7 Life (and business) lessons from ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

PHOTO CREDIT: Wilson Lee Flores via Philippine Star

Not all heirs and heiresses have the intelligence or interest to run a family business, but all families should understand it is crucial to train them to at least be good and smart inheritors of wealth.

Crazy Rich Asians is not only the very first all-Asian cast movie made by Hollywood; director John Chu’s adaptation of the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan is also an Asian-themed movie with no martial arts and no racial stereotypes.

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Even as a lighthearted comedy, there are some interesting life and business lessons we can learn from the film.

1. Prepare and train your successors. A major dilemma in Crazy Rich Asians is the fate of Singapore’s fictional, fabulously old-rich Young clan of real estate taipans. How can their eldest grandson Nick Young be convinced to leave behind his enjoyable work and lifestyle in New York — plus his budding romance with an American-born Chinese professor —in order to run the family’s realty empire in Asia? Not all heirs and heiresses have the intelligence or interest to run a family business, but all families should understand it is crucial to train them to at least be good and smart inheritors of wealth. At the very minimum, they should be trained to be good shareholders.

2. The best revenge is success. In one of the movie’s best scenes, Cambridge-educated Singaporean Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh) arrives at a luxury hotel with her kids and nanny one rainy night in 1995; the snobbish British staff and manager hear the family speaking in Chinese and turn them away, despite their having a reservation for a suite. They even suggest the Youngs try getting a room “somewhere in Chinatown.” A quick phone call from Madame Young later, and the aging owner of the luxury hotel comes down to the lobby to apologize to the family, assisting them to their suite and announcing to the shocked manager and staff that the Youngs have just bought the hotel.

3. Politics is just human nature. Whether for elite Chinese families in Singapore, or ordinary families elsewhere, politics is an omnipresent fact of human life. Rivalries, jealousy, gossip, miscommunication or misunderstandings arise. But in Crazy Rich Asians, spunky Chinese immigrant’s daughter Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) shows us the best response to politics is not to run away but to adjust and overcome without losing one’s identity and values.

4. Sometimes there is honor in losing or giving way. Without giving a spoiler, the film’s penultimate scene involves a mahjong game, where the cynical “zero-sum game” attitude toward winning is debunked for other, better and nobler alternatives.

5. Good, loyal friends and frank advice helps. New York-born rapper and actress Awkwafina (real name Nora Lum) plays rich Singaporean Goh Peik Lin, Rachel Chu’s old college friend in the US. Brutally frank but loyal, Goh helps Rachel adjust to Singapore’s power elite lifestyle in times of seemingly hopeless troubles.

6. Always tell the truth. One of the major crises for the film’s protagonist involves a tragic story from the past that was kept hidden. As our parents often told us, no matter how insufferable the truth is, it is best to stand by it. Indeed, the truth shall set us free.

7. Family or personal wealth depends on national wealth. As an ethnic Chinese and Asian, I’m pleased by the unprecedented critical and commercial success of Crazy Rich Asians, which boosts the global image of Asians. I only wish our Philippines history had been different, so that our former leading position in Asian wealth was maintained, and the movie could have been set in Manila instead of Singapore!

Crazy Rich Asians novel author Kevin Kwan’s great-grandfather was a founding director of Singapore’s oldest bank, the Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), established in 1932. A dozen years earlier, the Philippines in 1920 had already established China Banking Corp. under the leadership of my grandfather’s second cousin, Hong Kong-schooled “Lumber King” Dee C. Chuan and his trusted professional manager University of Michigan-educated Atty. Albino SyCip (father of the brothers David, Alex and Washington, also of the late Paz SyCip Yuchengco).

Up to the so-called “Roaring ’20s,” my paternal forebears in the sawmill and lumber export businesses thrived, along with many other ethnic Chinese, as never before. Imagine: many Chinese entrepreneurs even built Great Gatsby-type mansions in Manila and abroad, drove American limousines like Packards or Cadillacs, sent kids to study in Shanghai, Hong Kong and the US. That was when the Philippines was still wealthier than other war-ravaged and less-developed Asian neighbors.

Though Crazy Rich Asians depicts lavish parties and conspicuous spending, the reality is that many of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs lead workaholic and disciplined lifestyles, despite their mansions. They are known for their Confucian philosophy and the importance they put on past struggles over adversity rather than flaunting wealth.

The film also reminds me of Manila’s own “rich” history of activism in the past century. After centuries of Spanish colonial misrule without developing much modern industry, the Philippines became America’s only colony in Asia and a top natural resource supplier to the new industrial superpower in the early 20th century (just as China is now the world’s rising economic superpower of the 21st century). Many entrepreneurs among our ethnic Chinese minority prospered to become Asia’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan taipans. In fact, my forebears were activists who donated to socio-civic causes, even supporting Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s 1911 revolution.

Wilson Lee Flores’ writings appear on GoodNewsPilipinas.com on Mondays.

(Wilson Lee Flores is an award-winning writer, journalist, Kamuning Bakery artisanal breads savior, and Pandesal Forum moderator. This column was previously posted on his Bull Market Bull Sheet column on the Philippine Star. His “KuwentongPanadero” inspiring stories are found on Pilipino STAR Ngayon. Follow @wilsonleeflores on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.)

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