There’s rich, and then there’s “China rich.”
In a nutshell, that’s the main idea of author Kevin Kwan’s new novel China Rich Girlfriend, his sequel to Crazy Rich Asians, which climbed the bestseller list and secured a movie deal in 2013 thanks to its incisive depiction of the fabulous lives of Asia’s billionaires. While Crazy Rich Asians followed the lavish spending, gossip, and scheming of Singapore’s high society, China Rich Girlfriend (Doubleday) expands its scope to the even more extravagant ultra-rich of mainland China, complete with high-speed Ferrari crashes, penthouse apartments with car elevators, private jets that hold their own karaoke lounges and IMAX screens, and countless Birkins.
For those who read Kwan’s first book, China Rich Girlfriend picks up where Crazy Rich Asians left off by following the relationship of Nick, the heir of one of Singapore’s wealthiest families, and his middle-class American-born Chinese fiancé Rachel, who discovers that she has some wealthy family connections of her own that set the backdrop for the glimpse into the lives of mainland China’s elite.
Although the story is fictional, the extravagant displays of wealth are based on Kwan’s firsthand experiences from his early life in Singapore and travels to China. The novel chronicles not only the profligate spending of mainland Chinese high-net-worth families, but also their efforts to cultivate a more sophisticated image through hiring image consultants, bidding on choice pieces of art, and attempts to gain acceptance in neighboring Hong Kong’s high society circuit. In addition, it also touches on the extreme secrecy that exists among many of China’s rich—especially officials with vast stores of wealth hoping that no one will start asking questions about how they accumulated it.
To learn more about the research and experiences that went into the book, we caught up with Kwan for an interview on his thoughts on lifestyle and culture of the richest of China’s rich.
For your last book, you drew on your own upbringing when writing about Singapore’s wealthy. Did you have any personal reference points for your focus on mainland China?
I have had the pleasure of traveling to China over the years to visit good friends and relatives who live there. It’s been through them that I get to meet locals and explore, as well as witness firsthand how the high-net-worth crowd lives. Things changes so quickly in China now, it’s like visiting a different country from one year to the next.
The book discusses extravagant displays of wealth in mainland China that are even more over-the-top than those in Singapore in Crazy Rich Asians. Were these based on reality?
Absolutely. Many of the outrageous displays of wealth I write about in the new book came from seeing them with my own eyes—like the incredible, ultra-exclusive private clubs, sumptuous holiday playgrounds, and the exquisitely dressed people I would meet in Shanghai.
Your book references many trends that are actually going on in mainland China’s luxury industry, such as the popularity of fashion bloggers and skyrocketing prices of Chinese art. Did you follow these developments mainly for book research or were you familiar with them ahead of time?
For the most part, I was already familiar with the trends that have been sweeping through China for the past few years. Really, anyone who takes an interest in the world has to keep up with what is going on in China because China has become such an important driver of events. They’ve gone rather quickly from simply following Western trends to actually setting global trends, with the fashion and art worlds being perfect examples. But my visits to China while writing the book also provided me with firsthand confirmation of all that I was hearing and reading—I had so many fascinating experiences that could fill a dozen books!
One of the main themes in the book is the fact that mainland China’s ultra-rich don’t seem to have a sense of “high society” in the way that Hong Kong and Singapore do. Would you say this is true in real life?
Well, actually in my book I think it’s quite clear that China really does have its own high society, one that’s highly stratified with its own rules and totally distinct from Singapore, Hong Kong, or any other country in Asia. If they’re perhaps viewed as a bit crass by the rich of other places, to me it’s very similar to how rich Americans of the late 19th century were perceived by the European aristocracy.
China’s rich are all “new money” right now—what kind of changes will we see as they move toward becoming “old money”?
Some people may say it takes several generations for a fortune to truly be considered “old money,” but I feel that China’s privileged classes are evolving at warp speed, and I think a profound shift has already begun. We are seeing wealthy families that are behaving like “old money families” would—they are extremely private, very sophisticated in their tastes, and the emphasis is now on how they live behind closed doors rather than flaunting their money in a public way. They are spending money on designing their homes for pure comfort, on exotic travel experiences that they can enjoy with their families, collecting art for their private museums, and diversifying their portfolios outside of China.
The book features an “image consultant” character who helps mainland China’s nouveau riche learn to become more sophisticated. Is this based on anything real that you’ve come across?
Definitely. These consultants are extremely private and discreet about the services they provide, and they will never reveal who their clients are, but they do exist.
When we last checked in with you about Crazy Rich Asians, you had a film deal in the works. Can you give us any new details?
Things are progressing splendidly. We have a brilliant screenwriter, Pete Chiarelli, writer of the hit film, The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, who is now putting the final polish on the script, and my producers have already made several very productive visits to Asia. We want to bring Crazy Rich Asians to the big screen as soon as possible, and we want to make sure it’s done right!