James Alexander Michie | Vancouver Sun: Douglas Todd: Author of Crazy Rich Asians knows what’s fuelling Vancouver

“Eddie was a member of the Chinese Athletic Association, the Hong Kong Golf Club, the China Club, the Hong Kong Club, the Cricket Club, the Dynasty Club, the American Club, the Jockey Club, the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and too many private dining clubs to recount. Like most upper-crust Hong Kongers, Eddie also possessed what was perhaps the ultimate membership card — Canadian permanent resident cards for his entire family.”

— Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians


The author of the best-selling debut novel, Crazy Rich Asians, which is coming out as a movie in August, knows Metro Vancouver well.

Kevin Kwan, whose trio of books satirize Asia’s most privileged people, not only knows Metro because the city is a major magnet for ethnic Chinese capital and people. He also understands the city because his parents were among the first trans-national migrants to buy one of its luxury properties.

Kwan, 44, has been visiting Vancouver since the 1980s, when extended family members and eventually his Singapore parents bought a “beautiful condo” on Robson Street, which they would visit once or twice a year. Kwan knows many graduates of the University of B.C., which his book says is also known as “The University of a Billion Chinese.”

The Hong Kong characters in his books, like Eddie, recognize the value of a Canadian passport, which Crazy Rich Asians says gives them “a safe haven in case the powers that be in Beijing ever pulled a Tiananmen again.” When Eddie is not counting his Porsches and yachts, Eddie is heading to his “holiday condo in Whistler, British Columbia, the only place to be seen skiing, since there was semi-decent Cantonese food an hour away in Vancouver.”

An expert on the “gateway” cities of the Asian elite, Kwan details the lifestyles of those shifting awesome wealth into Sydney, San Francisco, Hong Kong, New York, Toronto and Vancouver. “I’ve observed the phenomenon for the past 30 years. At first it was lapping waters. Now it’s like a tidal wave,” he said with a laugh during an interview. On a recent book tour visit to Vancouver, his first in almost a decade, he noticed “how much things continue to change: The influx of Asians everywhere is quite remarkable.”

Kwan is aware of the reasons ethnic Chinese are drawn to Metro Vancouver, where they make up one fifth of the population. He has theories about how much Metro Vancouver looks like Hong Kong, about its schools, about why its known for Lamborghini drag races and about how culinary competition has turned some of its Chinese restaurants into the best in North America.

“To me it really began happening in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. The first wave of moneyed immigrants were the Hong Kongers. They were fleeing what was known then as the Red Scare. … I know a lot of families who divested all their interests in Hong Kong and started investing in Vancouver real estate,” Kwan said.

James Alexander Michie | Even though people flaunt their affluence in other cultures
Even though people flaunt their affluence in other cultures, author Kevin Kwan thinks the phenomenon of teenage brothers owning red and blue Lamborghinis, “and then having a drag race in Burnaby, is very specific to the Mainland Chinese.” HANDOUT / PNG

“In the past two decades, the Mainland Chinese … have been seeing what the Hong Kongers did and are emulating them by moving to Vancouver. Where money goes, attraction follows.” The ethnic Chinese population of Metro Vancouver is now 500,000, with roughly two-fifths directly from China.

Kwan believes many Hong Kongers come to Vancouver in the 1980s because of the physical resemblance it has to their home. “They’re both cities on a harbour surrounded by mountains. They see Vancouver being like Hong Kong, but with better weather, less humidity.”

Hong Kongers also believe Vancouver has positive feng shui, he said, referring to a Chinese system that gauges “energy flows” created by physical arrangements. Hong Kongers believe there is good fortune to “live on the dragon’s back” — in both their East Asian territory and in Metro Vancouver, given the way both straddle mountain and ocean in a way thought to resemble a dragon.

The strong flow of people from Mainland China to Vancouver began roughly 20 years ago, Kwan said, “because they had seen the city was already set up so beautifully for them by the Hong Kongese. There was a Chinese community and great restaurants. They could live without being completely fluent in English.

Since Kwan is often told people find his books refreshing for their “unflinching, true look at how Asians are,” he talked readily about “rich princelings from China” racing their Ferraris and McLaren cars in Vancouver and elsewhere, a subject he took up in his second book, China Rich Girlfriend.

One reason Metro Vancouver has become known as the super-car capital of North America, he said, is Mainland China has for years pressured the country’s super-rich, especially their children, to stop showing off.

“The government of China has really clamped down on displays of extreme ostentation. And so the wealth has gone to cities like Vancouver. This is where they go to have fun,” he said. “They can’t race their Lamborghinis in China. There’s no tolerance for it. So they race in Vancouver and Sydney and places where they’re less accountable if they’re caught.”

Even though people flaunt their affluence in other cultures, Kwan thinks the phenomenon of teenage brothers owning red and blue Lamborghinis, “and then having a drag race in Burnaby, is very specific to the Mainland Chinese.”

Kwan, who became an American citizen when he was 18, believes the people of China are going through a “gilded age filled with robber barons,” as the U.S. did a century ago. Similar to Tom Wolfe exposing the shallowness of America’s super-rich in novels such as Bonfire of the Vanities, he tells tales about Asia’s uber-elite.

“All the people in China remember the time when they didn’t have the money to spend or weren’t able to spend it. They remember the repression. And now that they have money, they’re going to celebrate it.”

That comes with bragging rights, said Kwan, whose books are full of over-the-top examples of rivalry between different Chinese cultures in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and China.

“One of the favourite things Singapore and Hong Kong Chinese like to do is complain about the Mainland Chinese. There are blogs highlighting their uncivilized behaviour and the way they splash their money around. There’s a lot of emphasis on bad table manners and bathroom habits. There’s always some outrageous story about some Mainland Chinese mother letting her baby go the bathroom in the middle of an H & M.”

Since Asia is made up of “many, many different countries and cultures and classes,” Kwan said. “They don’t all get along. And they’re extremely, extremely competitive.” Somewhat like the way Italians stereotype the French and vice versa, Kwan said. “Everybody considers themselves superior to someone else.”

Even though Kwan has spent the past few years “living in a plane,” he ostensibly makes his home in New York City. It’s another gateway metropolis, he said, in which “high net worth” people are “diversifying the fortunes they make in China” and investing in residential and resort properties.

“The Mainland Chinese have really added to jacking up the prices of high-end New York real estate,” he said, citing a familiar phenomenon. “There are so many half-empty condos in New York.”

Source: DOUGLAS TODD | Vancouver Sun

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