SINGAPORE — The characters in the movie ‘‘Crazy Rich Asians” are not regular people. As the title of the movie suggests, they’re excessively, ludicrously wealthy. They drive Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bugattis. One scene features the infinity pool atop the renowned Marina Bay Sands hotel, in which the national synchronised swimming team has been hired to perform in. Another snippet features Paul Newman's iconic Rolex Daytona watch, which holds the record as the most expensive watch ever sold.
To the uninformed observer, Crazy Rich Asians might look like a niche project or an unlikely bet. Based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel with the same name, it’s the first major Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast and an Asian-American lead in 25 years. (The last was “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993.) It features two relatively unknown leads — Constance Wu, best known for her role in the American comedy series “Fresh Off the Boat,” and Henry Golding, who last worked as a travel host for the BBC — and also has a trilingual script that flips between English, Cantonese and Mandarin.
But if you understand the cultural forces that are at play — an underserved audience and the rapidly expanding influence of Asian markets — this $30 million romantic comedy doesn’t seem like much of a gamble at all. Helped by advertising, enthusiastic reviews and social media buzz, Crazy Rich Asians passed $50 million within its first nine days of release, already sparking talk of a sequel. Yet while this rare Hollywood movie signals a major step forward for representation, how much does it actually tell us about Asia’s luxury market?
A playground for new and old money
According to Wealth X, a wealth intelligence firm, there are about a quarter of a million ultra high net worth individuals (UHNWI) globally and the figure is growing year-on-year. While the United States remains the land of opportunity, boasting about 90,000 UHNW residents (those with a net worth of $30 million or above), 65,000 to 70,000 UHNWIs now reside in the Asia Pacific region, which includes markets like China and India.
“If you consider how long places like Europe [which has about 70,000 UHNWIs] has had wealth, Asia has had a lot less time to produce that same number. Bearing in mind where it was just 40 or 50 years ago, it’s pretty phenomenal,” said Winston Chesterfield, director of custom research at Wealth X.
According to the data company, Asia is the fastest-growing region of ultra wealthy individuals, hovering just under a 20 percent increase each year. “It’s very aggressive growth,” Chesterfield said. “You compare that to somewhere like Europe, which is just over 10 percent growth. North America is underneath that rate of growth as well.”
If nothing else, Crazy Rich Asians shines a light on the growing power of Asian money. Chinese spenders alone made up 32 percent of the luxury goods market in 2017 — more than any other nationality — thanks to both rising purchases in their home market and abroad, according to consultancy firm Bain & Co. The market for global personal luxury goods, which reached a record high of €262 billion (about $305 billion) last year, could grow at annual growth rates of 4 to 5 percent until 2020.
Singapore, where the movie is set, has also emerged as a source of affluence. It’s been slowly catching up, having only become an independent nation in 1965. Over the past half-century, the former trading port has enjoyed steady economic growth and boasted the 11th highest GDP per capita in the world in 2017. According to Wealth Insight, one in 34 people in Singapore are millionaires. That makes it the sixth most millionaire-dense country in the world.
Olga Iserlis, who heads up one of Singapore's most successful high-end event planning companies, Events by Olga, observed that many in the older group (those aged above 50) have built their wealth up from real estate and banking businesses. “These people are major stakeholders and decision makers in businesses all around the world,” she said.
“Many are early pioneer businessmen who are often also known philanthropists,” added Soh Chin Ong, a veteran journalist and now executive at an international energy company in Singapore. “They built schools and hospitals and have had streets and buildings named after them.”
Asia is the fastest-growing region of ultra wealthy individuals, hovering just under a 20 percent increase each year.
It’s in this world that Kwan throws in Rachel Chu (played by Wu) who accompanies her longtime boyfriend Nick (Golding) to a friend’s wedding in Singapore. There, she’s shocked to discover that his family are preposterously wealthy, having accumulated their fortune from a real-estate empire dating to the colonial era. However, both Ong and Iserlis discerned that while Singaporean family culture and values were accurately portrayed in Crazy Rich Asians, some of the “over-the-top” and “extravagant” lifestyles presented were exaggerated.
The first time we see Gemma Chan’s character, Nick’s cousin Astrid Leong, on screen, she's in the middle of shopping at luxury brands like Chanel and Dior. She ends her journey inside a vault in a jewellery store, where she purchases $1 million diamond earrings without a flinch. In other scenes, the characters are almost entirely engaged in extravagant parties at locations like the Supertree Grove, a circuit of futuristic cyborg trees towering over 25 to 50 metres tall, or the observation deck of the Marina Bay Sands.
The reality, said Iserlis, is that “most members of these families are fairly discreet. The lifestyle shown in the movie are seen more among the ‘new money’ wealthy, rather than ‘old money’ rich Asians.”
According to Chesterfield, it is this group of the ‘new rich’ (those born after the 1980s or the children of the new rich) who are driving the growth of UHNWIs in many Asian markets, not least of which is China. “In Asia, the profile of ultra-wealthy individuals is a lot younger than the rest of the world. In markets like Europe and the US, people tend to be older, like 60 or 70, because it’s taken time — at least one generation, maybe even two — to build up ultra-wealth,” he said.
