When Kevin Li first launched his Canadian web series Ultra Rich Asian Girls of Vancouver, the public's simultaneous disapproval of and fascination with the fuerdai, or Chinese second-generation wealthy, was widespread. Now, Li is working on his fourth season, and already, much has changed. Since Jing Daily last spoke to Li when the first season aired in 2014, one character launched her men's underwear line. Another had a baby. And one of the characters from Season 1, Florence Zhao, left the show. Her father was charged in 2015 with second-degree murder after allegedly dismembering Florence's mother's millionaire cousin in their Vancouver home for money.
But perhaps most notable is the possibility that the show could go mainstream as Li is in talks with an unnamed U.S. company seeking to co-produce the show for the American market. Currently, the show streams online for free on Youtube, Youku, and Tencent channels. While viewership spans foremost Canada and the United States, followed by Taiwan, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and Australia, Chinese viewership has been on the rise. Li says the show's Weibo account “goes up by the hundreds everyday,” and meanwhile, Western media has tried to dissect the phenomenon to find out exactly what it really means to be a fuerdai in North America.
“When I released the teaser for it a couple years ago, the local media picked up on it and they thought it was a joke at first,” Li says. “They asked, is this a parody? I was like no, this is for real.” Ultra Rich Asian Girls stars four wealthy Chinese millennials, now Pam, Chelsea, Diana, and Joy, who spend their days shopping at luxury boutiques, getting facials, and drinking Champagne. Like many reality shows, the action cuts to confessionals from each of the characters, most of which are petty jabs and catty remarks.
But outside the show, there has been even bigger drama. After Florence, or “Flo Z” left last year, there were questions about whether she was actually rich. According to media reports, Florence and her family were being financially supported by the murder victim, Gang Yuan, and the lawyer for Yuan's family accused her of lying about owning his home and his Rolls Royce.
Li says his primary goal has always been to avoid depicting a cast of irresponsible fuerdai. His cast members have college degrees, three from the University of British Columbia, one graduating with honors in math, another making progress in fashion marketing. One even has a small business that is steadily gaining Weibo followers thanks to promotion on the show. “These girls are an excellent example of how to be responsible and have money, but you still have to pursue your own dreams and careers,” he says.
Jing Daily caught up with Li once again to find out where the series has headed, whether Florence has any chance of returning to Season 4, and how luxury brands are getting their cut.
For the past three months, there has been a lot of worldwide interest from media in the United States, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Al Jazeera, as well as Dateline Australia. It’s really taking on a lot more media attention than I really expected when I first started. People are very, very interested in this particular demographic. Economically, China is doing a lot these days, and people are getting more and more curious.
As for many of the production companies, they’ve been wanting to do something like this, but they don’t know how and they don’t know where to start. They don’t even know where to find the talent. Especially when it comes to the North American production companies, they are predominately Caucasian and very few times have they ever tried to call for something that is more multicultural. In the past year or so, they’ve seen the response the show has generated, that even though the girls are speaking in Mandarin, this is actually worth something, so let’s see what we can do. That’s the general curiosity that I get from the production companies. “
It was mainly for the Chinese audience because number one, if we look at it like a business, a lot of the Hollywood films are actually going to China because people there still consume movies in the traditional sense by going to the theater. What are they talking about now? They are talking about wealth and the money. And what was my favorite show growing up? Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. So it was these different elements that came together that made me decide I wanted a Chinese audience.
In Vancouver, in particular, there has been a lot of backlash regarding wealthy Chinese coming from the mainland and driving up property values. Do you feel that has been affecting how people react to your show?#
I remember when the Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie show came out, The Simple Life, people were like, 'These rich girls are doing all these things and never heard of Walmart. Oh my God, I can’t believe it. Walmart, right?' But people still watched it. It was hugely popular. Like, no one would look at these two girls and say these two are driving up property prices, you know, around the area.
There’s many factors to Vancouver’s housing prices, and only 3 percent of British Columbia buyers are foreign Chinese. So there are a lot of misconceptions within the local public on how much Chinese wealth is. The biggest problem I see, as a Chinese kid growing up in Vancouver, is that people locally still see Chinese, including myself, as foreign. So when they see a guy like me go out and buy a house, they would assume too that I’m China-Chinese.
