TAK­ING DOWN THE ASIAN ELITE

‘China Rich Girl­friend’ is a wild, crazy ride through the lives of the as­pi­ra­tional elite

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Ni­cole Lee Lee is a writer in New York.

China Rich Girl­friend

A Novel

Kevin Kwan

Dou­ble­day: 400 pp., $26.95

“China Rich Girl­friend,” Kevin Kwan’s fol­low-up to his highly suc­cess­ful 2013 novel “Crazy Rich Asians,” is in equal mea­sures a cel­e­bra­tion and an in­sider take-down, val­i­dat­ing con­tem­po­rary Asian cul­ture and its con­sumerist as­pi­ra­tions as­much as it pokes fun at it.

Take these de­scrip­tions of the types of food the char­ac­ters in­dulge in through­out the novel: In an early meal, the tra­di­tional Malay desserts of “rain­bow-hued kueh lapis” and “del­i­cately sculpted ang koo kueh” are feasted upon with rel­ish, fol­lowed later by a meal in Shang­hai in­volv­ing the con­tem­po­rary res­tau­rant fare of “sautéed scal­lops with Ital­ian white truf­fle oil, and the stewed chicken with diced abalone and salted fish in clay pot.” Another meal il­lus­trates the more tra­di­tional Chi­nese “hong shao rou — thick slices of fatty pork in a sweet mari­nade with green pep­pers.” While in Paris, char­ac­ters melt as they in­dulge in pain au cho­co­lat that is “airy, flaky, but­tery, ooz­ing rich bit­ter­sweet cho­co­late.”

To the ca­sual reader, these painstak­ing de­scrip­tions of food might ap­pear to be su­per­fi­cial, writ­ten purely for the sen­sory in­dul­gence of the au­thor (and this Chi­nese Malaysian re­viewer). Sim­i­larly, in his name-drop­ping of brand-name clothes, the other bas­tion of af­flu­ent Asian ex­pen­di­ture, Kwan can be as te­dious as he is com­pre­hen­sive. Piled on top of this are Hokkien and Can­tonese swear words and on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tions about shop­ping ac­cord­ing to the strength of the Sin­ga­pore dol­lar com­pared to the Bri­tish pound.

What this re­ally rep­re­sents, how­ever, is the con­flu­ence of tra­di­tional Asian val­ues and man­i­fes­ta­tions of Asia’s con­tem­po­rary eco­nomic boom as it con­tin­ues to edge its way into Western con­scious­ness. And so, as the real China rich dig their nails into the world of the wealthy and waste­ful, Kwan sharp­ens his with another acer­bic yet affectionate ex­am­i­na­tion of Asian uber-elite so­cial mores, still largely in­vis­i­ble in Western pop­u­lar cul­ture.

Like “Crazy Rich Asians,” this se­quel fol­lows Nick Young and Rachel Chuas they nav­i­gate theworld of Nick’s wealthy and de­mand­ing fam­ily, this time in the lead-up to their nup­tials. Af­ter dis­cov­er­ing that Rachel’s pre­vi­ously un­known fa­ther is Bao Shaoyen, a wealthy and in­flu­en­tial politi­cian from main­land China, the cou­ple jet off to Shang­hai to meet some of her new fam­ily. That in­cludes Rachel’s half brother, Carl­ton Bao, and his so­cialite girl­friend, Co­lette Bing.

The novel is filled with jaw­drop­ping ac­counts of op­u­lence (a last-minute dis­rup­tion of a wed­ding re­hearsal din­ner by he­li­copter land­ing, a whiz-bang im­pulse trip to Paris), as well as fash­ion blog­ger-style de­scrip­tions of out­fits (“Co­lette made her en­trance through another door in an ole­an­der pink tea-length dress”), and show downs wor­thy of an episode of “Gos­sip Girl.” (“‘SHE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU!’ ” one char­ac­ter hollers be­fore leap­ing onto the stage to fight the com­peti­tor for his paramour’s af­fec­tions.)

Through it all, Nick and Rachel re­main the clear-eyed observers through which the reader ex­pe­ri­ences the pre­pos­ter­ous­ness around them. “What an out­rage. I should write a let­ter to The Heron Wealth Re­port to protest the er­ror,” Nick jokes when Co­lette’s as­sis­tant in­forms him that Co­lette’s fa­ther should re­ally be ranked higher on Asia’s rich list. “Oh no need, sir, we al­ready have,” the as­sis­tant replies ea­gerly. With this kind of dead-pan­ning, there’s no need for mor­al­iz­ing. As the char­ac­ters stam­pede to­ward their dizzy­ing for­tunes like shop­pers at a de­signer sam­ple sale, there’s a heady glee in know­ing they are fated to bring them­selves down.

A few scenes pon­der­ing the ef­fects of con­sumerism at­tempt a clunky counter ar­gu­ment, but for the most part this ges­ture at cri­tique merely slows down the nar­ra­tive.

“I just can’t get over it,” Rachel says earnestly, “all these megac­i­ties spring­ing up overnight, the non­stop eco­nomic boom.” But when the crazi­ness does end for some of the char­ac­ters, there’s the sense that these are mere pit stops in a world that will just go “China rich”-ing with­out them.

While “Crazy Rich Asians” is be­ing made into a fea­ture film by the pro­duc­ers be­hind “The Hunger Games,” Kwan is work­ing on the con­clu­sion towhat he says will be a tril­ogy about the Asian elite. “China Rich Girl­friend” is a crazy pa­rade through the lives of the as­pi­ra­tional elite. It’s also a rich por­trait of Asia’s real ob­ses­sion with con­sumerism and its eco­nomic rise, one whose tra­jec­tory, like Kwan’s, is not yet com­plete.

Gian­carlo Ci­ampini Dou­ble­day

KEVIN KWAN

sat­i­rizes con­tem­po­rary Asian cul­ture in novel.

Dou­ble­day

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