These aren’t regular Asians, they’re rich Asians. This is the conceit of not one, but two new reality series about Asian Americans who are, well, crazy rich — House of Ho and Bling Empire. It’s tempting to call both an advancement for Asian representation, but the truth is that while House of Ho and Bling Empire are defying old Asian stereotypes they’re also solidifying a new one: the Wealthy Asian.
It’s not earth-shattering to say that both HBO Max’s House of Ho, which follows the intergenerational politics of the rich, traditional, Vietnamese American Ho family, and Netflix’s Bling Empire only exist because of the massive hit that was Crazy Rich Asians. While House of Ho focuses more on the tensions between immigrant parents — Binh and Hue Ho — and their American-born children, Bling Empire goes all in on the Crazy Rich Asians comparison. The Netflix series literally opens with Kevin Kreider, the only non-rich Asian in the crew, proudly declaring, “When I saw Crazy Rich Asians, I thought that it was a nice fantasy ...But then, the first person I met in LA was Kane [Lin]. ... And I’m just like, ‘Oh my god, this is real.’”
The entire show feels like Crazy Rich Asians cosplay. Kevin is the show’s Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, in the film), a quintessential Asian American who is slightly distanced from his heritage — he was adopted and raised by white parents. He gets a crash course in both Buddhism and the life of a one per centre thanks to his friend Kane and their shared circle of equally wealthy East Asian friends, just as Rachel learns about her Chinese heritage through Nick (Henry Golding) and Peik Lin (Awkwafina) in the blockbuster film. Bling Empire is to Crazy Rich Asians what Laguna Beach is to The O.C., just without the bad highlights and smoky eyeliner.
It may be unfair, but Bling Empire and House of Ho are two out of three shows that bear all the responsibility of Asian representation in 2021, and they just so happen to embrace the Crazy Rich Asians narrative.
Most of the cast members in Bling Empire are first or second generation immigrants who come from Asian wealth, like Kane, who comes from a family of extremely rich Singaporean entrepreneurs. (On the show, Kevin describes Kane’s family as owning all the shopping malls in Singapore, but the sources of everyone else’s wealth are kept suspiciously vague.) There are, of course, a few cast members who follow the more traditional American Dream narrative, like Jamie Xi, the daughter of tech billionaire Ken Xie who earned his fortune in Silicon Valley after immigrating from China, as reported by Forbes. There’s also Kim Lee, who supposedly made her fortune working as a DJ (again, those details are unclear). And, while the cast mostly reinforces the stereotype that all Asians are foreign, their wealth also allows them to defy certain aspects of the traditional Hollywood immigrant story. For the cast of Bling Empire, success isn’t becoming a lawyer, it’s being able to charter a private jet to Paris for diamond shopping on a whim or marrying into a Chinese dynasty.
Unlike the East Asian characters Hollywood is used to, the cast members of Bling Empire don’t fit into the “Asian nerd” or “fresh off the boat” stereotype. They aren’t studious like Gossip Girl’s Nelly Yuki (Yin Chang), who was obsessed with getting a perfect score on her SATs, nor are they offensive caricatures like Breakfast At Tiffany’s Mr. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney in yellowface), with his buck teeth and heavy accent. What they are is rich — crazy rich.
In Bling Empire, the Asian immigrant story has gone from being one of struggle (see: The Joy Luck Club and The Namesake) to one of grotesque wealth, thus putting a new twist on the traditional Asian immigrant stereotype. And that’s not the only way the show bucks tradition. The Asian parents featured on the show are not Tiger moms, overbearing and dismissive, but supportive and affectionate. And the show explores how the younger generation of rich Asians are defying cultural expectations, as audiences see Kelly Mi Li go to couples therapy — a taboo in many Asian American cultures — and Cherie Chan and Jessey Lee welcome their second baby out of wedlock. Furthermore, the show respects the cast’s spirituality, particularly Cherie and Kane’s belief in reincarnation, which is presented as matter-of-factly as if they were going to church on Sunday.
Ultimately, though, the show doesn’t really go deep enough into these stories to really give any of the cast an identity other than being super duper rich. There are glimpses of boundary-pushing plot points, but it’s overshadowed by the show’s insistence on viewing everything through the Crazy Rich Asian lens. The audience is explicitly told, for example, that Cherie and Jessey’s relationship is rare in “Asian culture,” but we’re not shown how this actually affects them or their lives or their own relationship with their families. Instead, we see the lavish party they throw for their newborn son. Similarly, Christine recounts feeling ostracised by her in-laws until she gave birth to a male heir, but while there are a few scenes that give glimpses into her and her husband’s fertility struggles, there are just as many of her spoiling her son, Baby G. In an ideal world, this would be fine — great even — but we don’t live in an ideal world.
In 2017, a report studying the shows of the 2015-2016 season found that Asians made up 4.3% of the characters on television. That same study concluded that Asian American characters “remain marginalised and tokenised on screen,” despite a slight increase in opportunity. And, with the end of Fresh Off the Boat last year, the only all-Asian cast scripted television show currently on the air is Kim’s Convenience (another Netflix title). It may be unfair, but Bling Empire and House of Ho are two out of three shows that bear all the responsibility of Asian representation in 2021, and they just so happen to embrace the Crazy Rich Asians narrative.
That lens, full of glitz and glamour, might seem like a positive portrayal of Asians, it’s also an extension of the Model Minority Myth, spotlighting Asians as an economically successful minority. Alone, Bling Empire would not be troubling. But when the most successful Asian-led Hollywood film and the only two reality shows with all Asian casts are all putting forth this wealthy Asian narrative, it’s officially a trend. And, given how little representation Asians have in the media to begin with, and the industry’s track record of stereotyping minorities, this trend could very well dictate the way Asians are shown on screen for years.
The wealthy Asian stereotype has the potential to be just as limiting and othering as the nerdy Asian, even if it has the power to shut down Rodeo Drive for a party.