The Asian Uber-Rich
NEW York-based Singaporean writer Kevin Kwan has written two bestselling fiction books, “Crazy Rich Asians” and “China Rich Girlfriend,” based on the uber-wealthy in Asia.
Asians are typically depicted as war survivors or weakling nerds, so it is refreshing that Kwan (whose family belongs to the Old Rich) has now slyly yanked the covers off the world of elite families in China, Hong Kong and Singapore.
In Kwan’s books, males remain on top of the hierarchy.
Mothers spoil their only sons and sacrifice everything for them. Take the characters Bao Gaoliang and his wife Shaoyen, who worked hard to grow their medical supplies business inherited from earlier generations. Gaoliang is now a party politician in China—and a billionaire.
But Shaoyen flies economy while her only son Carlton relaxes in first class.
“Carlton can eat all the fancy Western food and, being a student under so much pressure, he needs all the rest he can get. But for me, it’s not worth it. I don’t touch airplane food, and I can never sleep on these long flights anyway,” she says.
Carlton is charming but spoiled, with a taste for luxury. His father threatens to disinherit him, “not completely … but giving him absolute control of everything would be a big mistake.”
In the Philippines, women are at the helm of many family businesses (Tessie Sy-Coson of SM and Joji Gotianun-Yap of Filinvest come to mind). But though times are changing, in some families, females, even wealthy daughters, count for little.
The character of Jacqueline Ling says, “I’m a girl. My grandfather was old-fashioned … and for people like him, girls weren’t supposed to inherit—they were just married off. He put all his holdings in a labyrinthine family trust, stipulating that only males born with the Ling surname could benefit.”
“It wasn’t really that loss of money that was affecting me the most,” Ling says. “It was the loss of the privilege. To suddenly realize that you are inconsequential even within your own family.”
How about in cases where all the children are female? Colette Bing, in love with Carlton Bao, has parents whose fortune eclipses that of his. But Colette resists the injunction to marry a suitably matched counterpart and produce the next-generation heirs in turn.
“Why did you send me to the most progressive schools in England if all you expected out of me was to get married at such a young age? Why did I bother studying so hard at Regent’s? I have so many goals, so many things I want to accomplish before I become anyone’s wife,” she says.
Colette says she does not need a man to look after her. “I am not going to get married and pump out babies just because you want a barrel full of grandsons.” Her father then freezes her bank accounts.
Social class is a weapon of the Old Rich, who scoff at the nouveau riche as Henrys (High Earners, Not Rich Yet).
When patriarch A wakes up from a coma, he stops the clan’s spending. A’s daughter-in-law B hates the spending restrictions, so she has an affair with scion C, whose wife D comes from another prominent family. D’s grandmother E “retaliated by making sure every old-guard family in Southeast Asia shut their doors firmly” on the clans of A and C, so finally C “chose to crawl back to his wife [D] rather than run off with [B].”
Even Chinese New Year is not spared. Families visit each other in strict order, based on seniority, paying respects to the oldest (hint, richest) relatives first, the paternal side on the first day, the maternal side on the next.
This often requires “complicated Excel flow charts, ang pow [red money envelopes] tracking apps, and plenty of Russian vodka to dull the migraine-inducing confusion of it all.”
Filipino time appears to be also Hong Kong and Shanghai time, albeit done deliberately. People arrive late to functions.
“It’s a matter of face—no one wants to be the first to show up, in case they look too eager, so they try to outdo one another in lateness. The last one to arrive is deemed the most important.”
The right family connections are essential. Not having attended the proper school with the right crowd “eliminates you from participating in 70 percent of the conversations that occur during dinner parties at the best houses.”
Such chitchat goes all the way back to childhood, since people are “all still completely obsessed with what happened when they were five. Who was fat or thin? Who wet her pants during choir practice? Who’s [sic] father shut down Ocean Park for the day so that he could have a huge birthday party?”
Are there crazy rich Filipinos in the books? Evangeline de Ayala, a not-so-subtle allusion, appears briefly as a kind woman who says “swithart.” Unfortunately, most Filipinas in Kwan’s books are still maids, and the lone Filipino a bartender, though a genius bartender in a swanky private jet at that.
Queena N. Lee-Chua is on the Board of Directors of Ateneo de Manila University’s Family Business Development Center. Get her book “Successful Family Businesses” at the University Press (e-mail [email protected]) E-mail the author at [email protected]
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.