“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 as much 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 “hongshao 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.
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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 Chu as they navigate the world 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 jaw-dropping 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 showdowns 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 to what 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.
China Rich Girlfriend
Doubleday: 400 pp., $26.95
Lee is a writer in New York.