The Value of All Things Crazily Rich and Asian


Neither Kevin Kwan’s novel “Crazy Rich Asians” nor the movie based on it should win any prizes as literature or film. Yet the “Crazy” phenomena — both the best-selling book, its sequels and the smash movie — represent a critical moment not only in Asian, and Asian-American, history, but in how we look at race.

“Crazy Rich Asians” is about an on-again, off-again, on-again romance between a young Singaporean oligarch and a predictably plucky Asian American woman. Neither performance is particularly memorable, but the world they inhabit is wildly garish, entertaining and increasingly important, particularly here in California.

The Young family portrayed in the movie has ridden the rise of East Asia itself as the world’s emerging economic center to phenomenal wealth. Much of the film is shot in glittering parts of Singapore, a global hub for Asian trade. The leading families portrayed in the film are no longer meek former colonials but people increasingly believing in their culture’s intrinsic superiority.

The world of Asian Americans portrayed here is not so glittery, but important for other reasons. In contrast to the well-born elites in east Asia, many, like the female protagonist in the movie, have excelled through hard work as well as dedication to family and education.

The Asian ascendency — here and there

The rise of the Asian economies represents the great economic success story of the last half-century. First Japan rattled the West’s cages with its meteoric rise, followed by the ascendency of the “Tiger” economies of southeast Asia. Today Asia rides on China’s current ascendency — its share of world output has been growing dramatically from 4 percent in 1990 to a projected 21 percent in 2022.

Asia’s rise represents a new day in capitalist development, even though the Communist officialdom continue to insist it’s really “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Deng Xiaoping, the committed Communist and architect of China’s revival, was certainly no liberal or democrat. He pushed modernization for nationalist and pragmatic reasons, but in the context of maintaining the primacy of the Party, remaining firmly opposed to what he considered “bourgeois liberalization.”

Yet despite the Marxist rhetoric, Asian capitalism is hardly egalitarian; a third of China’s wealth is held by 1 percent of citizens. This may explain why China’s image managers are so embarrassed by “Crazy”’s garish materialism, and they may prevent the movie being shown there. What Asian entrepreneurs have done is create a form of capitalism that operates on what Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister, called “Confucian” values, centered on family, tradition and hierarchy.

Why Asians matter so much to America

Here in the U.S., one of the first, and utterly predictable, reactions to “Crazy” came from the Asian media, academic and political circles. Always resentful of any association with being a “model minority,” they immediately attacked the movie for promoting strong “success” to Asian Americans. They laid out their arguments by using the logic that because a handful of relatively small communities — Hmong, Laotians, Cambodians — lag far behind the larger groups such as Chinese and Indians, who constitute the vast bulk of the Asian population, Asian success is ephemeral.

Asian success undermines the whole discussion of “privilege” that dominates discussion of racial issues, particularly in the media and academia. Many leading Asian intellectuals would wish to regard their community as just another discriminated-against racial minority. The real danger, they maintain, is “whitening,” essentially a code word for following the successful model of other immigrants, notably Irish, Italians and Jews.

The facts are a problem for the victimization crowd. Overall, Asians, according to extensive research done by Pew, make on average $73,000 annually, well above the national average of $53,600. Roughly 50 percent have a college degree or more, compared to 30 percent for the entire country. They have so overperformed that Asians are the first racial minority to be actively discriminated against under affirmative action policies.

It’s just beginning

We are likely just in the beginnings of our integration with all things Asian. Chinese real estate investors are critical to propping up many of our most expensive markets, notably here in Southern California. China’s government has taken steps to slow this investment, but it’s not clear they can stop it entirely. In tech areas, Chinese venture firms are looking feverishly to fund new ventures, buy companies and hire local technical talent.

But perhaps the best result from Asian immigration is what it tells other Americans about both race and success. First, despite a sordid history of discrimination, Asian values have been more than enough to power their communities upward, a critical lesson for other groups. Second, they demonstrate race is no longer an insurmountable barrier to making it here; the biggest restraints on ethnic success may as much be those imposed internally as opposed to the depredations of racist institutions.

We clearly are entering a new, Asian-oriented epoch. Our economic prospects may depend on how more Crazy Rich Asians, including those not yet rich, choose to invest or live here. We don’t just need their money, but their values and work ethic, too.

This piece originally appeared in The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book is The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Photo: Via The Mary Sue.