over-the-top descriptions of the grand wedding between Singapore’s most eligible bachelor Colin Khoo and fashion icon Araminta Lee, the obscene and ostentatious displays of wealth at social functions and even family events, and the barb-laden conversations (and internal monologues) between characters living in their crazy, rich, and Asian (Chinese, more precisely) bubble – would translate well onto the big screen. Ill-suited for social commentary, it feels whimsical and hardly meant to be taken seriously.