Crazy rich Asia risks running into trouble New film’s celebration of wealth is also a warning about rising inequality


The romantic comedy film “Crazy Rich Asians” can be taken as a warning on rising inequality. PHOTO/© 2018 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND KIMMEL DISTRIBUTION, LLC

“Crazy Rich Asians,” which has topped U.S. movie charts, gives a brazenly self-confident view of the continent’s moneyed elite. Drenched in brand-name excess, the film has been praised for its breakthrough all-Asian cast. But rather than a celebration, Crazy Rich Asians should be viewed as a warning: of a continent once admired for inclusive growth now suffering a new era of rising inequality.

Not long ago even extreme Asian wealth seemed welcome. Few of the continent’s early tycoons made their fortunes without a single-minded ruthlessness that was often criticized, from Hong Kong property baron Li Ka-shing to pioneering Indian industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani, father of Mukesh Ambani, presently Asia’s richest man. But against a backdrop of recent poverty, these early super-rich were a sign of renewed entrepreneurial vitality. More importantly, their wealth came alongside economic growth that was both rapid and equitable.

Much the same was still true when author Kevin Kwan published Crazy Rich Asians in 2013. A romantic satire, the novel told of Chinese-American professor Rachel Chu, who visits her boyfriend Nicholas Young in Singapore, only to learn that was heir to one of Asia’s most impressive family fortunes. It is the specifically aristocratic quality of this wealth that gives Crazy Rich Asians much of its zest. “You really should have told me you’re like the Prince William of Asia,” Chu says at one point. “That’s ridiculous,” he replies. “I’m much more of a Harry.”

Yet in the five years since the novel’s publication, research has revealed a far more alarming picture of a continent growing less equal for decades.

Viewed by the Gini coefficient — a measure where 0 indicates perfect equality and 100 means one person owns everything — Asia’s ranking shot up from 37 to 47 between 1990 and 2014, according to the International Monetary Fund. Earlier this year, the World Bank also published “Riding the Wave,” an important report bemoaning the end of Asia’s inclusive growth model. It suggests Asia is set to overtake sub-Saharan Africa as the world’s second most unequal region after Latin America.

In a continent this large, with 4.5 billion of the world’s 7.5 billion people, it is of course hard to paint an entirely uniform picture. Most Asian economies have much less wealth disparity than the U.S. Measured only by the gap between rich and poor nations, Asia has in fact become more equal over recent decades, as China caught up with the rest.

When you look at wealth disparities within countries, much of Asia’s recent increases in inequality have come in China and India. Southeast Asia’s picture is more complex, with poorer nations like the Philippines and Indonesia showing rising income inequality while the likes of Malaysia and Thailand become very marginally more egalitarian. Singapore, where Crazy Rich Asians is set, remains one of Asia’s least equal countries measured by income. Inequality in the city state rose for much of the last three decades, although it has dipped slightly since the 2007 global financial crisis.

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