Evening Standard | 27 Setpember 2018
By Susannah Butter
From where they hang out to study and shop
If you were given a tenner every time someone in the film Crazy Rich Asians said they met at either Oxford or Cambridge, you would be almost as wealthy as its characters.
The romantic comedy is set in Singapore and the plot revolves around loyalty to home. But before settling down in the family Singaporean skyscraper, the Crazy Rich Asians have to get a proper education and that means going to England. Even New Yorkers are looked down on. The film’s lead, Rachel Chu, an economics professor at NYU, is seen as inferior because she didn’t attend an English boarding school. The film is based on a true story, so how realistic is the film and who are London’s Crazy Rich Asians?
Despite fears that Brexit would put people off, the number of Asian people applying to British universities continues to rise, says Jess Harris, head of education at Quintessentially. This luxury lifestyle management service assists with applications.
Parag Khanna, whose book The Future is Asian is out in February, says the draw is simple: “A degree from a London university is a prestigious accoutrement.”
Leading the influx is Wang Sicong, the son of one of China’s richest men, Wang Jianlin, who studied Philosophy at UCL. He is known for buying an Apple Watch for his dog. He paid £80 million for a student pied-à-terre in Kensington.
Ice Min, co-founder and CEO of coconut healthfood company MightyBee, came here from Chengdu to go to school at Westminster. “I was dying to leave China,” she says. “The education system there is so different — I had to get up at 6am and work until 10.30pm. Abroad you can study different things like art history.”
After school, says Khanna, there is pressure to prove yourself with a plum post. It used to be banking but now tech jobs are sought after. “People want to pick up the deep tech to take it back to Asia.”
As Asia gains financial clout, Khanna sees a shift: “Asians are still leaving for education but thinking more of going back.” US universities are responding with new campuses in China but the UK still reigns.
“Asian people come to London to network with other Asians,” says Khanna. “They know that they are eventually going back to Asia so they need friends there.”
It’s a small expat world, says Min. “If I say a name, my friends know them. If I need anything, there’s always someone who can help.”
The Crazy Rich Asian diaspora is confined to Zones 1 and 2. Holland Park, Notting Hill, Belgravia, Mayfair and St James’s are all popular, according to Penny Mosgrove, CEO of Quintessentially Estates. “Proximity to peers and business associates is important. The average Asian buyer we work with is spending £9.5 million on London property, £1.7m if it’s an investment.”
Agents often view properties with feng shui masters before they invite buyers to look. Mosgrove recently took a feng shui expert to One Hyde Park for a client: “He took out something that looked like an ouija board that was triggered by air flow — thankfully it passed the test. For this buyer, we had already had to turn down 15 other properties because they didn’t meet feng shui requirements.” Another family will only look at properties with a square layout because it supports wealth.
“They don’t want tradition, they want it straight out of the packet.” New builds such as Park Crescent, 20 Grosvenor Square and 88 St James are being snapped up — viewings by drone are available so they don’t have to be there physically.
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Khanna recalls a report on Channel NewsAsia after Brexit. “The first reaction was that the British pound is suffering, so go blow your money with retail therapy in London because everything will be cheaper.”
In Crazy Rich Asians, the characters have Jimmy Choo habits and think nothing of blowing someone’s yearly salary on a pair of diamond earrings. “Asian society is traditionally earnest,” says Khanna. “But they are hardworking people who remember more difficult times so the hedonism in the film is seen as a recognition of achievements.”