Why the cars of Crazy Rich Asians matter
Earlier this month, in northern China, my younger cousin got married. Present at the ceremony were seven Bentley Flying Spur sedans, four Rolls-Royce Phantoms, two Ferrari 458 Italias, a McLaren 570S, a Lamborghini Gallardo, two Rolls-Royce Ghosts, two Rolls-Royce Drophead Coupes (in silver and blue), a Maybach 62, a Freightliner Sport Chassis pickup truck, a Mitsuoka Galue, and my extended family. I felt like I was living out Crazy Rich Asians, the upcoming film based on Kevin Kwan’s book about a young woman who visits her boyfriend’s family in Hong Kong and discovers that they’re some of the wealthiest people in the world.
Vehicle processions are de rigueur for such a ceremony, and lavishly done-up cars have been vital to a wedding in China since the beginning of the 20th century. The choice of car—usually foreign European luxury—extends to the notoriously superstitious, down to the badge: “The circles of Audi suggests that the family will be happy together,” reports The World Of Chinese, while “the two lions on the Roewe logo stand for the couple themselves. Chevrolet’s logo on the other hand, reminds Chinese of hospitals, which are associated with misfortune.”
In 2014, a million-dollar wedding near Harbin featured 30 Rolls-Royce Phantoms, part of the most extravagant wedding yet. Another wedding that made news featured the bride and groom handing out cash to onlookers in little red envelopes, a fabled tradition in itself. That wedding featured Lamborghinis, Porsches, and a Hummer H2 limousine, neatly bridging the cultural gap across our fair Pacific.
According to my mother, there were 40 cars total at my cousin’s wedding, convoying the entire party across the boulevards of Harbin, China. The stoplights paused. Police stopped traffic, waved them on. Once at the banquet hall hosting both the ceremony and the ensuing feast—Guo Bao Rou, baby—they parked, deposited the guests, and promptly left. Afterwards, presumably, the Moutai flowed like water. It was the sort of thing you bragged about to your friends who weren’t there. “You’ll never believe it,” you’d say. “There were 40 outrageous cars there.”
By contrast, when my oldest cousin got married in Singapore, she and her groom took a taxicab to the wedding. Now would be a strange (and possibly disingenuous) time to suggest that my extended family, especially my younger cousin’s side, is not, in fact, rich.
My aunt works at a restaurant, after working as a hairdresser throughout my childhood, and my uncle has toiled at a factory for as long as I could remember. Once he even dropped a thousand-pound weight on his right hand and nearly destroyed three fingers. Like in America, cool car rental services for weddings are common, at any scale. These cars in particular had been arranged by the father of the bride who, in my mother’s words, “knew a guy.” He had no definable job but plenty of guys who he knew. Learning these few details over a Skype call, I knew to leave it at that.
Dongbei people in the north are a hearty folk. Living on the border with Siberia, where it drops to minus 20 degrees Celsius in the winter, they’ve learned to tame the rough land through the kind of peasant toil that once inspired Chairman Mao to re-educate the city populace by bringing them, including my father, to the countryside. But that was a different time, one before conspicuous capitalism. Harbin lacks neither the explosive growth of Shenzhen and Guangdong, nor the imperial culture of Beijing or X’ian, nor the finance-driven opportunity of Shanghai or Hong Kong, but the city is home to automotive and aviation factories. (As well as the last Russian Orthodox church in the nation, the winter festival, and the finest lamb skewers and ice cream.) In the south, my mother explained, those in the city don’t flaunt their wealth because they don’t need to—let’s face it, they’re already rich, they do so by proxy.
But hey, listen, in these blue-collar cities, you’ve got to seize your chances. And the illusion of appearing wealthy is a universal temptation, universal to many cultures. The allure never fades to elevate oneself above one’s monetary stature, if just for one day.
In the trailer for Crazy Rich Asians we see lavish parties. Fancy Chinese dresses. Gratuitous abdominals. We see Mercedes-Benz AMGs, Ferraris, Ford GTs, and air-cooled Porsches. They are the same cars you might see in Dubai, in Monaco, on Santa Monica Boulevard, in a gentrifying neighborhood in Austin, Texas, or in front of a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Old Town Scottsdale on any Thursday night.
Car culture is car culture is car culture. The nouveau riche are blandly depressing in the way they so closely adhere to the same tastes, which become the tastes for the other classes to emulate. And yet, it’s reassuring to think that we are all closer in this world than we think. Despite political upheavals, no matter our race, religion, or geographical location, we all react—in some way—to a 40-car convoy of McLarens, Phantoms, and Ferraris.