Continuing the trend of ways in which fiction has enhanced my understanding of specific places, I'd like to discuss Crazy Rich Asians, a dramedy of sorts about several wealthy families in southeast Asia (but mostly Singapore). Because as far as chick lit goes, it's actually surprisingly smart. Unlike other books about the lives of rich people that tend to just name drop designers left and right (see: anything ever written by Plum Sykes), author Kevin Kwan, who I believe based the characters off of people he knew growing up, offers some astute insight into a world that people outside of the region probably aren't aware even exists. I wouldn't go so far as to call it subversive, but there's enough social commentary to keep an anthropologist like myself interested enough to read it almost in one sitting. Plus, it's fun. And that's what summer reading is all about, right?
One of the main conflicts in the novel is that between the old wealth and new money. Just like the Long Island society of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the families who come from generations of prosperity scorn those who have amassed their fortunes within the last decade - from their gaudy mansions to label-whoring of recognizable luxury brands. In one memorable scene, a character from the former class derisively claims that she hasn't set foot in a Louis Vuitton store in decades, hinting that it's become much too plebeian for her refined tastes - a phenomenon that can also be observed in real life. We talked about this in my seminar on signaling theory; how ownership of a Gucci bag, for example, demonstrates the possession of economic capital to everyone, while something more subtle, like a PS1 by Proenza Schouler, embodies a certain level of cultural capital (i.e. the knowledge necessary to step away from the mainstream).
Racial and ethnic tensions figure into the background as well, between the westerners who don't take the titular Asians seriously and between the Asians themselves. (In the book there's a complicated hierarchy comprised of mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, and those whose families immigrated to Hong Kong or Singapore long ago). But for all intents and purposes, money is the key divisive figure in the story. So after finishing the novel, I half expected to arrive in Singapore and find streets paved in gold; they weren't, but nonetheless I could tell I was in a place unlike anywhere I'd ever been before. Everything was so clean! So orderly!
The day after I arrived I went to meet a former LCB classmate at ION Orchard, a vast shopping center where her hair stylist had set up shop. As I rode the escalators up from the basement level, where the mall connected with the metro, I saw boutiques for pretty much every and any designer label imaginable. Valentino? Check. Harry Winston jewels? Check. They even had a Leica store (maker of my absolute dream camera; in case any generous readers forgot I have a birthday coming up soon). My friend was still in the middle of her appointment, so the receptionist sat me down in a leather armchair with a bottle of water and the latest issues of Elle Singapore. After sort of roughing it for the past couple months, I thought to myself, "I could really get used to this."
Once she was perfectly coiffed and ready, we set out for a day about town, mostly checking out her favorite street food haunts as well as the gorgeous Gardens by the Bay. As we cruised along the tree-lined avenues she explained the various neighborhoods and parts of everyday life that aren't always obvious to foreigners. For example, private residential high-rises that have special lifts for cars so that the inhabitants can sleep tight knowing that their Ferraris and Aston Martins are safe in their living rooms.
Around mid-afternoon she invited me to accompany her to her weekly bible study group that evening. I automatically said yes for several reasons. Firstly, you can do every activity listed on TripAdvisor, but you'll never fully get the measure of a place until you visit a local's home. Secondly, bible study plays a small role in Crazy Rich Asians and I was curious to see how it might be similar/different in real life. And then, of course, was the simple fact that I had never before attended a bible study session.
At 8pm we went to her friend's lovely flat (not one with a car elevator, but still obviously quite nice). The actual bible study reminded me a lot of discussion sections in college; the leader asking probing questions that the rest of the group either doesn't understand, doesn't know the answer to, or is too afraid of saying something that might seem stupid. But after analyzing the passage and breaking up into smaller groups, when they shifted the focus onto more personal issues, I saw just how strong the bonds of the social network are.
It would be disingenuous to compare actual Singaporeans to the book characters because, after all, most of the latter are caricatures for comedic effect, but there are some similarities. Like how most of the guests at bible study completed their higher education in the UK. (I was told by someone there that in certain social circles this is standard; in the book Kwan makes a point of suggesting that American universities are reserved for those who can't get into Oxford or Cambridge). To put this in a different context, I guess it would be something like if a foreigner watched Mean Girls or the new 21 Jump Street, spent a day in an American high school, and subsequently thought to herself, "Holy cow! There's actually a lot of truth in these jokes."
For the record, though, I quite like it here - it's green and beautiful, the people are kind, the food is amazing, and it's much less of a cultural vacuum than I was led to believe. And if you're still not sold on Crazy Rich Asians, it was recently optioned for film adaptation. So you'd better read it, stat, because the book is always better than the movie.