Photographer: Marklin Ang/Alamy
The World of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Is as Crazy in Real Life
Director Jon M. Chu and his creative team researched the way the absurdly affluent truly live in Singapore.
The characters in Crazy Rich Asians are not your regular rich folks. They’re next-level, unreasonably, preposterously wealthy. They have bachelor parties on tricked-out container ships in the middle of the ocean. They not only rent out the Marina Bay Sands rooftop, they also hire the national synchronized swimming team to perform in its infinity pool. They own mansions, Bugattis, and gems the size of small pets.
The film, out on Aug. 15, is the first major Hollywood project since The Joy Luck Club, in 1993, with an all-Asian or Asian American cast. It’s based on a 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan that sent up the absurd opulence available in Singapore and how differently the divided factions of its upper class behave.
Those in the older group, now in their 50s and 60s, are spending dynastic wealth built up from Southeast Asian real estate and banking businesses. They host swanky parties and wear expensive jewelry, but it’s a sophisticated show of understated glamour only for those closest to them. The younger set, born in the 1980s, has no problem flaunting for the camera. Having acquired much of their wealth through family trusts, they happily pose for their social media followers at members-only clubs such as 1880, which has a reception desk made from a 1.5-ton hunk of quartz.
It’s in these vaunted milieus that Kwan throws his hero, a young Chinese American woman named Rachel Chu (played in the film by Constance Wu) who accompanies her longtime boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), to a friend’s wedding in Singapore. She’s shocked to learn that his family, the Youngs, are wildly affluent and, yes, a bit crazy.
In the book and the movie, old money is represented by the Young clan, who accumulated their fortune from a real estate empire dating to the colonial era. They expect respect. It’s a view familiar to many who, like me, are from there. Although my family wasn’t rich, my mother loved to take tea at 4 p.m. at the Raffles Hotel on special occasions. Every once in a while, I’d catch the occasional vintage Rolls-Royce cruising down one of the city’s immaculately clean streets. My parents still spin tales of lavish galas from the late 1960s, after independence but before the skyscrapers.
Fifty years later, Singapore is a poster child for wealth in Southeast Asia. What began as a trading port and shipping hub has become a global financial capital, thanks to a torrent of investment in its banking industry, now the fourth-most competitive worldwide, according to the Global Financial Centres Index, which surveys international business leaders.
This newer money is represented by many of the other characters, such as Rachel’s best friend, Goh Peik Lin (played by Ocean’s 8 breakout star Awkwafina), her flashy family, and the gossiping, ladder-climbing crew of socialites who make up this particular upper crust of society.
For director Jon M. Chu, it was the “different tiers of rich” that interested him most. For the very richest, “it wasn’t about flash,” he says. “It’s about subtlety and class. It’s about how you were raised, and you can’t tell those things by the label.”
Some spots transcend the generational divide. Bustling Hermès and Cartier boutiques flank Orchard Road, a commercial thoroughfare that attracts tourists and well-heeled shoppers. The city’s food scene caters to a high-end diner: Thirty-nine Michelin-starred restaurants cover almost every cuisine. At the two-star omakase temple Shoukouwa, chefs promise to “caress your palate in elegant finesse.” Odette, in the National Gallery, has an ever-changing S$300 ($240) tasting menu featuring dishes such as pigeon roasted with hay and foie gras from Rouilly, France.
Events are held at extravagant venues such as the Shangri-La Hotel and the Marina Bay Sands, whose three towers come together to resemble a giant ship, making it one of the most recognizable buildings in the skyline. The resort hotel’s rooftop infinity pool—almost 650 feet above the ground—really shows off the nation’s new-money grandeur.
On the other side of the spectrum lie the remains of the colonial outpost that served as a trading port for the British East India Company in the 1800s. You see it in the classical architecture of courthouses, hotels, and museums. In the film, Chu wanted to give a nod to Singapore’s past and present, places that the scions of different epochs would identify.
The wedding ceremony takes place at Chijmes, built in 1840 and one of the oldest structures in Singapore. But for an afterparty following the reception at the Supertree Grove, the whole squad heads to the observation deck of the Marina Bay Sands. (A fireworks display concludes the revelry.) In another scene there’s a DJ booth made out of the front of a Rolls-Royce.
