NEW YORK – “Crazy Rich Asians” has been a surprise hit at the U.S. box office this summer, but what are the chances of a sequel called “Crazy Rich Asian Jews”? That may sound fanciful, but the author of the trilogy upon which the film is based says powerful Jewish families also exist among Asian society’s wealthy elite.
“There has always been a Jewish community in Singapore,” says best-selling novelist Kevin Kwan, who recalls how Singapore boasted “many synagogues” when he was growing up in the 1970s. There are several “rich and powerful Jewish families in Singapore,” operating very quietly and behind-the-scenes today, he explains. “And in China, of course, there were very illustrious families – the Sassoon family, for example [aka the ‘Rothschilds of the East’] – that really helped found modern China,” he says.
“There are a few very prominent Jewish families that have made Asia their home and really succeeded in becoming respected in the community,” adds Kwan, whose family left Singapore for the United States in the early ’80s.
As Singapore has developed into a high-tech city state, new money has poured in. “Singapore has become such an international hub, especially for people of high net worth,” says Kwan. “There is a new international billionaire class of people who are moving to Singapore from all over the world. Singapore has become a tax haven – sort of the Switzerland of Asia,” he explains.
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The island, situated off southern Malaysia, has the highest concentration of millionaires in the world and attracted several high-profile Jewish billionaires. These include Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (now one of Singapore’s richest citizens) and the American-Canadian mining baron Robert Friedland.
Today, the Jewish population on the island numbers some 2,500, according to Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times – most of them not billionaires. Two synagogues serve the community, many of whom trace their roots back to the Iraqi Jews of Baghdad.
Kwan acknowledges that the arrival of the superrich has had an enormous impact on Singapore. “Most of the citizens are aware of how rich some people are in the country,” he says. “First of all, it’s a very rich country: 17 percent of the population are millionaires. So, most people are already at a certain class. But they are also aware of the superrich class that also exists on this island. It’s very obvious when you see the mansions or the beautiful high-rise penthouse apartments. And also the way people are living now.
“It’s very different from when I was growing up,” he continues. “When I was growing up, it was a quiet, sleepy island. Now it has become Manhattan meets [Beverly Hills’] Rodeo Drive – much more flashy. The people with money are showing it off; they are driving exotic cars, there are many luxury shops. It’s very evident to the local population that there is a class of the superrich on the island.”
Not everyone on the island is happy about these changes. “I feel that, to some extent, many in the middle class feel there is such a gap between the ‘normal’ wealthy people, the people that don’t have wealth, and the people that have hundreds of billions of dollars, so there is a growing resentment,” says Kwan. “But at the same time, because Singapore economically has done so well over the past 30 years, the system is working for the island and they can’t complain too much. Compared to other countries, the poorest in Singapore are not so poor.”
Kwan is an executive producer on the film, which has taken $80 million at the U.S. box office to date. The novel “Crazy Rich Asians” was published in 2013, with Kwan saying his intention was to “introduce a contemporary Asia to a North American audience.” Two successful sequels followed: “China Rich Girlfriend” (2015) and “Rich People Problems” ( 2017).
The film has enjoyed widespread critical acclaim and is believed to be a watershed moment for Asian representation in Hollywood.
Pools on a plane
Some critics, though, have sniped about the film’s ostentatious display of wealth, yet Kwan says that as extravagant as the lives of these crazy rich Asians are, the more outlandish details didn’t actually make it into the original novel for fear of alienating the public. After all, how can the average reader relate to people flying on a private jet that has a pool?
“There were a lot of things, especially in the first book, that my editor made me take out,” he recounts. “She said, ‘This is too unbelievable to the normal reader – you are going to lose the readers.’ The way I would describe a house, how it’s decorated, was so out of this world that she would say, ‘No one is going to believe it,’ even though the house really exists,” says Kwan. “Or she would say, ‘Why is everyone taking private planes and helicopters everywhere they go? There are too many planes!’ I said, ‘But this is how these people are – they use planes like other people use taxis.’
“Of course, everything changed after the first book became a big success,” he continues. “For the second book she would say, ‘More! More! More!’ And it was easy to do, because the second book is about mainland China – and there, the people are rich on such a crazy, crazy level that I couldn’t exaggerate it even if I tried!”
Not everything about “Crazy Rich Asians” is private jets and extravagant parties, though. As we follow one of the story’s protagonists, Rachel Chu (played in the movie by Constance Wu), into the world of those crazy rich Asians, we also get to see the darker side of wealth.
[SPOILER] In “China Rich Girlfriend” (which is now being adapted into a movie following the success of “Crazy Rich Asians”), there is a deadly car crash and rivalries over money take a dark turn. One of the book’s protagonists is even poisoned by a dangerous new drug developed by Israel’s Mossad espionage agency.
“It’s called Tarquinomid,” one of the characters explains. “It’s a very hard-to-get pharmaceuticalS that’s normally used to treat people with multiple sclerosis, manufactured only in Israel. They say it’s sometimes used by Mossad agents for assassinations.”
“I’m striving to accurately depict the situation,” explains Kwan. “For the mainland Chinese, there have been many, many scandals with the new money in China. These stories – the car accident, the poisoning – are inspired by front-page headlines, of things that have really happened in China among the superrich. It’s not that I intentionally wanted to go darker, but it’s where the truth of the story was.”
While the trilogy centers on the relationship between Rachel Chu and Nick Young, and the upheavals their romance brings to the close-knit elite of Singapore, it also explores social tensions between Asia’s old money and the new billionaires from mainland China.
“In countries like Singapore and Hong Kong, you have families that have lived there for hundreds of years. And, over the generations, these families have worked very, very hard and very quietly built up companies and organizations. And then, suddenly, there is a whole new class of mainland Chinese billionaires – overnight billionaires, really – and they start moving to Singapore and Hong Kong, and buying all the real estate. I think it rubbed a lot of the local aristocracy the wrong way.
“The ‘old money’ is retreating into its own private little world,” says Kwan. “But the mainland Chinese – I think they actually don’t care. They are creating their own society, they don’t care as much about assimilating with the local ruling class. They are rich, they are having fun, they are going to enjoy their money however they want.”