by Kevin Kwan, published 2014
On its surface, Crazy Rich Asians is a sordid story of dysfunction and social positioning within mega-wealthy sorta-nobility Chinese families originating in Singapore. It’s full of flashy outfits and the shocking shopping trips that put them in the characters wardrobes; over-the-top square footage and fully-furnished living arrangements in a part of the world known for nearly inhumane density and some of the highest real estate prices in the world; petty gossip like only those with too much time and money on their hands can engage in; oh, and wonderful, wonderful sounding food. For those reasons, it’s an entertaining read.
But just below the surface (not too far, mind you… these issues are philosophically auxiliary as far as I can tell, not intentionally contemplative like a work of classic literature) lie a series of family-planning and wealth-planning puzzles for the observant reader to consider. In no particular order, and with very minor spoilers, these puzzles are explored more below.
The first puzzle has to do with identity. When one of the main characters finds out that the early story of their family’s history is a fabrication, they are thrown into psychological turmoil and shock, their sense of self seemingly obliterated in a moments revelation. It begs the question “Who are you?” One answer is, you are your history, a series of factual contexts and accumulated decisions made up to any point in time at which you exist. Another answer is, you are whatever you believe you are– if you can convince yourself you are, than you are. This question is important for a few reasons. The first is that the way our brains function on a psychological level may require us to have certain beliefs about ourselves to maintain psychological integrity and thus enable us for other modes of action in the external world. We may be able to “constantly reinvent ourselves”, but only within a narrow band of experience or possibility, beyond that we are driven at a hardware level into anxiety and distress. Another reason this question is important is because it sheds light on how arbitrary our identities can be. If we can operate quite competently and confidently with a certain view of ourselves and our role in the world, even if this viewpoint is built on falsehoods, it suggests that what is important in terms of forming an identity is consistency of story, not accuracy. If someone can convince you you are the rightful king, maybe you are. If you come from a noble family but you’re told you’re a lout, maybe you will be. Where does one find “self” in all of this?
Related to this puzzle is parental relationships and the question, “Do you really want to know everything about your parents?” Each one of us is born into a world our parents have already been living for some time. We don’t know all the choices and ideas they had prior to our arrival and often we receive a filtered list of such information sporadically throughout our lives. We don’t have the ability to query our parents’ true thinking at any given moment and without becoming paranoid and running background checks or doing some sleuthing on them, we’re mostly in a position to accept what they tell us about themselves unless we receive some kind of alarmingly contradictory information that would lead us to question it. Similar to finding out your life might have been a lie, do we want to know who our parents really are? We presume they share the good about themselves with us, do we really want to hear about more of their foibles?
The second puzzle is about intergenerational wealth building. The narrative focuses on Singaporean Chinese families of stupendous wealth. Most of this wealth seems to be owned and controlled by surviving matriarchs whose heyday was the 1930s and 1940s (Gen1). The descendants (Gen2) and their children (Gen 3) appear to be idlers. Sure, some of them have “jobs” and other preoccupations, but none of them have to work and none seem to be contributing anything productive to the family wealth, which appears to be managed professionally by outsiders.
Why don’t rich families prepare future generations to manage their wealth responsibly? When the matriarch dies, what will keep the professional managers loyal, and what will give the surviving descendants the ability to manage these obligations without undue risk? Money is clearly important to these families, as they could give it away or have less of it but they don’t. But there doesn’t appear to be a meaningful attempt to teach the succeeding generations how to contribute to its growth and management.
Related to this is the question of what is the value of fantastic wealth? Although they think of themselves quite highly, the families depicted don’t seem to be better at much of anything that doesn’t involve buying things. In terms of character they have the same flaws and struggles as everyone else. If this wealth can’t make you a better person, or, put another way, you don’t use it to enable greater self-actualization, of what use is it? Ironically, wealth in this story is depicted as not creating conditions by which those who possess it can elevate themselves, but simultaneously it explores the ways wealth changes a person in terms of tastes and behaviors. Here we see not how a person’s values change, but the ways in which their ability to express those values do. If you don’t use it to become a better version of yourself, and you don’t learn how to manage and control it, what logical benefits does wealth offer you?
The final puzzle of the story is the puzzle of permanent capital. As none of the major characters and their families seem to contribute to the generation of their wealth, and none seem capable of doing so, where the wealth comes from and how it manages to persist, especially as it is being consumed at such enormous rates, is a bit of a mystery. Of course, in this story we can only see the families whose wealth has persisted across multiple generations despite all of the above-mentioned conditions and despite the changes in social and economic circumstances over decades. What we can not see are the families whose wealth ran aground over this period, because they won’t factor into a narrative about those who have great wealth except as a tale of warning which never seems to be told. It is amateurish and perhaps speaks to the intelligence or values of the intended reader but the author never provides even a small hint as to where the wealth comes from (oh sure, some new money families introduced here and there are the Such and Suchs of plastics, or the So and Sos of tech).
Though friends with government officials and even extant royalty, the primary families are disclaimed as not being of purely aristrocratic extraction or otherwise connected directly to a government-based wealth extraction mechanism. But from where else could such voluminous and seemingly interminable wealth emanate from, especially without influence or concern of the family? If such a source exists in the market (a contradiction in terms at the very least), how is it undiscovered by other market participants and thus immune to competitive factors? How is it financed?
In studying great exceptions there is an honest temptation to find some kind of exploitable rule. But I think it’s ultimately a fool’s errand, because you’re essentially looking at a highly improbable stack of luck and trying to figure out how to emulate something that is amazing that it even exists at all.