Of course, number one is entertainment. And number two, I’ve always had a huge interest in Chinese-Canadian history and Chinese-Canadian culture. And within the show, you’ll see as such in the second episode of Season 1 when the girls go to Victoria’s Chinatown, which is Canada’s oldest Chinatown. They learn about the different Chinese pioneers that were here 140 years ago. So I use the show as a platform to share what I’m passionate about.
Of course, the title is provocative. That’s what it’s meant to do. But when you watch the show, you’ll actually learn these girls are actually very human, just like everyone else. They have their own vulnerabilities, and they have their own insecurities. They are also discovering what it is like growing up and living life in Vancouver. That’s what I hope people will take away from watching the show, beginning to end.
I would say that it is about 80 percent. The only reason for this is because the show is driven by sponsorships, so we have to be at certain places, like the mall. Do they go to those malls? Of course they go to those malls. But do they jump around and take all those selfies? Maybe not, right? But everything they say comes from their own mouth and their own mind. I came from a documentary and news background; I’ve been doing it for 18 years before doing Ultra Rich Asian Girls, and this is all I know how to do.
They are coming to me. A lot of companies these days see the value in the Chinese economy. So if you have a business here, especially in Vancouver, you are basically looking for that market, those who are spending frivolously, buying up stuff, eating 200 meals—and that’s just on the cheap end—and buying handbags. So if they don’t know how to advertise, they see the show as a way to reach their audience, not just here, but also in Asia as well because of social media.
What’s important for me is that the show on the whole is entertaining, but there is a secondary message to it. The girls I find have to have a good story. They want to start their own business, they have a mind of their own, and they know what they want. It’s not just a girl who happens to be rich and pretty. Of course, that helps. What really tells a story is that they want to do their own business and exploring what that is like. It’s giving a different way for people to see the fuerdai. In the community, the fuerdai has had a really, really bad reputation in the past little while, with all the news reporting about the crashed Lamborghinis, Ferraris, whatever. But, there’s rich kids in Canada, and they’re called the trust fund kids. There’s a lot of trust fund kids who blow their money on cocaine and partying. But, they don’t get such a bad rap. There are also trust fund kids that go on to become lawyers, stockbrokers, and things like that. And this is just another way for people to get an inside look on this particular demographic.”
There have been numerous media reports about Florence leaving the show because her father was accused of murdering her mother's cousin. What has happened since then? Is she coming back?#
Yeah, it was very, very unfortunate. She was of course in Season 1 when that happened. She was very great for the show. She had a lot of charisma, and she had a lot of personality. She was starting her own activewear line and all this stuff. Things like that unfortunately happen, and the case is for the courts. We would love to see her come back, but she has to get this part figured out first before considering everything else. Right now her time is focused with her mom and family.
Did that mean a change in how you vet people for the show? When you found Florence, did you think she was as rich as she said she was?#
She actually is rich in a sense, where she has more than most. As far as I understood it, she and her family settled in Canada first before her uncle. So that vetting process is fine. There are a lot of rumors out there accusing her of this and that, that are unfounded. So in terms of people saying “she’s not rich,” those are unfounded rumors.
Again, the number one most important thing is that these girls have a good story to share. They have to have a great education and are trying to figure out their lives. That’s the fun part—figuring things out. If they knew everything already, it’s not fun anymore, in my entertainment sense. Number two is of course they have to have wealth as it goes along with the name. We look at where they go party, where they like to eat, where they like to travel, what they carry, what their favorite brands are. That’s how we go about it. I mean, do I go look at their bank accounts? That’s not my business—I don’t need to look at that. All of that shows through their everyday life. The details will show how affluent they are, and that's how we go about it. Do they have more than most? I would have to say they would have to have more than many. That’s what’s important.
I would love to do that because I think China has a lot to offer. There’s a lot of fear and loathing outside of China, especially about China wealth and the “big Communist regime” that might be taking over North America and everything else. You’re from the United States and you’re living in China, and I think it’s very different from what people assume that to be. I would love to take the show to China to show a different perspective.
This interview was edited and condensed.