Facelifts for your fish & lavish weddings: inside the life of crazy rich Asians
As a hit film lifts the lid on Singapore's super-wealthy, the affluent of the East are making waves in the West
The characters in Crazy Rich Asians, the landmark film currently dominating world box offices, are preposterously wealthy.
At the beginning of both the film and the 2013 novel on which it is based, there is a flashback to a stormy night in London decades earlier when the story's lead character, Singaporean Nick Young, was a child.
Accompanied by his mother, aunt and cousins, Nick arrives at a fictional Mayfair hotel where a snooty general manager - clearly shocked that the surname "Young" should belong to Asians - turns them away. "Perhaps someplace in Chinatown?" he sneers.
So they buy the hotel.
Crazy Rich Asians has many tropes of a conventional rom-com. It tells the story of a young Asian-American woman who falls for Nick, now grown up and teaching in New York.
She travels to Singapore to meet his family, only to realise he isn't just a history professor but also scion to one of the wealthiest dynasties in Asia. (No, it didn't occur to her to google him.) Cue a lot of status anxiety, a lot of intrigue, and a lot of opulence.
The movie is the first major Hollywood production in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast, the first romantic comedy to top the US box office in three years and the first film to show the amazing opulence of the Far East's fast-growing ultra-rich.
"It is exaggerated for comic effect, but Singapore is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and there are a lot of very, very rich people here," said James Crabtree, a writer and academic who has lived in Singapore for the past three years.
"What you see in Crazy Rich Asians is satire, poking fun at the rich, but when you look into it, some of the most preposterous things in the story turn out to be entirely true."
Take that opening scene, for example. In a recent radio interview, Kevin Kwan, 44, the Singaporean-American author of the novel, admitted it is "loosely inspired by a true story" about a family he knows.
Many of the characters were based on people who have crossed his path - his great-grandfather was a founding director of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation, Singapore's oldest bank.
He recalls one family who "arrived in London late and found their reservation wasn't being honoured at the hotel.
In the real story they just very kindly told the manager: 'You can give me my rooms, or I can put an ad in every English-speaking newspaper around the world tomorrow morning explaining what's happened to me. You choose.'"
They didn't buy that hotel, but likely could have. Since the financial crash in 2008, Asian billionaires have been purchasing trophy assets all over the place, be they domestic properties, football clubs or hotels, and in doing so have rebranded the face of the 1%.
In 2010, the Malaysian billionaire Vincent Tan bought Cardiff City football club and promptly maddened its fans by changing the kit from blue to red (since reversed). Singaporean billionaire Kwek Leng Chan owns the four-star Thistle hotel brand, the Royal Horseguards hotel in Whitehall and the Clermont Club in Berkeley Square; the sultan of Brunei owns the Dorchester.
The rise of the ultra-rich in Asia has been rapid. Just over a decade ago, China was thought to have no billionaires. Now it makes up 20% of the global billionaires list, having added 101 in just the past year and swelling the continent's total to 637 - more than the 563 in the US. With an average age of 55, China's billionaire cohort is also statistically younger than their US and European counterparts, who reach this level of wealth at averages of 61 and 62.
"You can't imagine how staggeringly rich these people are," says Marie-Hélène, a character in Kwan's novel. "The houses, the servants, the style in which they live. It makes the Arnaults [one of Europe's richest families, owners of LVMH] look like peasants."
The fact that they are newly minted doesn't necessarily make Asian rich people "crazier" than other billionaires, but watching the film, you'd be forgiven for thinking it might.
In one scene, a woman boasts of paying thousands of dollars for plastic surgery for her prized dragon fish, which sounds like fiction until you read the New York Times interview with a piscine cosmetic surgeon in Singapore. Eye-lifts and chin jobs for fish are the most common requests, he said.
Juliana Chan, the 25-year-old CEO of Wildtype Media Group in Singapore, insists wealth isn't flaunted quite so ostentatiously.
"There is a very lavish wedding in the film, and that is definitely a time when you see the amount of money people have to spend," she said.
"My sister was a viola player and she was flown, with her quartet, all the staff and crew and hundreds of guests, to Bali for a clifftop wedding that was timed to start just as the sun set behind the couple."
Chan - who took her entire staff to the cinema to see the film - doesn't mind the ultra-rich being the focus of the story.
"There have been some people in Singapore who have been angry that it shows only the rich side of life here, but what can you do? It can't be about everything. To me it's just a very cute rom-com, and amazing that it's the first time we've got a movie like this, with Asian people, and all about Singapore."
SOME OF THE FAMOUS FACES
Constance Wu stars as Rachel Chu in Crazy Rich Asians.
Born to parents who emigrated from Taiwan to the US, Wu champions Asian representation in Hollywood and hopes the film bridges cultural divides.
“In America especially, there’s this idea of the perpetual foreigner, that’s why they only think of me as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I think [the film] will make other people view us in a more human way”
Born in Taiwan, Chang grew up in Sydney and Singapore before moving to New York to work as an investment banker. Later she moved to Hong Kong and has become something of an It Girl —wearing Dior on yachts, hot-air balloons and camels and building a cult Instagram following.
Last year she married financier Lincoln Li in a three-day ceremony on Capri. As well as a cake topped with 15kg of fresh strawberries, Chang commissioned two gowns from Giambattista Valli — one the biggest he has made.
Evangelista is a Filipino actress and artist and part of the family that founded the food empire Barrio Fiesta. With more than 2-million followers on Instagram, her account took off when she posted a photo of a Birkin bag she had painted after staining it while eating chips.
Evangelista posts shots from her travels in designer outfits but it’s her choice of sponsored posts and brand collaborations that are most fascinating: Omega watches one day, corned beef the next.
The daughter of a billionaire, the Malaysian heiress documents what it is like to spend her days travelling in private jets and Bentleys, from lunches in Tokyo to shopping trips to LA.
She recently wed Naza Group heir Faliq Nasimuddin in an elaborate embroidered gown by Indonesian designer Yefta Gunawan. For the reception she wore a pleated dress by FitiWoo with crystal studded pumps from Jimmy Choo. For her first dance she changed into a full-length gown by Dubai-based designer Michael Cinco.
• Crazy Rich Asians is in cinemas now.
- The Daily Telegraph, London