“I can tell you one thing—these people are richer than God,” exclaims one character in Kevin Kwan’s novel Crazy Rich Asians. Featuring an all-Asian cast, the hotly-anticipated film adaptation, out Aug. 15, promises to transport cinema-goers to the glitzy world of Southeast Asia’s ultra rich society.
Kwan’s phenomenally popular tale introduces us to Asian-American Rachel Chu and her boyfriend Nick Young, both professors at New York University, and played in the movie by Fresh Off the Boat‘s Constance Wu and Malaysian-British actor Henry Golding. When Nick invites Rachel to spend the summer with his family in Singapore, she accepts—blissfully unaware that his family is one of the richest in Asia, led by a formidable matriarch.
Set largely in the city-state of Singapore, with luxury weekend getaways to gambling havens and tropical paradise islands thrown in for good measure, Kwan’s dramatization seems unbelievable. Characters sport the rarest vintage Rolex watches, drive Maseratis and socialize with the world’s royal families.
But while the eye-popping details may seem larger than life, Kwan has said before that the novel’s characters are “absolutely” inspired by real people. And the money-soaked milieu in which they live is based on something real, too.
Of course, Singaporean society contains far more than just the wealthy world depicted in the books, but, according to WealthInsight, a data firm collecting information on the world’s wealthy, one in 34 people in Singapore are millionaires. That makes it the sixth most millionaire-dense country in the world and the top across Asia. “The archetypes are there and obviously it’s exaggerated, but a lot of it is true,” says Michelle Chang, a born-and-raised Singaporean who attended one of the top schools referenced in the novels. “I couldn’t stop reading it because I know these people.”
A small island lying at the south of the Malay peninsula, Singapore didn’t get that way simply by chance.
In the early 19th century, trading competition in Asia was fierce, and the British were looking to protect their interests to the East from Dutch interference. To them, Singapore seemed like the perfect place to set up camp. In 1819, the British landed near the mouth of the Singapore river and negotiated a treaty with local rulers to create a new major port city. “It was clear for colonial officials that Singapore should be the original trans-Pacific trade point, because of its geographical location,” says Yi Li, a teaching fellow at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “It was really seen as the place to go to set up headquarters and operations, and attracted lots of rich, wealthy merchants.”
The British traders who flocked to Singapore made money by acting as agents for western suppliers who were looking to get their goods to Asian merchants. Along with territories in Malaysia, Singapore came under direct British crown control in 1867, following decades during which local chiefs were pressured into giving up their territories to the British East India Company.
During that period, Singapore—along with Malaysia’s Penang Island—became a hub for migrants looking to seek their wealth and fortune from the rich resources across southeast Asia, particularly in the tin-mining and rubber industries. These migrants often came from southern China, some bringing global trade connections due to their involvement with the European tea trade, which had started a century earlier. Business was made much easier in Singapore, as British efforts to stimulate trade, capital and industry in the city were pull factors for ambitious Chinese workers and merchant traders who were looking to get away from their homeland’s turbulent political and social climate at the time. Small numbers of Chinese elites flourished spectacularly in their new home, though others were not as lucky and had to take on unskilled, hard labor jobs.
“The really big wave [of immigration] happened between 1840 and 1940,” says Seng Guo-Quan, Assistant Professor in History at the National University of Singapore, “when an estimated 20 million migrants left China for mainly Southeast Asia.”
And although Singapore’s population is now predominantly of Chinese origin, and Chinese families are the ones largely featured in Crazy Rich Asians, those immigrants weren’t alone. For example, traditionally wealthy Chinese-Malay families from further up the Malay peninsula, known as Peranakans, also emigrated to Singapore and were able to quickly climb the ranks in real estate, shipping and banking sectors, as they had received English educations and were able to communicate with the British. “The Chinese were not the only groups,” Seng explains. “Arab traders and landowners, Indian Chettiar moneylenders, Malay princely entrepreneurs and later on, a multi-racial, Western-educated professional elite group emerged in late colonial society.”
When British colonial rule ended in 1963 and the Federation of Malaysia dissolved two years later, that diversity—both demographic and economic—continued to grow. At that point, a transition from blue-collar, manufacturing jobs and into highly-skilled service industries was seen as essential for Singapore’s growth as an independent country. Today, the country’s richest billionaires hail from the real-estate and banking sectors, marking a shift away from dependence on natural resources.
Singapore’s determination to attract immigrants endures today, with alluring factors such as a low tax rate, a stable and safe government and a well-regulated banking system proving particularly tempting for wealthy people and businesses seeking a foothold in Asia.
One recurring feature in the Crazy Rich Asians series is the difference, and sometimes the tension, between old- and new-money families. Similar trends seem to be afoot in the real Singapore, which has built itself a reputation as one of the world’s most powerful financial centers. “Where the first generation of wealth were more entrepreneurial, the wealth becomes a lifestyle instead of aspirational for the second and third generations,” says Evrard Bordier, Managing Partner and CEO at the private bank Bordier & Cie. “They may want to consume, or be experience seekers, living through travel, wine and good art,” he tells TIME, an observation echoing with Crazy Rich Asians‘ fantastical world, where the purchase of a $195 million work of art barely makes a dent in one family’s fortune. Like other private banks dealing with the money of Singapore’s elite, Bordier has a strict rule to follow: no clients with a net worth less than $2 million.
“The consumers want to see where the next Gucci or Chanel fashion show is, and they want to buy the items that are difficult to acquire,” Bordier says, reflecting an attitude prevalent among some of the characters in Kwan’s novels. This sector of Singapore’s elite also appears to be more willing to engage with the media and take on a more public persona with through their own social media platforms.
And the film’s release comes as Singapore’s economic history enters what is perhaps a new stage, as questions of class and inequality fuel national and political conversations.
“In recent years, there’s the sense that Singapore should no longer govern itself by a growth-at-all-costs logic,” Seng tells TIME. Over the last few weeks, Crazy Rich Asians, as well as Kwan’s sequels China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, have surged to the top of fiction charts in local Singaporean bookshops. But on the nonfiction chart, sociologist Teo You Yenn’s This Is What Inequality Looks Like has also made an appearance at the top of readers’ lists. The book looks at the experience of being low-income in contemporary Singapore, and according to Seng, is “a passionate plea to privileged Singaporeans” to pay attention to these issues. It shows that a stark reality for the many endures even alongside the glitzy fantasy of the few.