Sunday, June 04, 2017

Some insights from "Rich People Problems"

This is not a book review and I am not going to spoil this story as I think that if a Singaporean wants to read a piece of fiction, he should look no further than "Crazy Rich Asian" trilogy by Kevin Kwan that's going to be made into a movie soon.  

Instead, I'm going to put my my very imaginary and non-existent "English Literature hat" and flesh out an interesting feature of Kevin Kwan's writing throughout this novel.

Kevin Kwan name-drops a lot in his works. 

Whether you think of Kevin's name dropping of world class brands and designers as a feature or a bug of his work of fiction, his description of the brands worn by characters in the story intensifies when he is describing the antagonists of the story. For example, primary villain and fashion victim Eddie Cheng wears a bespoke Sartoria Ripense suit, Corthay squirrel suede chukkas and A Lange & Sohne Richard Lange "Pour le Merite" watch ( I can't even ). 

You can actually tell when the author decides to become a lot more merciful with name-dropping when it comes to describing the protagonists of the story. Nicky Young, when referring to his cousin's wealth, jokingly asked her for a David Bowie CD compilation worth $89.99 from Amazon. Throughout the novel, the good guys brands demonstrated either some understated style or was a beneficiary of something experiential rather than material. 

Here is an example of something that many financial bloggers talk about - When a choice presents itself when spending money, always choose an experience rather than a material good. Another words, between a round the world trip and a car, choose the round the world trip. This is the new orthodoxy amongst the new generation of consumers. 

Actually, I've been quite bothered by this rule of thumb for quite a while. If you observe the Instagram postings of your millennial friends, how many sunsets or unicorn rainbow shake pictures does it take to drive an average person into depression ? Furthermore, computer games are probably one of the more addictive forms of experiential goods. 

In this case, a good piece of fiction might contain novel solutions which have yet to be found in social science journals. As it happens, some of the most precious objects given to the protagonists of the story contain an interesting back story. In this particular story, a pair of earrings given to Rachel Chu hinted at a very interesting story of her grandmother in law during World War II which was pivotal to the resolution of the entire story arc.

So perhaps the material-experiential spending model is incomplete. 

Advising folks to spend money on experiences may end up encouraging hours spent on World on Warcraft or cracking the next boss on Dark Souls III. Computer games are a class of experiences which are capable of allowing a person to achieve a state of flow for a modest subscription fee.

I think a better model would be material-experiential-existential.  Next time ask yourself :

  • What is the meaning of this purchase ? 
  • Does buying this product or service say anything about your personal identity and what you stand for ? 
  • Does it give you a meaningful level or achievement or allow you to leave a legacy for others ?

At this point, it is entirely possible that computer games are still a worthy investment because it gives people a level of achievement and meaning that real life simply cannot allow some people to attain. 

Once we get to the point where people prefer to find meaning in the virtual rather than the real, we will be in serious trouble. 


  1. If people knew how much money was poured into the advertising industries, they would think twice about being conned into buying things they do not need, and probably (if they thought through it) do not want.

    When I watch youtube videos with my kid and see ads, I make it a point to ask my kid, what do you think the ad is trying to sell you. I hope it makes him understand that the motivation for ads is to sell you things. It doesn't seek to inform or to enlighten you. It seeks to make money off you.

    Mrs Spoon.

  2. That's a great way to raise your kids.

    In my first book, I channelled this work called The Hero and the Outlaw to show readers that advertisements generally fall into 4 categories and invite them to conduct an exercise to deconstruct a branding exercise. I thought that perhaps it can help them become less vulnerable to advertising.

    Generally speaking, millennials do not engage in conspicuous consumption as much as the older generations.