Netflix

‘Bling Empire’ leans into crazy-rich Asian representation while forgetting the rest of us

“My horses fly Emirates,” Jaime Xie, daughter of tech billionaire Ken Xie, says in the first episode of Bling Empire, Netflix’s newest reality series. Her friends at lunch all chuckle. “We were so close to buying a barn. But I didn’t buy it, and Eve Jobs ended up buying it,” Jaime says, ruefully. In Bling Empire’s glitzy world of uber-wealthy Asians in Los Angeles, battling Apple heiresses and flying your horses are humdrum affairs. For most Asians in America, however, these heights of opulence are not our lived experience — which is a reality that Bling Empire neglects to unpack.

As an Asian American with a soft spot for Keeping Up with the Kardashians, I was excited to watch Bling Empire, the streaming giant’s offering about a group of hyper-affluent Asians and Asian-Americans in Los Angeles. The cast is composed of Asians from Singapore, Korea, Vietnam, China, and Japan, but the show is largely rooted in the perspective of Kevin Kreider, a Korean American model who was adopted by a white family in Philadelphia and is learning to navigate the posh Asian social scene in Los Angeles. Although the steely ab-ed Kevin is not in the least poor (his net worth is estimated to be at least $10 million), as one of the few cast members on the show who did not marry into or come from extreme extreme wealth, he stands as an outlier.

Like most shows in the reality genre, much of Bling Empire’s drama arises from petty arguments about status, toxic relationships, and material possessions. In the first episode, Anna Shay, the half-Japanese heiress of a billion-dollar defense firm, throws a lavish party. When Christine Chiu, the status-seeking wife of a Song Dynasty heir shows up intentionally wearing the same Louis Vuitton pink sapphire and diamond necklace Anna owns, it feels familiar to when the thirsty Sarah Trott crashes bachelor Matt James’s group date on an earlier episode of The Bachelor. The drama that stems from the tumultuous on-and-off relationship of ambitious self-made entrepreneur Kelly Mi Li and her toxic boyfriend, Andrew Gray, an actor best known for playing the Red Power Ranger, is similar to that of Scott and Kourtney in Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

However, many other elements of Bling Empire are distinct to Asian culture, whether it’s Kane Lim, the shoe-obsessed heir to a Singapore fortune, insisting that Kevin remove his shoes when he enters the house, or various conflicts that arise from age-old Asian traditions. Throughout the show, the frustrated Christine struggles with facing the expectations of her husband’s traditional Chinese family, who base her worth on her ability to raise children. It took almost ten years for the Chius to have their son, Baby G, and in exploring options for having a second child, Christine confesses in an aside, “Gabe’s parents would hate the idea of surrogacy. They are very traditional, and surrogacy is not something that’s accepted.”

Although there shouldn’t be an expectation for Asian-Americans onscreen to deep-dive into what it means to be Asian in America, Bling Empire, whose main selling point is an all-Asian cast, barely even manages to scratch the surface. Although the series succeeds at interweaving culture throughout and portraying the glitz and glam of wealthy socialites, it falls flat in its reluctance to explore questions surrounding identity and how this rich Asian community became so insular.

The closest Bling Empire comes to touching on themes of identity is when Kevin attempts to relocate his birth parents in Korea. The conclusion of this storyline, however, doesn’t go much deeper than his struggle to find personal closure with the realization that international adoption case files do not include enough information for him to find his parents. But, after attending a hypnosis treatment session where he “talks” to his birth mom, he says in an aside, “I now feel at peace with it.”

For the rest of the cast, their origin stories remain somewhat murky. Their place as Asian American and Asian internationals in Los Angeles and their relationships with the community beyond their tight bubble is never discussed. Anna Shay, who is the only half-Asian cast member, never mentions her biracial identity, while Kim Lee, an international model and DJ born in Orange County, California, leaves the audience in the dark about her path to success.

Although Asian Americans are the highest-earning racial group in the United States, they are also the most economically divided.

Bling Empire is only one of several recent installments of on-screen stories about rich Asians, a niche narrative that seems to spur from the 2018 hit movie, Crazy Rich Asians, based on Kevin Kwan’s trilogy of the same name. Other shows centering rich Asians include HBO’s House of Ho, and Netflix’s Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives. Asian representation in all types of stories is important, but the abundance of narratives that highlight ultra-wealthy Asians reinforces the “model minority” myth, a false characterization of collective success amongst Asian Americans meant to minimize the role that racism plays in the struggles of other minority groups.

Although Asian Americans are the highest-earning racial group in the United States, they are also the most economically divided. Income inequality among Asian Americans has almost doubled between 1970 and 2016, and Asian Americans have the highest poverty rate of any group in New York City. The “model minority” myth also portrays Asian Americans as a monolithic group, even though the differences between poverty rates of Asian populations can be as large as 30 percent.

By highlighting Asian American narratives that focus on wealth and the affluent classes, TV and film production companies paint an incomplete and misleading portrait. Because Asian American stories don’t yet exist in narrative plentitude, it is important to leave room for Asian American stories that are representative beyond skin color.

As one of the first reality TV shows with an all-Asian cast, the release of Netflix’s Bling Empire is a step toward Asian American representation on screen. At the very least, watching rich Asians fight over penis pumps and lavish parties in a pre-pandemic world can be a fun escape from reality. However, very few Asians, even wealthy ones, can relate to the lifestyles of Bling Empire’s 1 percent. If the Asian American media space is to become truly representative, with every narrative like Bling Empire comes a necessity for stories like Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, which portray completely different sides of the Asian American experience — one many more of us can relate to.