“For the superrich, it’s not about what you can buy, it’s about how creative you can be with your money,” Chu says. “Anyone can pay for stuff, but to have that idea and pay for it is another thing.”
A similar fantasy is at work among the various goods and experiences illustrated in the movie. To get to one party off the coast, the boys take a squadron of $8 million AS365 N3 Dauphin choppers—a vehicle usually used as an air ambulance by emergency rescue services—over the Singapore Strait. When a couple of characters head off to an idyllic island cove, they catch a ride in a $4 million Eurocopter EC135.
This move isn’t far-fetched: Singapore has one of the largest midsize- to large-cabin private jet fleets in Asia, totaling 45 last year. Those on private jets tend to go through the Seletar airport, which will open a S$80 million terminal in December. The primary airport, Changi, is no slouch, either: It features a butterfly garden and indoor nature walk and has a standalone, premium terminal for VIPs called the JetQuay.
The most opulent swag of all in the Crazy Rich universe might just be the cars. At one point, the main characters cruise the city in a custom Land Rover Defender 6x6. And when Peik Lin, Awkwafina’s newly rich character, rolls up to a party in a hot-pink Audi R8, its audaciousness is made more glaring by the comparatively subdued Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, Bentley Mulsanne, and Jaguar XJL parked nearby. (She’s still classy enough to always keep a Gucci cocktail dress stashed in the trunk for emergencies.)
Now consider this: In real life, Singapore meticulously manages quotas on the number of private vehicles allowed on the island, updating the limit every three months and charging onerous fees and taxes. Car owners pay tens of thousands of dollars just to get a certificate, which are sold off at a monthly auction. It’s one of the most expensive places in the world to buy a vehicle. Still, there’s enough ultraluxury thirst that Lamborghini, which opened a showroom here in June, has already collected 40 orders for the new $200,000 Urus. To attract attention to the opening, the carmaker held an elaborate, 120-supercar-long parade.
In Singapore the latest styles are available at luxury malls such as the new Ion Orchard or Mandarin Gallery, where you can buy a $5,000 velvet dress from French label Saint Laurent or a $6,100 cashmere bomber from Loro Piana.
In the film, these malls would be where the characters all shop. Mary Vogt, the costume designer, was careful to break the characters into their two social groups. “The more moneyed people were less ostentatious and less showy,” she says. “You can tell something’s expensive by the simplicity of the cut and the quality of the fabric.”
Michelle Yeoh, in her role as Nick Young’s tiger mother, pulls off this polish. She wears Carolina Herrera and Elie Saab and classical brooches and earrings that look like they were once owned by royalty. “Michelle said this character would never wear fashion jewelry, she would only wear real jewelry,” Vogt says. “Fortunately, Michelle has her own very beautiful jewelry collection, and she lent us a few pieces.” One such item was a stupefying emerald ring—Chu describes it as just “a big freakin’ ring”—that plays a key role in the story.
Peik Lin and her dad (Ken Jeong) take nouveau riche vulgarity to the extreme. They live in a gilded mansion splashed in gold and marble. At one point, explaining the origins of Asia’s richest families, she points to a map emblazoned on the side of a custom handbag made for the movie. In another scene, Jeong wears a brown Prada suit—with sequins.
The most stylish of the set is Nick’s empathetic cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan). Her character wears a sleek pink Alexander McQueen dress to the big wedding, buys a Rolex Daytona for her boyfriend, and hides boxes of Dior around her apartment. But she’d also grab a Gap tee at the thrift shop, says Vogt.
Spoiler alert: The centerpiece of the film’s fashion wasn’t brand-name at all. When the bride walks down the aisle, she’s wearing a custom dress created by Vogt. Sewn in Kuala Lumpur by a local dressmaker, it’s a gold-beaded concoction with flowing layers of pink and white.
Oh, and it’s waterproof. During the bride’s processional, the aisle slowly fills with water, transforming into a stream as guests gasp in awe. Because that’s what you do if you’re that rich, and that crazy.