My Crazy Rich Asian Journey
Curtis Chin goes on an intercontinental adventure to meet Kevin Kwan and Michelle Yeoh
To paraphrase… There’s a famous Chinese proverb that every journey of a thousand miles—even a “Crazy Rich Asian” one—begins with a single step.
That was certainly the case with my own crazy rich, AsianAmerican journey this year.
From Los Angeles to Singapore, with Manila and Bangkok somewhere in the mix, I went from six degrees to one degree of separation—and then connection—with the author of the book Crazy Rich Asians, and then the producer and some of the cast of its blockbuster Hollywood adaptation, including superstar actor and UN Goodwill Ambassador Michelle Yeoh.
All I can say is, “Spoiler Alert.” She’s great in person, too!
BUT FIRST UP: THAT FIRST STEP
For the last five years, the Milken Institute—a Santa Monica, Californiabased, non-profit, non-partisan economic think tank focused on increasing global prosperity through collaborative solutions that widen access to capital, create jobs and improve health—has organized an annual “Asia Summit” in Singapore.
Part of my role as the inaugural Asia Fellow at the Milken Institute since leaving my post as U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank has been to help shape content for this Asia version of “Davos with palm trees”—as some have
nicknamed our annual Milken Institute Global Conference in LA.
The Milken Institute Asia Summit now convenes more than 1,000 leaders, including those from business, philanthropy and government, and takes place annually on the eve of the landmark Singapore Grand Prix. This Formula 1 Night Race on the Marina Bay Street Circuit roars through the heart of the city-state’s Central Business District, amidst the skyscrapers and world-class infrastructure that Singapore is renown for worldwide.
And what a glorious, crazy rich spectacle it is.
Given our conference theme of “Navigating a World in Transition,” my idea was to lead a session focused on the rise of wealth in Asia. After all, one cannot fully discuss a changing world without looking at the rise of new—and impact of old—wealth in the Asia-Pacific region.
Asia is now home to more billionaires than North America, according to ultra high net worth research firm Wealth-X. And Hong Kong has officially surpassed New York City as the place with the highest concentration of super-wealthy people— ultra-rich residents worth at least $30 million. We’re talking not just the rich, but the crazy rich.
And so began my path to Kevin Kwan, author of the blockbuster trilogy of books— Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend, and Rich People Problems. The first book, which became a box office hit, centres on Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American economics professor played by U.S. actor Constance Wu, who accompanies her Singaporean boyfriend Nicholas “Nick” Young, played by Henry Golding of Malaysia, to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. Little does she know that Nick is scion of one of Singapore’s richest, if not richest, families, and Nick’s mum, Eleanor, played by Michelle Yeoh also of Malaysia, will be a force to contend with.
That story is now familiar to millions as Asians and non-Asians turned out in droves for the mega-hit romantic-comedy breaking box office records. Directed by acclaimed Chinese-American filmmaker Jon Chu, the film is the first major, non-period piece Hollywood film since The Joy Luck Club some 25 years ago to star a predominantly Asian cast. Ken Jeong, Awkwafina, and Nico Santos are among other cast members.
How, though, to reach Kevin to propose he join us in LA? Philippine connections of course!
I reached out to Manila friends Doris Magsaysay Ho and Karen Davila and before
ASIA IS NOW HOME TO MORE BILLIONAIRES THAN NORTH AMERICA... WE’RE TALKING NOT JUST THE RICH, BUT THE CRAZY RICH
you knew it, my now new friend Kevin and I were sitting down together this early May 2018 at the storied Beverly Hills restaurant known as The Ivy.
Over an al fresco dinner, we talked about his own journey, our shared and contrasting experiences as Asian-Americans and New Yorkers, and his hopes—which I shared—for the positive impact that a successful film might have on increasing the diversity of (and Asian representation in) the stories that Hollywood tells. We also touched on some of the issues that the then just-released movie trailer for the film had sparked, including whether the diversity of Singapore was fully represented, and whether stars who were part- Caucasian were “truly Asian.”
We covered this and more in our “Mic’d Up Session” at the Milken Institute Global Conference. And once posted online, via YouTube, a snippet of our conversation would go viral back in the Philippines when Kris Aquino shared it on Instagram this August. “Hello @CurtisSChin,” she wrote! (Kris has a short but critical scene in Crazy Rich Asians as Princess Intan from Malaysia.)
My journey from LA continued onward to Bangkok, when three months later, Shane Suvikapakornkul—the publisher, gallery director, and entrepreneur behind Serindia Publications, Serindia Gallery, and
the extraordinary, award-winning Open House Bookshop by Hard Cover in Thailand—invited me to join him at the film’s Thai premiere. Shane is also the force behind the Thai language edition of Kevin’s book.
And with food being as much a star as the film’s actors, the mid-August screening at Bangkok’s Paragon Cineplex was accompanied by a sampling of Singapore’s world-famous cuisine, from kaya toast to satay—thanks to Warner Brothers and the Singapore Tourism Board.
