The old rich Pinoys in Kevin Kwan’s ‘Sex and Vanity’
In “Crazy Rich Asians,” Singapore-born writer Kevin Kwan caricatured the lifestyles of the rich and famous in our continent. The novel became a movie starring mostly Asians (including the incomparable Michelle Yeo as the clan matriarch), which then went on to break box office records worldwide.
Kwan rounded the trilogy with “China Rich Girlfriend” and “Rich People Problems,” (see “Crazy rich families” and “The Asian uber-rich,” Oct. 9 and 16, 2015).
“Sex and Vanity,” his latest bestseller, starts a new story arc, with protagonist Lucie as a “hapa” (half-Chinese, half-WASP) falling in love with George (Hong Kong Chinese). WASP is slang for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
The romance in this novel is not as realistic as before, and the settings are in Capri and the Hamptons, no longer in Asia.
But Kwan remains at his best when he satirizes the rich who take themselves too seriously. Many passages are simply LOL.
Take Paloma and Mercedes Ortiz, two Filipino ladies in their 70s, whose family “owns about 5,000 of the Philippines’ 7,000 islands.” They studied grade school in St. Scholastica, and high school in Ravenhill Academy, run by the Assumption sisters in Philadelphia. The latter school’s most famous alumna was the actress Grace Kelly, who became princess of Monaco.
The sisters describe themselves as “torna atras,” a mix of Chinese, Spanish and Filipino.
“Most Filipinos have mixed blood,” Mercedes tells Lucie. “We are all mestizos. I thank [my mother] every morning when I look in the mirror. It’s because of my Chinese blood that I haven’t needed a face-lift yet!”
Kwan cannot resist a footnote: “She’s lying of course. She had a face-lift and a neck lift back in 2000.”
The Ortiz sisters are members of the traditional wealthy, the Philippine counterpart to the US East Coast’s WASP.
Kwan’s description is spot on: “High WASPs … don’t need to throw parties, be photographed at society events, or endow wings at museums to cement their social position—they simply are privileged.”
According to Kwan, the traditional wealthy dislike the nouveau riche. For instance, WASPs look down on the rich who are “always front and center in pictures with presidents, European royals, and those overnight tech trillionaires—if you don’t own a search engine that’s flagrantly violating every privacy law in the world, or you’re not buying up whole islands in Hawaii, [they are] not interested in hobnobbing with you.”
Billennials is Kwan’s term for billionaire millennials. Lucie’s ex-fiance Cecil is one of them, and she describes him as “the busiest man I know. He’s got dozens of projects. He’s funding about 30 startups, he’s on the International Council of the Louvre, he started a nonprofit that restores frescoes in Naples.”
Her cousin skewers this, saying, “None of those sound like real jobs to me.”
Another friend clarifies the situation: “Billennials these days don’t bother putting in time at the office for appearances’ sake. They just jet around the world with their laptops. Do you know how much that father of Cecil personally pocketed when he sold midland Gas to Texaco? Seven billion. That was in the 80s, and that was before his widow decided to invest all the money in a little startup called Google.”
In the Asian parallel, the old rich, exemplified by the Ortiz sisters, look down on the new rich. When they overhear George’s mother Rosemary talking openly about money, they act horrified.
“Did she have to boast that [their family owns] the largest fleet of tankers on the planet? Our family founded businesses in the Philippines that go back to the 1800s, but we never would have mentioned it quite like that. My mother would have given us a tight slap!”
They also the criticize Rosemary’s clothes as being too “showy.”
Another character, who is more understanding, defends the woman: “You call it showy, I call it flair.” INQ (To be continued)
Get “Sex and Vanity” at National Bookstore.
Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” at www.lazada.com.ph. Contact the author at [email protected]
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