The Real Crazy-Rich-Asians

Tuesday, Oct 16 2018 04:01 PM

A recent movie portrayed Asian dynastic families as being a bunch of haughty, filthy-rich groupies lost in their own world. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

In the turbulent early 50s, the communists under Mao Zedong had just won the civil war in China, and vast numbers of mainlanders had fled across the border into Hong Kong, fuelling Hong Kong's boom. (Taiwan and Singapore saw an influx too.)

The clan had to be safeguarded, the bloodline preserved, at all costs. Adults had to leave the Old Country in batches, employ different strategies, use various border crossings, to avoid suspicion; with not enough adults around, the older kids had to adopt a few younger siblings each.

We had money then, but — as anyone fleeing home and country will tell you — the challenge is holding on to it, travelling with it, transporting it across borders manned by watchful officials and greedy guards.

We are tycoons now; our business dealings have spanned the construction, real-estate, hotel and finance market sectors for decades. Money, gold, jewels are all invaluable in times of crisis. Many times, the safe-deposit boxes we have arranged and scattered all over have saved the clan: our wealth has helped us to buy friends, ensure safe passage across borders, and secure food and housing.

Rumours — really dinner-table whispers amongst elders in the family — once abounded that Grandfather had buried gold somewhere in the ancestral home in China. Or perhaps it was the old estate in Singapore, not in or around the main house but the weekend estate, the one with the sea view. Years passed; renovations were done, treasure hunts were organised, structures were rebuilt, but nothing was ever found. Attention shifted to the many shophouses we owned.

Some small finds were enough to stoke the fire. Following a trail of breadcrumbs, some resourceful elders came across unexpected safe-deposit boxes all over Southeast Asia. After all, we had once had to escape from China; it was vital to maintain a few stashes in case turmoil erupted again or someone temporarily got isolated.

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Wars can be harrowing, but the Second World War and the subsequent fall of China to the communists were especially world-shattering. Our elders are still trapped in that time; the fear of oppression, poverty, and hunger lead to an insatiable need to be vigilant, to always expect uncertainty. This fear has imprinted itself into the DNA of the Baby Boomers, adversely affecting the behaviour of future generations.

Grandfather, bless him, did his duty: he had three wives, sired more than 20 kids. Members of the extended family are scattered around the region just in case. A strong core group works together to ensure petty differences are cast aside for the good of the clan.

Habits have been ingrained in us since young: rely on established channels; use safe-deposit boxes; don’t put all your eggs in one basket, always reduce the risks. 

Prospective spouses are interrogated for standing, genes and decorum. The family history and net worth of an outsider daring to marry into the clan are painstakingly examined. Family members foolish enough to insist on matrimony with candidates of ‘low breeding’ are immediately written out of the will.

Females do not receive high inheritances — the sole parting gift from the clan is typically the dowry. As Grandfather was showing no signs of dying or decay (and therefore leaving her anything in the Will), Mother did her own matchmaking with exceptional haste whereupon dowry was duly delivered.

Polygamy is a cardinal sin — and fully enjoyed by the members of the clan. Personal space is discreetly observed, within limits. Secrets are carefully guarded, kept well away from the eyes of the matriarch. Illegitimate male kids are smuggled into the household late at night. (It’s an extremely large household.) It is not unheard of to find peculiar characteristics in certain relatives, characteristics that don’t run in members of the clan.

But the dynasty must come first. Rock the boat too much, and you’re cast overboard.

We have learnt our lessons; no longer will one swift, clandestine attack vanquish us or deplete our wealth. Byzantine investment structures and numerous corporate layers protect the family assets. Safe-deposit boxes have been set up like a string of pearls across the world, but access to them is circumscribed: they are open only on weekdays and have limited opening hours.

A bird in the hand is always better than two in the bush, always look behind you, and never believe what the mainstream media tells you. Suspicion, distrust and mistrust is encouraged.

We still both regale and rebuke ourselves with the story of how the entire clan escaped from Anhui and spent several years recovering in Hong Kong, with Grandfather and the main family unit finally coming to Singapore.

No — no self-respecting, ‘Old Money’, true-blue Asian clan will ever get caught with its pants down again.

At the back of my mind I am still hopeful that I will stumble upon Grandfather’s stash of gold one day. After all, I have always played at my grandfather’s side; I was the closest of all the grandchildren. Maybe one day his spirit will tell me where to find the family’s buried treasure.

Photo credit:

1. Hong Kong Tatler Archives

2. Victor Garcia (Unsplash)

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