A few weeks later I would hit a mother lode of Singaporean food after I arrived in the citystate. “Luncheon meat fries” with sambal mayo, smoked pork collar, foie gras satay with raspberry sauce, deep-fried chicken wings coated with shrimp paste, black-pepper crab, steamed fresh shrimp, Hokkien mee (noodles), green vegetables with garlic, fresh kaya and butter served with a baguette, and durian crème brulee were just a few of the dishes filling my plate.
My hosts? Dynamic TAEL Partners colleagues— CEO Michael Sng and deputy CEO Loong Mei-Yin. The venue? Most fittingly: Ubin New Seafood, located in the same Chijmes complex that includes a church building featured in an uber-wedding in Crazy Rich Asians. The restaurant is a Singapore family-run eatery whose origins date back to a humble home that served up kampong-style seafood starting in 1986. The Pang family restaurant tagline: “A timeless culinary experience. Truly Singaporean.” Indeed!
From Michelin-listed hawker stalls offering some of the nation’s best food to the majestic Marina Bay Sands complex with the world’s largest highest rooftop infinity pool to the stunning Gardens by the Bay to the “merlion” fountain, the sights, sounds and tastes of Singapore are very much front and centre in Crazy Rich Asians. (So, too, are some Malaysia locales, which fill in for parts of Singapore and New York in the film.)
But for me, it is the story and the actors who bring that story to life who are at the heart of the movie. So, imagine my delight and awe as this particular, crazy rich journey of mine moved forward to the Four Seasons Hotel Singapore this September.
There, at the Milken Institute Asia Summit 2018, I was honoured to join Michelle Yeoh, celebrated Singaporean actors Janice Koh and Amy Cheng, and the movie producer behind the film, John Penotti of Ivanhoe Pictures, to lead a discussion of the Crazy Rich Asians phenomenon. Janice plays Eleanor Young’s sister Felicity Leong, and Amy plays Jacqueline Ling, a society mum whose daughter has her eyes on Nick Young.
Our on-stage discussion, and a subsequent talk that Michelle Yeoh did at a benefit screening of Crazy Rich Asians for UN Women along with Singaporean actors Koh Chieng Mun, Janice Koh, Selena Tan, and Fiona Xie underscored another dimension of the film beyond all its crazy richness. And that is the critical role of women in our society and the unfinished business that we all share of empowering women and ensuring gender equity.
Reinforcing this message, actors Amy Cheng and Janice Koh had joined me after our panel discussion for a photo with a replica of the iconic sculpture “Fearless Girl” from New York. The financial services company State Street Global Advisors had brought the sculpture to our Asia Summit in part to further conversations about gender diversity on company boards. The original sculpture
EVERY JOURNEY OF A THOUSAND MILES— EVEN A “CRAZY RICH ASIAN” ONE— BEGINS WITH A SINGLE STEP
by Kristen Visbal was placed on Wall Street facing a larger bronze sculpture known as “Charging Bull.”
That photo opportunity and an earlier one with Michelle Yeoh and the members of my Milken Institute panel remind me how blessed I am to have made this connection to the film and had this journey unfold from LA to Singapore. Many of the city-state’s sights would also dazzle me from a rooftop F1 launch party, hosted by leading private global investment firm TPG, and where I’d run into Michelle and the film’s producer again.
As a “Trekkie”—a Star Trek fan—I also had been following Michelle in her role as Captain Philippa Georgiou on the CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery. Before going on stage earlier, Michelle and I joined others in a “Vulcan hand salute”—raising our hands with a part between middle and ring fingers, as popularised by Leonard Nimoy in his role as Spock on the original Star Trek television series.
That gesture has become the universal sign for a simple message: “Live long and prosper.” And it seems as fitting a message and destination that there can be for all of us in our journeys, no matter how crazy, how rich or how Asian we might be.
CLOCKWISE Singapore’s scenic skyline; The Fullerton Hotel, historic Singapore; Constance Wu on the cover of Time magazine, at Open House Bookshop by Hard Cover in Bangkok; a dazzling Mexican mural at a LA taqueria; Los Angeles— looking east to Asia from crazy rich Pacific Palisades
OPPOSITE CLOCKWISE Curtis Chin, Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan, and Reuters Big Money reporter Lawrence Delevingne at the Milken Institute Global Conference, Beverly Hilton, LA; have ticket, will enter! Singapore Grand Prix F1 Night Race; a snap in Bangkok,Thailand; crazy rich quintet: Crazy Rich Asians producer John Penotti, actress Amy J. Cheng, actress Michelle Yeoh, former US Ambassador Curtis Chin, and actress Janice Koh at the Milken Institute Asia Summit in Four Seasons Singapore; one more crazy delicious bite on the author’s crazy rich LA-to-Asia journey—Simply delicious!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT The trilogy: Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend, and Rich People Problems; Constance Wu and Henry Golding on the cover of Entertainment Weekly INSET With Michelle Yeoh at the Milken Institute Asia Summit, Four Seasons Singapore OPPOSITE Curtis Chin and actress Amy J. Cheng strike a pose with Fearless Girl for gender equity