With the rise of the global wealth gap comes a newfound fascination into the lives of the mega-rich, both new and old. This fascination is supplemented with the outpouring of new reality TV dramas. Shows like Selling Sunset rise in extreme popularity because of our morbid curiosity about how the 1% live their lives. This upward trend is no new phenomenon either; after all, the Kardashians became popular solely because of the attention that their wealth garnered. Despite how much some viewers may protest, the fact remains that there are those who desire to live vicariously in lifestyles that they can’t fathom. So when the show Bling Empire came out on Netflix this month, it was no exception to the hype.
One key difference that I noticed, however, was the distinction of Western vs Eastern wealth. This contrast was captured perfectly by Kevin Kwan, the renowned author of Crazy Rich Asians. In an interview with Harper's BAZAAR, he noted that there has always been a hidden conglomerate of wealthy Asians and Pacific Islanders who spend millions per year, yet remain virtually unnoticed. He notes that Crazy Rich Asians itself, a movie that introduced the West to the expanse of Eastern wealth, was “almost 100% based on real-life”, which is a sentiment reciprocated by a celebrity that is featured in Bling Empire: Kane Lim. So where have these billionaires come from?
The answer lies in a key element that remains largely untapped by modern Western media: old money. This is particularly observable in America, as many of the current 1% are those who had successful start-ups and are often only the first or second generation in their families to accumulate such fortunes. All anyone has to do is go down the list of the wealthiest people in the world. Jeff Bezos's childhood was said to have been marred with unfortunate circumstances as a result of being born to unprepared parents. And Elon Musk, while coming from a comfortable family, was reportedly bullied as a child and emigrated to Canada at just 17. While their role as a positive or negative influence in society is highly debated, it doesn’t negate the fact that they are “stand-alone” billionaires; that is to say, they don’t come from incredibly wealthy backgrounds. While these men may eclipse others in regards to wealth, it’s not an overstatement to say that they would be vastly overshadowed when it comes to status brought by the East’s 1%.
So what does this mean in regards to this recent show? In my opinion, it highlights the distinct line between those who were provided with opportunities as a child and those who had to create them as an adult. That isn’t to say that they are any more or any less questionable than stand-alone mega fortunes; rather, it provides context for where many pockets of Eastern wealth come from. For instance, one of the celebrities on the show is Christine Chiu, whose husband is a plastic surgeon. But one of the more surprising elements of their background is that Gabriel Chiu is "the 24th direct descendant of the Song Dynasty,” which is certainly a lineage that is nothing to sneeze at. These lines of wealth are also seen with co-star Anna Shay, whose father sold weaponry across the globe and whose mother descended “from a pearl and silk flower export dynasty”. Currently, it’s estimated that the Chiu’s are worth about $50 million, and Anna Shay at $600 million. While they may not be as wealthy when compared to the rest of the globe, their familial connections can often provide them with prestige and honor that money can’t buy. The biggest pockets of wealth don’t have to be relatively old, either; The Ambanis come from third-generation wealth and currently rest as the richest family in Asia with a net worth of a whopping $76 billion. Just as the rate of first-generation wealth expands, the reach of generational/old wealth increases tenfold, as evidenced in the East.
These extensively rich roots of wealth that some of the East’s 1% come from led me down countless rabbit holes. Those popular “get rich quick in ten easy steps” videos plastered over social media would pale in comparison to the profound culture surrounding Eastern wealth. While there are those in the AAPI world who have incredibly successful first-generation fortunes, (and make no mistake, their stories are even more riveting), it appears that the emerging fascination for the East’s mega-wealthy now comes with a side order of grandeur, and Bling Empire is just the beginning.