"Crazy Rich Asians" by Kevin Kwan (2013)
"Francesca Shaw cut in. 'Isabel, I'm going to tell it to you like it is, because everyone here is wasting your time being polite. You can't afford to fall in love with Simon. Let me break it down for you. Let's be generous and assume that Simon is making a measly eight hundred thousand a year. After taxes and CPF his take-home is only about half a million. Where are you going to live on that kind of money? Think about it - you have to factor a million dollars per bedroom, and you need at least three bedrooms, so you are talking three mil for an apartment in Bukit Timah. That's a hundred and fifty thousand a year in mortgage and property taxes. Then say you have two kids, and you want to send them to proper schools. At thirty thousand a year each for school fees that's sixty thousand, plus twenty thousand a year each on tutors. That's one hundred thousand a year on schooling alone. Servants and nannies - two Indonesian or Sri Lankan maids will cost you another thirty thousand, unless you want one of them to be Swedish or French au pair, then you're talking eighty thousand a year spent on the help. Now, what are we going to do about your own upkeep? At the very least, you'll need ten new outfits per season, so you won't be ashamed to be seen in public. Thank God Singapore has only two seasons - hot and hotter - so let's say, just to be practical, you'll only spend four thousand per look. That's eighty thousand a year for wardrobe. I'll throw in another twenty thousand for one good handbag and a few pairs of new shoes every season. And then there is your basic maintenance - hair, facials, mani, pedi, brazilian wax, eyebrow wax, massage, chiro, acupuncture, Pilates, yoga, core fusion, personal trainer. That's another forty thousand a year. We've already spent four hundred and seventy thousand of Simon's salary, which leaves just thirty thousand for everything else."
Kevin Kwan is a Singaporean author who lives in the States. Crazy Rich Asians was his first published novel, and is in many respects autobiographical in nature. Kwan's own life in Singapore bears many similarities to the character Nick's background in Crazy Rich Asians. The book has been adapted into a movie, but I haven't seen the movie yet.
In the novel Nick, a Singaporean living in New York, takes his girlfriend Rachel to visit Singapore on the eve of his friend Colin's wedding. Rachel, a Chinese-American, is unaware of Nick's wealthy background and the snobbery of his relatives. She spends her time in Singapore tortured by both these relatives and rivals for Nick's affections, all the while transfixed by the opulence in which Nick's friends and family spend their daily lives.
It's probably a novel that heterosexual women will connect with most readily, given that it's essentially an update of Cinderella. Greed and lust have their day, but eventually the evildoers are undone by their evil deeds, and true love conquers all. I'm not saying this to demean the book or those who like it, because to me the fact that it's resonated with so many people speaks for itself. Those looking for a more serious, more literary examination of what it means to be Asian in modern times, however, would probably be better served elsewhere.
For my part I enjoyed the book immensely, and I'm sure I'll read the two sequels in the near future. The author has a wonderful light touch with his characters, and the story flows seamlessly from beginning to end. I could complain that all the male characters are one-dimensional, I could complain that the author's version of Singapore seems to depart from reality, but what we're dealing with in Crazy Rich Asians is a fairy tale, and a rather uninteresting (if handsome) prince, inhabiting a fantastic setting, is to be expected given the genre.
Crazy Rich Asians certainly isn't the best book I've read this year, but it's surprisingly entertaining and I look forward to seeing the movie soon.
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