China Rich Girlfriend. Doubleday Canada
China Rich Girlfriend, the second volume of a projected trilogy, is a drama featuring the lives of the Asian elite. At its best, the novel is a literary adaptation of #rich kids of Instagram. China Rich Girlfriend offers us the opportunity to spy beyond the trappings of wealth (not just any wealth, but ‘China rich’ wealth) and into the lives and problems of the privileged class, in order to gain some deeper perspective on life. Whatever that deeper perspective is remains ultimately unclear, and will probably be revealed in the next and final instalment, but we can endeavour to make an educated guess in the course of this book review.
Most students and lovers of the written word can appreciate a well-crafted satire, and those who do will share in Kwan’s wariness towards any form of “moralizing” (see his Interview with Ruchika Tulshyan in The Wall Street Journal). A satire, beyond the depiction of flaws to be exposed for comedic purposes, must also be successful in expressing an important message in contemporary politics. As well, many Asian people living and working in North America today bear the material and bodily effects of anti-Asian sentiments, persistent orientalization, and the model minority myth. Living under such pressures is difficult, and as such, it is understandable to want to turn to texts such as China Rich Girlfriend for that sense of familiarity. To deliver as a satire and serve as a mode of escape are two humble requests from the decidedly non-‘China rich’ wealthy—does China Rich Girlfriend deliver?
The novel is populated with characters made up in clusters of tired tropes: the jealous girlfriend, the monstrous mother-in-law. Despite the author’s protests of wariness towards moralizing, China Rich Girlfriend still ends up prescribing and reifying what defines a desirable Chinese woman. Two notable examples are Astrid Leong, the good wife and mother with a ‘branded school’ upbringing and a sensible head on her shoulders, and the protagonist Rachel Chu, the novel’s fresh-faced ingénue who charms with her lack of pretences and her carefree ponytails. Implicit in this text are the women who are undesirable: the shrew who must be humbled, the gaggle of rich housewives who would rather tear each other down than build each other up, and the insecure ex-girlfriend who poisons a perceived rival to her fortune and is put back in place by being publicly shamed as “a good friend at a time I really needed one.” In other words, China Rich Girlfriend reifies that nebulous essence of Asianness through a carnivalesque spectacle of Otherness. The scene that best portrays such a spectacle would be the Tomb-Sweeping Day festival with matriarch Shang Su Yi and family: the spread of food offerings to the ancestors is described as being “laid out like a Caravaggio still life.” One might argue that the novel is making a statement on profanity and tradition, but even that would be a bit of a stretch.
China Rich Girlfriend is another addition to a string of texts that present an unmediated portrayal of deeply problematic tropes and stereotypes, particularly ones that enact a certain violence on the body of Asian women. As soon as the novel is finished, never mind how entertaining some may find it to be, one returns again to an outside world where the model minority myth bears heavy repercussions on the racialized body, and one cannot help but wonder, in a sober moment, if it was worth it.
It is imperative to end this review with a personal anecdote: while I was working at a bookstore, a customer walked in and asked for the directions to the “sociology” section. He was looking for Crazy Rich Asians, Kwan’s prequel to China Rich Girlfriend. Despite my attempts to clarify this misclassification, he persisted until I brought him to the “fiction” section. While unsuccessful in finding any nuance or message in this self-proclaimed satire, I wait with bated breath for that ‘deeper perspective’ that will be revealed to us in the next book. Will Kwan surprise us with an unpacking of culturally and ideologically-loaded terms “Asians” and “China Rich”? Until then, I return to the humdrum existence of working through intersectionality and accountability, and bearing the impacts of racist media representations on the Asian body.