Review of Bling Empire: Not All Asians are Crazy Rich
Image Courtesy of Netflix
Take a closer look into the lives of Los Angeles’s rich Asians, from regular weekend trips to Paris to toxic relationships. But is that really what the Asian community is looking for in 2021?
Everyone loves a good Chinese New Year festival—a spinning table filled with fish, dumplings, and spring rolls on top of some dim sum, unless you’re Christine Chiu. You don’t hesitate to shut down Rodeo Drive for the night, fill it with dragon dancers to photo booths, and cover it in red while inviting all the prominent Asian figures in LA. On one hand, you got both Piaget sponsoring the event; and on the other hand, for every guest attending, you sponsor one orphan in China.
Many viewers have been obsessed with Bling Empire since its release in January, as if it’s the 2021 version of Crazy Rich Asians. Filmed in 2019, the eight part Netflix Original Series features the elite 1% of Asians in LA. Parts of Asian culture are showcased, such as Buddhism, familial traditions, and special holidays. The show keeps us on our toes, serving as escapism from the boredom of our everyday lives. Yet the show also paints an image of privileged Asians being paid to have fun when the community is struggling to pay their bills during this pandemic.
The show starts off with Kevin Kreider, a model who had just moved out to LA, as he narrates the backgrounds of all his newfound, rich Asian friends. He’s the guy “grounding it,” he said in an interview with Wong Fu. He makes just enough money to pay rent for his shared apartment and is far from being a multi-billionaire. In the show, he’s a silly guy who loves to show off his abs (which makes sense, he’s a model), but he also wants to be the “average” person everyone can relate to.
Bling Empire is all the glitz and glam in the world packed into the hands of a selected few in Beverly Hills. The cast isn’t scared of gifting a pair of Dior shoes or taking a private jet to the oldest jewelry store in Paris for the weekend. But the show is much more than, well, the bling. In an interview with Metro.Style, executive producer Brandon Panaligan said, “The wealth and the bling and all of that is always your entry point…. But ultimately, I think what people care about is seeing real people and their real stories. And the fact that the cast shared so many intimate stories with the audience.” He also reminds us, “Don’t get distracted by the diamonds.”
Panaligan is right. One of the first scenes in the first episode is of Kevin entering Kane’s complex, passing by his giant wall of lavish and luxurious shoes. But the show also gets into much deeper subjects, like discovering what friendships mean, finding long-lost parents, dealing with the stigma of surrogacy, and attending relationship therapy. The most important takeaway is how the rich Asian community has each others’ backs, whether it be making sure a friend is okay after overhearing verbal abuse on speaker or helping a friend find closure after losing a loved one.
One of the more striking elements of the show is actually its diversity. Having a cast of Japanese, Vietnamese, Singaporean, Chinese, and Taiwanese is actually quite diverse. Some members are of mixed race, while another is adopted. In a 2021 interview with Netflix, Kreider, a Korean American that was adopted by a white family at a young age, said that “the best part of the show coming out is Korean adoptees actually reach out and say, ‘Our stories are finally being told.’” The different backgrounds in the cast makes it evident that “Asian” is not a monolith, that each person, because of their ethnicity, is bringing something different to the table.
We have seen a rise in Asian American media in recent years, but we have also seen a common trend. Since Crazy Rich Asians (2018), some shows that have premiered include HBO Max’s House of Ho, Bravo’s Family Karma, and Netflix’s Singapore Social, which all follow the Crazy Rich Asian arc. It was a novel idea the first time around, and we were excited to see an all Asian cast on the big screen. But now, shows like these reinforce the stereotype that all Asians are successful given how they are the majority Asian population displayed on screens.
After a full year’s worth of anti-Asian hate crimes, releasing a show about Asians sitting comfortably in their $16 million mansions is a sign that popular media would only like to see one type of Asian: the crazy rich type, rather than bringing awareness to present day anti-Asian racism. It almost seems as if because anti-Asian hate crimes have skyrocketed over the last year and become a major concern in the news media that putting out a show with any bit of Asian representation was a good marketing strategy.
Many Asians feel that they’re misrepresented by Bling Empire. In an article by Michele Yang, a writer, speaker and mental health advocate, she shares that her brother and his wife struggle to pay the bills for their Vietnamese restaurant while in the show, a little kid is all dressed up in Gucci, surrounded by multilingual nannies. The timing of release is controversial—while the show does provide an interesting flair into our lives and representation of an underrepresented race on screens, reality is that when Kim Lee, a cast member and famous DJ, mentioned her rent being “only $19,000 a month” in the first episode, there’s still an obvious lack of representation on screens.
Bling Empire falls into the trap of being a reality TV series, with the irony being on “reality.” The show boasts how surprisingly accurate it is, how it’s “1000% real and unexpected.” Yet because a camera is in front of their faces and highlights the extravagance of opulence, we don’t really get holistic profiles of the cast, although we don’t want to invade their private lives either. From Instagram stories and news interviews, we gather that these people are more complex than their mirages in Bling Empire even if the show is supposed to be a portrayal of “reality.”
Kane Lim, a Singaporean and Buddhist cast member, has been a good example of using his platform and resources to help the community around him. In episode seven, Lim and Kreider visit South Carolina, passing by both Confederate flags and a group of anti-racist activists. Standing amongst the anti-racist activists, Lim proudly yells, “THE ASIANS ARE HERE!!!” A couple people take down a Confederate flag and drive off. Even though this was a scene in the show, Lim’s social media also reflects similar sentiments. The vast majority of his Instagram posts might be of Dior and Versace, but they’re paired with love and appreciation for what he does have and actively gives back to the community. He’s not afraid of putting “Philanthropist” in his bio given that he made a donation to help the Laos Buddhist Temples that some women robbed from, aided in Covid relief, has been working with Miracles for Kids, and actively speaks out for the AAPI community.
On the flip side, Kevin Kreider has faced controversy over posts that dismiss the rise in anti-Asian hate. Outside of Bling Empire, Kreider works as a model and appears shirtless on the covers of magazines like Men’s Health. His platform serves to dismantle the stereotype that fit Asians are ugly and has spoken at TED Talks about the issue. However, when fans asked him to speak out about stopping Asian hate, Kreider responded with, “social justice warriors who are out to promote the end of racial hate crimes…come across as self righteousness.” He later removes the post and apologizes for what seemed to be a lack of empathy. In a later post, he can be seen holding up a sign to “STOP the HATE! Spread LOVE!”
As Phillip Wong from Wong Fu Productions said in his interview with Kreider, “there’s not one pill that’s gonna solve representation…. Part of equality in representation is having that choice of what we want to watch… We have Minaris and we have Bling Empire.” Minari is an immigration story of a Korean family coming to America in pursuit of the American dream and the challenges they face understanding their relation to the new country. The narrative is very different from that of Bling Empire. There are also tons of new Asian American shows and movies that are coming out or already exist, for example, martial arts movies Shang-Chi and Mortal Kombat, Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, CBC’s Kim’s Convenience (though it’s Canadian), or ABC’s Fresh off the Boat. Representation isn’t perfect, but the growing representation of the Asian community in media is something to be excited about. And before you hate on Bling Empire, at least give it a try. Worst case scenario, you’ll discover that you love Minaris instead.