The men and women who populate Kevin Kwan's latest novel, Crazy Rich Asians, are some of the most vile, vapid, superficial, raunchy and conniving Asian characters who have ever been created—and Asian-Americans, by and large, love every single one of them.
In the novel, which seems ready-made for film (in fact, rights have been bought by the producer of a little movie called Hunger Games), there are, for starters: a portly, label-obsessed semi-abusive father; Singaporean moms whose Bible study includes reading tabloids; and the gold-digging, inappropriate soap opera star Kitty Pong.
Terrible people, yes. But there are plenty of Asians and Asian-Americans, like The Guardian's Patricia Park, who enjoy these bold, envelope-pushing caricatures, which break the mold the "model minority" to which Asian-Americans are all too easily confined.
"There's also something refreshing about this appropriation of self-representation. It almost makes me envy this new generation of Asians, who at least get an upgrade on the stereotypes they'll now face," Park wrote yesterday on The Guardian's "Comment Is Free" page.
At first glance, you'd think there'd be more of a backlash toward author Kwan's and his materialistic creation. That backlash has generally been confined to (rare) negative Goodreads and Amazon reviews, like the one that calls Kwan's characters "one-dimensional stereotypes, portraying Asian people as nothing more than snobbish socialites."
That, of course, is his entire point. Not only is there a pronounced lack of Asian-American characters in American popular culture, but the ones who do exist on the page or on the screen always seem to be either really smart or really good at martial arts. Just look at the racist Asian penis jokes on Dads or the many cringeworthy reactions to Jeremy Lin's NBA ascent to see why Asian-Americans have always been defensive about how they are seen by America at large.
Enter Kwan's cast of characters: a viper's pit of elitists and money-hungry snakes, shallow party girls, models, all set within what The New York Times called "a dizzily shopaholic comedy of crass manners." It's not The Joy Luck Club — which is the whole point.
"Overall, I think the reaction from Asian Americans has been good," says Byron Wong, who runs bigWOWO, which focuses on Asian-American life, told The Atlantic Wire over email. "The book itself got a little dull for me about halfway through, but it was refreshing to see a story that went beyond the usual poor immigrant story,"
Of course, "the usual poor immigrant story" — i.e., Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club — has its place in the American literary canon. But the response to Crazy Rich Asians suggests that Asian-Americans are eager to move beyond the stereotype of the ambitious, well-behaved immigrant.
"Honestly, I don't remember reading a lot of Asian American literature while growing up, and Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club was one of the first I remember gaining mainstream recognition,"Angry Asian Man editor Phil Yu said to the The Atlantic Wire. He added, "Personally, I love funny Asian American stories. We are funny, wacky, screwed-up people too, and I love to see stories that show that side of our community, and rip it wide open."
As for Kwan, he is acutely aware of the reception his book has received from Asian-Americans and is glad that readers of all ethnicities appreciate his humor:
I think readers are reacting positively to the fact that this story comes from a whole different angle—it’s an over-the-top satire, and it’s about incredibly privileged people living their lives in the midst of this new Asian Gilded Age. Characters are presented as modern, cultured, even sexualized individuals who have zero baggage about their race.
A Canadian-born-Chinese journalist told me that he got very emotional after finishing the book—not because of the story per se, but because he realized this was the first book he’d read where the Asian characters were a truer reflection of how he saw himself, and not the sort of Asians he was used to seeing portrayed in North American pop culture.
That isn't to say that Asian-American readers —myself included — aren't grateful for "serious" writers like Tan, Chang Rae-Lee, and Adeline Mah. Their often-painful stories needed to be told before more playful ones like Kwan's could be heard.
"A constant refrain I’ve heard has been, 'We’re not rich and we’re not even Asian, but you’ve captured my crazy family.'" Kwan told The Atlantic Wire. That sounds like success to us.