In the promo for Netflix’s new reality TV series “Bling Empire,” a diamond-laden and heavily made-up socialite named Christine Chiu brags about her husband, a Los Angeles plastic surgeon. She claims he is a descendant of China’s Song dynasty and would be next in line to be emperor if the dynasty were still in place. But it isn’t, is it? The Song dynasty ended in 1279, so who cares?
The elitism and classism spewed in this short clip effectively frames the show for what it is, but the timing of its release displays a disregard for the context of a global pandemic resulting in racist hate, an unprecedented economic crisis and political strife. Asians don’t need this kind of (mis)representation, especially now, when we’ve already been long battling the model minority myth and additional racism and resentment as a result of Covid-19.
“I think more is more when it comes to jewelry,” says Chiu, batting her thick lashes, as she puts on one piece of bling after another.
Reality shows are, in reality, scripted, and much of the dialogue in the series feels inauthentic. Shows like “The Real Housewives” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” are criticized for their representations of women and opportunistic capitalism. “Bling Empire” is no worse than its genre. Condemning this particular show when the others just like it have become woven into popular culture is unfair.
But why does our society continue to celebrate the privileged 1 percent that does not represent the vast majority of our human experience, let alone the Asian American experience, especially when our country is suffering through a pandemic and economic crisis?
My brother and his wife run a Vietnamese restaurant in a strip mall. They welcomed their first baby in May, just as their business was hit hard by the pandemic. They are balancing child care with keeping the restaurant open to pay bills and support their employees. It’s an incredible strain. Like many Americans, their application for assistance went unanswered. My brother’s experience is the true reality for millions of Americans, but that is not represented. Instead, what we have is Chiu flaunting her Gucci-clad Baby G, tended to by a rotating team of multilingual nannies.
To be fair, Netflix began filming the series in early 2019, before the pandemic. While no one could have foreseen Covid-19, the racist hate that would be incited in its name and the suffering that it would cause, the timing of the show’s release is acutely tone-deaf. In the first episode, Kim Lee, a cast member and DJ, remarks offhand that her rent is “only $19,000 a month.” This at a time when millions of Americans are losing jobs, getting evicted and experiencing homelessness is hard to accept.
On top of these economic challenges, there have been thousands of reports of anti-Asian discrimination nationwide, exacerbated by Donald Trump using the phrases “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” to refer to the coronavirus while he was president. Despite the show’s milder attempts at subverting other Asian stereotypes (its stars are neither studious nor traditional), this kind of representation reinforces stereotypes that Asians are wealthy while most of the nation is suffering and threatens to make scapegoating worse.
On the other hand, don’t Asians deserve to be as vapid, materialistic and performative as the Kardashians? The idea that representation should only consist of more palatable behavior implies that racism is caused by unsavory behavior. It is a slippery slope to victim-blaming and contributes to the model minority myth. So is representation of Asians behaving boldly, rudely and wastefully subversive enough to be good for the American psyche? I don’t know.
The series’ premise is to unabashedly spotlight a real-life version of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the 2018 blockbuster that grossed over $238 million worldwide. Fortunately, “Bling Empire” is not focused solely on the Chiu family.
The full cast consists of more endearing characters, including model Kevin Kreider, whose videos about struggling as a Korean adoptee in a white community and redefining Asian masculinity gained him a sizable following prior to the show. Kreider narrates the series and represents the naïve one with the heart of gold stumbling around unfamiliar society while others tease him for his lack of couture fashion sense and a lavish lifestyle. Unlike fictional protagonist Rachel Chu in “Crazy Rich Asians,” Kreider is intentional in his efforts to join the elite inner circle. He absorbs all the teasing to gain acceptance. Throughout the show, he attempts to woo producer Kelly Mi Li in what can be read as a campaign to replace her current kept man.
“If you can’t be rich,” he says, “at least have rich friends.”
Kreider’s search for his birth parents and anxiety around how his adoptive parents will react is meaningful representation. The show’s inclusion of an Asian adoptee perspective, an essential narrative in the discourse about the Asian diaspora, should be applauded.
Similarly socially significant is the show’s depiction of Li’s destructive relationship. Li is not only a cast member, but a powerhouse entrepreneur and the show’s producer. “Bling Empire” wouldn’t have been created without her, yet she appears to continue to accept verbal and emotional mistreatment from her partner. She is a reminder that no matter how strong or successful a person is, they can be susceptible to toxic patterns. The show believably captures moments of vulnerability and shame from the couple, which may help audiences understand why loved ones, or maybe themselves, stay in or lie to cover up such relationships.
The social consciousness of "Bling Empire" peaks in episode seven, when Kreider and his friend Kane Lim go to Charleston, South Carolina. They encounter a small protest and join people holding an American flag and a “Make racism wrong again” sign opposite a pickup truck displaying a much larger Confederate flag. Though they make light of the moment, it was the show’s only acknowledgement of America’s ongoing political and social unrest.
The two friends go on to investigate a stranger’s apartment, looking in their windows, making me wonder if they could have done this safely if they were Black. Another episode shows the Russian and Japanese heiress Anna Shay and friends ignoring police officers’ orders to move their hoverboards onto the sidewalk on Rodeo Drive. Instead, the police escort their ride to the end of the street. Perhaps the allowance was made because of the camera crew, but the occurrence further delineates the inequality of the American justice system.
The show is not intended to be a hard-hitting docuseries — I get that. But releasing a show celebrating opulence when Americans — and Asian Americans in particular — are experiencing such high unemployment rates feels like a giant middle finger to the community it supposedly represents.