In a nutshell, the paragraph below sums up what I was thinking as I was reading the book:
Anyone with a huge, dysfunctional family can relate to this tale but more so a Cantonese-Filipino like me who happened to grow up in a Hokkienese Christian society. Kevin Kwan is Singaporean and grew up in the opulent world he described in the book, but he captures the universal quirks of overseas and Mainland Chinese and is unafraid to be politically incorrect. This is what Mano Po* could’ve been if it didn’t dwell on storylines that merely nurtured outdated stereotypes. I felt Kwan practically was Killing Me Softly with his book: check on the crazy and Asian …if only I were from a crazy old rich family too!
I’d like to share my thoughts on specific details of the book now.
I have never been so invested in a book as much as I was with this one in so long! I thank my brother for finding this in an airport and lending the book to me!
First of all, I loved the cover.
Simple, clean font, pink on yellow. I can’t pinpoint why it works, but it works for me. It’s so pretty that I am drawn to hold the book and open it and read it. Yes, I am a book cover judger.
Secondly, the book is hilarious!
The prologue sets the perfect tone of the craziness and neuroticism of some Chinese families. In this case, a crazy rich family.
He pokes fun at the ethnocentricity of the Chinese through his characters, particularly Eleanor Young and her fellow Real Housewives of Singapore. Note that I used ethnocentric versus racist. Because if people from other cultures would analyse closer, the Chinese in general discriminate not necessarily because of race, but because of difference in customs and culture and tradition. If you’re different, you’re not one of us. If you’re not one of us, you’re a barbarian.
I have been a first-hand witness to this and I know so many others share the same experience. The discrimination is on having or coming from a different social class and category (Mainlander! Poor! Not from a good family! Dark-skinned!) and is applied to all people, even fellow Chinese. It’s annoying, it’s mind-boggling, but it’s truly funny when they are being parodied.
Third, the language Kevin Kwan uses is my lingua franca.
I grew up in a unique mish-mash of Cantonese, Hokkienese, and Filipino Christian set-up, and in all my years I’ve acquired different proficiency levels of English, Tagalog, Cantonese, Hokkienese, and Mandarin. Ergo, Kevin Kwan’s abundant sprinkling of phrases from these three major Chinese languages on an English bed is so familar, reading his prose feels like home.
I think I am able to have optimum enjoyment of the book because I understand every word without need for translation, including the cultural context of the Cantonese, Mandarin, and Hokkien phrases. I almost felt like a Singaporean!
Fourth, the extended family of the Youngs, Leongs, and Chengs works similarly like mine in that everybody knows what’s going on with everyone, but differently too because ours is more of enduring the perks and consequences of having 28 fathers and 35 mothers. If you screw up, you will get a mouthful from each aunt and uncle, and if you do well, you will also feel the love from everyone.
Now, onto the story:
I am not a Rachel Chu fan. The entire time I was hoping that Nick and Rachel will part for good. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I was rooting for the other awful girl characters, Francesca and Mandy, trying to look for virtues in them so that Nick might like them. And not because I liked their characters. Really, they were not important. But I disliked Rachel so much that I was willing to look for alternatives to her!
And why do I not like Rachel? Somehow, there was nothing in her for me to like, except that she was described as pretty and intelligent. In my head, she was this embodiment of a nice, long-black-haired, girl-next-door feminine-type whom the guys always go for. She wasn’t exactly a wimp, but she didn’t do anything except to accept Nick’s family’s wrath either. Coming from a family background like mine, I would totally understand the actions of the Nick’s family in not accepting Rachel right away. We are protective of Nick and we don’t know you! Yes, I identify as a protective sister of Nick! It truly is Nick’s fault for not introducing Rachel to the family earlier. But I don’t mind, because Rachel is blah. I hope they break up in the next book.
My favourite character is Astrid Leong, Nick’s cousin. She is the epitome of the perfect-imperfect girl. Everybody wants to be her and yet her life is far from roses and candies and rainbows. I like that she is not painted as petty, bratty, or the stereotypical beauty with low self-esteem. She is an honest to goodness multi-dimensional person who happens to be rich, likes to dress up, and finds it important to please the man she loves in spite of having to follow the dictates of her family and society. She is lucky to have someone love her so much in the person of Charlie Wu, who unfortunately is not the man she married. What is in store for her, Charlie, and her super-hot husband Michael? I cannot wait for Book 2! I picture Michael as Daniel Henney, by the way.
Ah, so I guess I’m not putting as many spoilers here as I thought I would. I cannot wait for the movie and the sequel, and I would love to discuss the story with anyone interested!
*Mano Po is the title of a Filipino movie chronicling the lives of three or four generations of a Chinese immigrant family in the Philippines. In spite of its box-office reception and hype, the movie to me served only to propagate stereotypes that are either no longer valid or do not apply to the majority of Chinese-Filipinos today.