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Kevin Kwan takes aim at the rich

Sex and Vanity,” the ne­west novel by Kevin Kwan, born in Singapore and now based in Los Angeles, is an amusing tale of East meets West that can momentarily take our minds off the pandemic.

The romance is not as fleshed-out as that in “Crazy Rich Asians,” but I don’t read Kwan for the plot. Instead, I focus on his incisive observations of Asian rich families.

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Take the drama that ensues after a restaurant meal, when Chinese (in the Philippines and other parts of Asia) tend to fight over the bill. Not to avoid paying it, mind you, as might be the case elsewhere, but to foot the whole thing for everyone. Playing tug-of-war over the bill is considered a sign of respect and friendship.

Rosemary Zao, a Hong Kong Chinese, is a member of the new rich. Her generosity is often misinterpreted by skeptics.

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“She overheard us talking about how much we loved the orchids at this flower shop, and the next thing you know we came back to our suite and found it filled with orchids,” says one cynic. “Dozens of pots … Now it looks like we’re having a wake!”

But an artist acquaintance defends her: “You have a natural instinct to look for a motive in everything … [but] having gotten to know Mrs. Zao, I think her offer was likely made in a pure spirit. She’s only known me for a few days, but she’s already invited me to do a workshop in Hong Kong and even told me she’d arrange the space to host it and invite all her friends. And yesterday, she spontaneously ordered pineapple and coconut sorbets for everyone lying around the pool. I thought it was a lovely gesture.”

Such generosity is not universal though. The protagonist Lucie’s aunt, a middle-aged Asian who just spent a lot for pasalubong, hesitates to tip the taxi driver using her credit card, because doing so would make the tax amount higher by a few dollars. Lucie’s mother had to pay the driver in cash. Penny wise, pound foolish, indeed.

In a hilarious scene, worth quoting in full, Kwan makes fun of the entitled rich, stuffy clubs, pretentious fashion, all at the same time.

Cecil, a “billennial” (see last week’s column for this definition) is not allowed entry into an exclusive club, because:

“It’s the dress code, sir. Your top doesn’t have a collar,” says the attendant.

“This isn’t a top! It’s a V-neck Henley designed by one of the greatest and most elusive Belgian designers, a man who hasn’t been photographed in 30 years. It’s made of the finest cashmere harvested from baby Zalaa Jinst white goats that roam free on the Mongolian steppes, and it’s hand-knotted in Lake Como by old Italian women with arthritis and varicose veins in a beautiful atelier within spitting distance of George and Amal Clooney’s villa.”

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“And it doesn’t have a collar,” says the attendant.

In the end, Cecil buys a cheap shirt with a collar, which the club keeps handy for just this sort of thing.

The novel adopts a carefree tone, but at times it has a bitter edge.

Lucie works as an art consultant, respectable enough, but her brother, who appears to be more grounded, describes her job as telling “rich social climbers what art to buy.”

Lucie objects, saying she helps collectors “acquire and build their art collections in a meaningful way.”

Her brother retorts, “By telling them what to buy, they’ll get photos of their houses into all the right magazines, hang out with the right crowd, get into all the right clubs, so their kids can go to the right schools, work for the right companies, marry the right people, have the right sort of babies, and repeat the cycle.”

It’s a crash course in inequality, which is even more timely now.

“Sex and Vanity” is available in 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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TAGS: Kevin Kwan, Sex and Vanity
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