by Mary Lucia Darst
There are two ways of viewing Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asian trilogy: the first is as a charming sequence of fluffy, guilty-pleasure books and film (films plural if plans for the conversion of all three books come to fruition.). The first view is the obvious one. The second view is as a paean to the marvels wrought by free markets, free exchange, and free enterprise. This version is a little more obscure.
As a quick summary, the trilogy follows American economist and academic Rachel Chu as she meets the scion of a family of Singaporean tycoons (book 1: Crazy Rich Asians), marries him, and then must adjust to and navigate the realities and challenges of her husband’s world of Singaporean and Hong Kong multi-billionaires (books 2 & 3: China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems). Unsurprisingly, especially with the popularity of the lavishly funded film version, most people have completely missed the whole point, failing to see the significance of the books’ focus on Singapore and Hong Kong.
The BBC, for example, following the film’s topping the charts, ran an article titled “’Crazy Rich Asians’ puts spotlight on region’s inequalities.” The piece was based on an Oxfam report on “inequality,” which was founded on the premise that it is unfair for people to become wealthy through creating products used by the masses. The BBC writer targeted in particular Jack Ma, the creator of Alibaba, China’s equivalent of Amazon, and Pony Ma (no relative to Jack), owner of WeChat, China’s equivalent of WhatsApp. Despite the improvement their products have brought to the many, these men are painted as equivalent to criminals simply because they are worth billions. The article’s opening paragraphs are revealing:
The film Crazy Rich Asians hit the box office last month, and the glossy rom-com has put a spotlight on the region’s growing number of super-rich. In plenty of shopping malls in Singapore – where the movie is based – you’ll see designer shops with customers carrying bags from Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. It’s much like that in other cities. But the region, which was once considered a model of equitable growth, has also seen increased inequality. According to Oxfam the number of super-rich in the Asia-Pacific has surpassed that of North America and Europe.
Ah, the good old days of equitable growth. Let’s consider when this time of misty-eyed nostalgia might have been: No growth is the most equitable form, so under the Great Leader – Chairman Mao.
Consider, for example, this fictional conversation, drawn from China Rich Girlfriend (book 2) between Rachel Chu and her friend Peik Lin, also from an old Singaporean family and Rachel’s former college roommate, on the subject of their incredibly wealthy social set’s spending habits. Rachel opens with:
“Look, I get it [shopping as post-communism therapy]. I come from an immigrant family that’s done well, and I married a guy who’s well-off. But I feel there’s a certain limit I would never go over when it comes to shopping,” Rachel said. “I mean when you’re spending more money on a couture dress than it takes to vaccinate a thousand children against measles or provide clean water to an entire town, that’s just unconscionable.”
Peik Lin gave Rachel a thoughtful look. “Isn’t it all relative though? To someone living in a mud hut somewhere, isn’t the $200 you paid for those Rag & Bone jeans you’re wearing considered obscene? The woman buying that couture dress could argue it took a team of twelve seamstresses three months to create the garment, and they are all supporting their families by doing this. My mother wanted an exact recreation on her bedroom ceiling of a Baroque fresco she saw at some palace in Germany. It cost her half a million dollars, but two artists from the Czech Republic worked on it every day for three months. One guy was able to buy and furnish a new house in Prague, while the other one sent his kid to Penn State. We all choose to spend our money in different ways, but at least we get to make that choice. Just think – twenty years ago, those girls you went to Paris with would only have two choices: Do you want your Mao jacket in shit brown or shit gray? (Kevin Kwan, China Rich Girlfriend, 312)
Kwan successfully captured the two different sides of the financial argument with this debate, which, by the way, Rachel concedes. Another interesting facet to this fictional conversation is that Rachel is the professional economist, while her friend is an heiress to a real estate development dynasty; yet, Peik Lin has a better grasp of how the economy works than Rachel with her social justice morality. Peik Lin is also rather less judgmental than Rachel, accepting that all individuals have different priorities and invest accordingly, e.g. house or higher education.
It is not a question of “inequality,” the ideological strawman of the Oxfam report which focused on outcome. In Peik Lin’s example of two painters, there is no way to predict the final outcome when the artists took their payment and returned to the Czech Republic. There is no crystal ball to reveal the state of the housing market in Prague or the career prospects of a college student in fifty years’ time. The reality is, assuming each painter had a family, in fifty years one family will be better off in some way than the other. But the genitor painters had equality of opportunity; they made their initial fortunes on the same project.
The cultural-economic strength of Singapore and Hong Kong is manifested in that there are few limitations on the how people “choose to spend their money in different ways.” On the popular culture side, people are enviously fascinated by the endless parade of excess shown in the Crazy Rich Asians franchise, while also tsk-tsking in the same way as the character Rachel did initially. Lost in the shuffle is the path of economic, social, and cultural liberty the two cities – city-state for Singapore – took to reach the point of Crazy Rich Asians. For good or for ill, all people need is absolute freedom to make their own choices.
Mary Lucia Darst was an intern at the Austrian Economics Center from January to April 2018. She graduated from Columbia University with an MA in History and Literature. In addition to working as a writer and researcher, she is an active classical musician.