Where the rich shop
How the separate factions of Singapore's upper class behave is different. “The older generations are more familiar with well-established brands like Dom Perignon for champagne; Krug for crystals; Chanel and Tiffany, which can be worn for occasions and then passed onto their daughters,” observed Iserlis. “The young prefer something more bespoke like Salon champagne and they [are open] to wearing more new names, although they are not so keen on showing off logos. Brands like Aquazzura and Audemars Piguet are really liked by the younger generation.”
Still, some brands transcend the generational divide. High-end brands from Saint Laurent to Loro Piana attract tourists and shoppers to its boutiques in the new Ion Orchard and Mandarin Gallery malls in Singapore. Hermès and Cartier boutiques flank Orchard Road. Dover Street Market’s outpost in Singapore celebrated its one-year anniversary this month, and the multi-brand retailer has just recently reopened its Beijing store. The food scene also caters to a high-end diner: in Singapore alone, 39 Michelin-starred restaurants cover almost every cuisine.
Some retailers have turned to unique lifestyle or dining concepts to stand out in a competitive landscape. Japanese fashion retailer Lumine, which opened in Singapore in November 2017, offers DIY and craft-related workshops in store. Lululemon has started hosting yoga classes, while Gucci in Ion Orchard lets customers personalise their handbags. Even the Emporium Shokuhin now has a beef dry-aging facility and live seafood market, where customers pick their own seafood fresh out of the tank and have a chef prepare it to their individual tastes.
One reason for this, explained Ong, is the new rich’s desire to post on social media. “This group treats goods with less affection and flaunt their outfits, jewellery and cars on Instagram and Facebook,” she said.
Several Instagram accounts have since emerged, including @TheRichKidsofSingapore, which documents the lavish lifestyles of some of Asia’s most prominent social media stars, including Kim Lim, the daughter of Hong Kong billionaire Peter Lim, the 12th richest man in Singapore; Jamie Chua, the former wife of Indonesian businessman Nurdian Cuaca and who boasts the world’s biggest collection of Hermès bags; and heiress Elly Lam, the daughter of billionaire tycoon Peter Lam and actress-turned-socialite Lynn Hsieh.
One big marketing opportunity?
With its modern attractions (including one of the world’s best airports), luxury offerings and weekend getaways to gambling havens and tropical paradise islands, Singapore has become an appealing destination for many globetrotting UHNWIs across Asia, who congregate there to eat, shop and party alongside local consumers, like those portrayed in Crazy Rich Asians.
The film comes at a convenient time for Singapore’s government, which has been focused on rebranding the country’s image since last August with its “Passion Made Possible” campaign, aimed at boosting the nation on an international stage for both tourism and business purposes.
But the Crazy Rich Asians version of Singapore, the one that the national tourism board is heavily promoting, is far from the full story. Over 80 percent of Singapore’s population lives in public housing; domestic workers frequently complain of mistreatment; and wealth disparity is a major and growing concern. Some critics also say that the movie turns a blind eye to the poor and leaves out ethnic minorities, showing only the lavish lifestyles of rich Chinese-Singaporeans.
Indeed, while a significant amount of wealth may be coming out of Singapore, there are also substantial increases in other parts of Asia. “China is the biggest beast in that region, but you also have markets like South Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam,” said Wealth X’s Chesterfield. “There’s also Japan, which is often forgotten, because it’s not as high in terms of economic growth, but a [great] number of people there are extremely wealthy. They are experienced luxury consumers, very mature, and are a very powerful cohort.”
It’s called 'Crazy Rich Asians,' it’s not called 'Every Singaporean.'
He also cited India, a nation whose bulging ultra-wealthy class now has more billionaires than any country except for the US, China and Germany. However, India faces its own challenges. While its rapid economic growth has lifted millions out of poverty, it has also widened income inequality, which, according to the World Bank, has risen since 1988.
Other reviewers note that the film’s glamorisation of Chinese-Singaporean wealth is troubling given the country’s own racial inequalities, which Sangeetha Thanapal has described as a system of “Chinese Privilege.” According to the Singaporean writer and activist, the novel barely made a splash in the country when it was released because “Chinese people writing about being Chinese is so commonplace here,” she said. “[It] is not radical nor a win for representation. It is simply the ongoing systematic erasure and oppression of Singapore minorities on a global screen.”
It remains unclear if the film will come to Chinese theatres. China has a quota of 34 Hollywood films, although it allowed 39 releases in 2017. This year, 30 Hollywood movies have already made it to China, the second-largest international box office after the US.
Singaporean-born actress Victoria Loke, who features as Fiona Cheng, countered that the film was a reflection of Kwan’s perspective. “There is a fine line between caricature and reality [but the best stories] hop back and forth between the two. Crazy Rich Asians is like a slice of socialite gossip in cinematic form; these are stories about the rich and famous that are designed to entertain. Accurate representation isn’t really the objective here,” she told BoF.
Tan Kheng Hua, who plays the mother of one of the lead characters, agreed, saying to the Washington Post: “It’s called 'Crazy Rich Asians,' it’s not called 'Every Singaporean.'”