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Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Review: Crazy Rich Asians

I didn't realize that Crazy Rich Asians was set in Singapore, so when my wife started asking about Singaporean 富二代, I found myself saying that I'd never met any of them. But I was intrigued, and so I picked up the book.

The novel is a reversed culture shock comedy story. We're probably all familiar with the typical Asian culture shock story: the Asian immigrant moves to the USA and gets into all sorts of incidents because this is the first time he/she has ever seen a supermarket or Costco warehouse store. This novel depicts Rachel Chu, who is unknowingly dating a super-rich Singaporean in New York, and when he asks her to travel through South East Asia for the summer, agrees and is thrown into the insanity that is the plight of wealthy "old money" in Singapore.

The book thrives on stereotypes and cliches. There's the ABC (American Born Chinese) girl who refuses to date anyone other than white people (but refuses to admit that). There's the aunt that everybody nicknames "Radio One Asia" because she'll broadcast every bit of gossip to everyone in the extended family. There's the snappy dresser cousin who acts as a secret agent for the Matriarchs of the family. And of course, all the female parents are the master wielders of the vicious rumor mill and are crazy enough to hire private investigators to check out their sons or daughter's girlfriends and boyfriends. Don't forget the stereotypical grandparents who use their children's potential inherited wealth as a threat to keep everyone in line. And all the young women are into visiting Paris for the Boutique fashion houses and spending a half million dollars at the time for designer dresses. And of course, every rich guy has a harem of mistresses and/or is in an unhappy marriage but has hung on because of the children.

OK. Those are the bad parts of the novel. The good parts are that Kevin Kwan actually did grow up in Singapore. The references all ring true and authentic, including mentions of the Anglo Chinese School (where my brothers and I spent our formative years), Raffles Institution, and of course, MGS, the sister school of ACS with the distinctive pinafore uniforms. Upon reading this book, I realized that I'd inadvertently lied to my wife: so those wealthy kids were the kids whose families were actually Christian, who did go to church on Sunday, and who'd shown up at grade one already speaking English, making me feel like I was already far far behind everybody else. (My mom, upon hearing that, switched all my younger brothers to an English speaking kindergarten) Thinking back, I remembered that one of my brother's friends would send a chauffeur with a Mercedes Benz to pick him up for a play date. I never actually had one of those play dates, being too introverted to actually make more than one friend in Primary school, though I remember a classmate living in a house so ginormous that they'd have a whistle next to the phone: when you called them and asked for the person you wanted to speak with, the person answering the phone would blow the whistle a certain number of times to indicate who should come to the phone!

Every Hokkien (福建), Cantonese (廣東) or Malay phrase is foot-noted, and there are plenty of those thrown in there. The footnotes are somewhat amusing, though not always entirely accurate (and frequently incomplete), and the Anglicization is always difficult to parse because neither Hokkien nor Cantonese have a standard phonetic romanization.

And then of course, there's the food, which is the only thing I ever miss about South East Asia. The enthusiasm of Singaporean culture about food comes across and is authentic, and of course, the description of the various foods are spot on. I'm even miffed that my favorite Singaporean dish Mee Pok never made it into the novel! And of course, the mention of the ACS cafeteria losing its Mee Siam vendor made me sad, even though I'd long known that the campus I'd grown up in (with its 10 cents bowl of noodles and fantastic lunches) was long gone. The movie might be worth watching just for awesomely videographed food scenes. True to form, the older Chinese people in the book always complain whenever a non-Chinese dish is served.

There's lots more to give the novel authenticity: Gurkha guards --- I'd walked past Lee Kuan Yew's house with its Gurkhas on the way to kindergarten every day.  There's the references to different parts of Singapore which only a Singaporean would know.

What's missing, of course, is all the great stuff that a non-wealthy Singaporean would know about. The fantastic public transportation system (MRT and the public bus system). The mini-buses which would be stuffed with school children to and from school, complete with a conductor hanging off the door rails to keep the kids on the bus from falling out as the bus moved. The incredible safety and 24-hour food access (it shocked me when I went to school at Berkeley that you couldn't find food at 2:00am!) are barely mentioned.

I didn't expect to enjoy the novel as much as I did, and it almost makes me want to see the movie just to see how much the city has changed since I left. I'm placing a hold on the next book in the series at the library right now, so that means the novel comes recommended.

Notes on the movie:
After I wrote the above, I saw the movie version of the book. To say the least, the movie is disappointing, with many subplots eliminated or simplified. But that's not an issue: most movies are like that. The movie drops many of the distinctive feature of the novel which make it uniquely Singaporean:
  • Very little Hokkien and Singapore slang. While the book is full of footnotes explaining unique Singaporean/Malay/Hokkien slang, most of the non-English words spoken in the movie is either Mandarin or Cantonese. You can go through most of your life in Singapore without knowing Cantonese, and the movie might as well have been set in Hong Kong. None of the distinctive culture that makes Singapore not Hong Kong or Taiwan has made it into the movie. 
  • Very little emphasis on food: in the book, the characters argue about where to go get food all the time. There isn't even a single 30s sequence in the movie where the characters do that in the movie. The food photography/cinematography could also have been much better. The scene set in the hawker center might as well have been at any American food court.
  • All the scenes set in Malaysia like Malacca or the Cameron Highlands are gone.
Other notable changes:
  • The book spends gobs and gobs of time on boutiques and fashion. Famous designers and fashion icons are mentioned. The cinematography didn't even waste any effort there.  
  • Nick Young comes across much more as a compliant Chinese kid than someone willing to give up everything for Rachel.
All in all, if I'd seen the movie first, I probably wouldn't have given the book a chance. So if you saw the movie and thought it was inane, please don't skip the book. The book's got a billion times more flavor and authenticity than the movie, which works very hard to dumb down the book into a simple "American vs Traditional Chinese person" plot that Hollywood thinks an American can understand. That doesn't mean the book isn't flawed, it's just that the movie blows up all the book's flaws without providing any of the book's fun.

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