Book Review: ‘Rich People Problems’ by Kevin Kwan

“Please gather up your belongings – you won’t be returning to this flight.”

“But.. but… what did I do?” Professor Oon asked, suddenly feeling uneasy.

“Don’t worry, you didn’t do anything. But we need to get you off this plane now. (…) We are escorting you directly to Mount Elizabeth Hospital. You have been requested to attend to a VVIP patient.”

At that moment, Professor Oon knew something must have happened to Shang Su Yi. Only the Shangs had the kind of influence to turn around a Singapore Airlines flight with four hundred forty passengers onboard.

Kevin Kwan, Rich People Problems

Are you familiar with a feeling of flipping through a gossip magazine you find on a dentist waiting room? You are probably bored, and you have two choices: The Economist or those glossy magazines with bold pink font and photos of celebrities above a shocking headline. Then you flip through it and you find yourself enjoying it. That is how I feel about reading this satirical novel. The dentist office is the long lockdown, the endless coverage on media on the world’s going crazy, the uncertainties of the future, the patience that is running dry in me. And ‘Rich People Problems’ saved me.

I read the first book in the trilogy, Crazy Rich Asian, years ago and I absolutely loved the crazy plot twists, the unreasonable characters, the format of the story, and how juicy it was! However, my mood was a bit different when I read this third and final book. I couldn’t help myself to roll my eyes and scoff. I had to remind myself repeatedly that this is the kind of book that meant to be fun and I needed to learn to relax and just enjoy it. Eventually, I did. Kevin Kwan still had it. Compared to the other two, this book has a bit of a heavier tone – it gives us some flashback to Singapore during Japanese acquisition during the World War II.

If you’re not familiar with Crazy Rich Asian, this is the short summary: In Singapore lives a very very very wealthy clan, they are so rich that their names never appeared in lists like ‘The Richest People in the World’. The head of this family is an elderly woman named Su Yi, who, in this final chapter, is dying. Just like vultures flying over a wounded animal, her relatives all come down from all around the globe to be with her. Of all the things she owns, her house, Tyersall Park, is the most prized. Described as ‘just like the Central Park of Singapore’, Tyersall Park is worth billions of dollars (and by the way, you won’t find it on Google Maps – the family is so private their house won’t appear anywhere on the internet).

Su Yi has a favourite grandson from her only son, Nicholas Young. However, because Nicholas married Rachel (who is just a professor of Economics at NYU), she disowned him. That means, Tyersall Park won’t fall into Nicholas’s hand (as people believed it would) and the family has been wondering: who will get it? As you can guess – the drama revolves around this and some other side stories that are equally exciting. I have to admit, the reading of the will did surprise me. I was like: whoa, I did not see it coming.

I think the highlight of this book for me is the characters. The goody – goody ones are boring (Nicholas and Rachel, and Astrid and Charlie are so blah) but the crazy ones are definitely the ones who make the book. My favourites:

Kitty Pong – Kitty married one of the richest men in the world. This allows her to spend millions of dollars for a shopping spree in Paris (Giambattista Valli’s or Giamba as she called him, is one of her favourites), or redecorating her new house with the latest works of art, or getting a photoshoot for Tattle by Nigel Baker and makeup by Charlotte Tilbury whom she transported to Singapore on her private jet ( with a spa onboard ). However, Kitty, who raised from the gutter, is always intimidated by her step-daughter Collette. So Kitty is now on a mission to outshine Collette; she has to have the best of everything.

“When Kitty told me that this couture dress would cost €175,000, I have to confess I was a little surprised, but now I think it’s worth every cent!”

“Yes, I think so too, ” Kitty murmured softly (…) “Okay then, we will need three of these.”

“Three?” the tall, gangly assistant looked at Kitty in surprise.

“Of course, I buy everything three for myself and Giselle (her daughter). We need one for each our closets in Singapore, Shanghai and Beverly Hills.”

Eddie Chen – Another grandson of Su Yi, Eddie has his eyes on Tyersall Park once he found out that Nicholas is now an outcast. Eddie resents his mother for marrying his father, just a world-renowned heart surgeon in Hong Kong. His entire life Eddie has been jealous of his cousins’ social status (well, some of them are royal families) and tried his best to kiss everybody asses who he thinks will help him climb the social ladder.

And most important, what watch was Uncle Taksin sporting today? He glanced at his sleeve cuff, expecting to see a Patek, Vacheron, or Breguet, but was horrified to see the Apple Watch strapped to his wrist. Dear God, how the mighty had fallen!

Oliver T’sien – Oliver is Nicholas’s distant cousin who works for Christie in London. Oliver knows art and all the important people. Kitty Pong hires him to work on her debut and to set an image of her deemed acceptable by the high society. There was not much about Oliver in the first two books but here we learn that among his relatives, Oliver’s family is drowning in debts. He hides it from everyone that he flies economics or had to sell her mother’s precious emerald to pay for their medication.

For years, they have taken out loan after loan, and Oliver had spent his youth living the life of a rich man’s son, sent abroad to the best schools money could buy – from Le Rosey to Oxford. But after the Barings crash, he found himself in the unthinkable position of having to work for a living. Oliver had always existed among the world’s point-one per cent crowd, and very few people understood the special hell of having to live in a world where every single person around you was staggeringly rich but you were not.

Other than them, Su Yi four daughters are also interesting characters. They are different in ways of thinking but there is one thing that unites them: that they are women and they will have to accept that their brother (Nicholas’s father) will always be the favourite (including to inherit the most of the asset). Here, we see the glimpse of a patriarchal Asian family, which is instilled deep in the culture. Men are always seen to be more important and entitle to have more than women. I feel that there’s so much more the book could have given, but the bling-bling and ridiculous drama take the centre stage. I wish to read more about Kitty, Eddie and Oliver’s stories and Su Yi’s struggle during the war; bitterness and resentment people had towards the British who didn’t help them during their hardship. The book is not meant to be heavy, so I have to let go my wish for a more profound reading. However, despite the book light tone, I think Kevin Kwan is a brilliant wordsmith with his unpredictable plots, witty proses, and hilarious dialogues. I definitely recommend this trilogy if you want to have a fun read!

This edition is published by Anchor Books, 2018

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