There’s the sort of wealth that buys designer clothes. Then there’s the sort of wealth that shuts down Rodeo Drive for a private Lunar New Year party, has a nine-piece band and a Gucci claw machine for a 1-year-old’s birthday, and takes a friend to their favorite restaurant — in Paris — as a treat.
These are the socialite activities of Netflix’s “Bling Empire,” part of a wave of Asian and Asian American unscripted fare that has popped up on TV screens in the wake of the 2018 hit film “Crazy Rich Asians.”
“I bet Anna goes to Paris more times in a year than she goes to Silverlake,” quips cast member Kelly Mi Li in the first episode, referring to L.A. socialite Anna Shay, who flies Li to France for her birthday and buys her a friendship ring from high-end jeweler Boucheron.
The eight-episode docusoap joins HBO Max’s “House of Ho,” Bravo’s “Family Karma” and Netflix’s “Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives” in Hollywood’s sudden interest in the drama and private lives of a group that has spent decades under the radar on American TV screens.
“Say you grew up in the ‘80s. The narrow cast vision of what was acceptable as an Asian character back when I grew up is something that was very painful,” says “Bling Empire” executive producer Brandon Panaligan, whose father is Filipino. “Growing up, you saw the people who looked like my dad and looked like my dad’s family — there wasn’t the space for fully human Asian characters on television or in film. And that’s something that I carried with me.”
There are no Long Duk Dongs on his program. Instead, there’s fashionable Singaporean oil and gas heir Kane Lim, and his pal Kevin Kreider, a Korean American male model from Philadelphia who never seems to tire of taking off his shirt on camera. As the only apparent not-so-rich Asian on the show, Kreider is the viewer’s fish-out-of-water proxy for entering the realm of caviar and $10,000 bottles of wine. “Crazy Rich Asians” opened doors for him to not only be on a reality show, but it has also helped with his love life, offering potential partners a slightly less dated cultural touchstone.
“I remember going on a couple dates, and I always ask the same question: ‘So have you ever dated an Asian guy?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh my God, yeah, I love “Crazy Rich Asians,”‘” says Kreider. “And it was so different because it wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, yeah, I love Bruce Lee.’”
“You have no idea how much I resented Bruce Lee [growing up] because that’s all I heard about,” he continues. “Everybody identified me as like, ‘You look like Bruce Lee. You should do movies like Bruce Lee.’ And I’m like, I don’t know martial arts. How am I gonna do Bruce Lee?”
What separates “Bling Empire” from its reality brethren aren’t the riches or chiseled abs, though. (Ostentatious wealth and good looks are almost a prerequisite for being on a docusoap.) It’s the cultural references that are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the narrative: Lim offhandedly discussing Buddhism or Singaporean independence, or fellow cast member Cherie Chan’s month-long preparation of black vinegar-and-pig’s feet stew. The show doesn’t trouble itself with explaining to viewers that the dish is a traditional Chinese postpartum recovery recipe.
There’s a similar shorthand on “House of Ho.” The upper-crust Vietnamese American family’s enthusiastic absorption of American patriotism is likely familiar to many first- or second-generation immigrants. Houston-based couple Binh and Hue Ho named their sons Reagan and Washington, the latter of whom named his sons Roosevelt and Lincoln, and their daughter Judy gave her little ones the names Kennedy, Truman and McKinley — all U.S. presidents. (In contrast, Judy Ho was named after the woman who sponsored the family’s immigration to America and taught them English.)
“This is a truly triumphant family, and in a way it’s a little mind-blowing,” says “House of Ho” executive producer Katy Wallin, who alongside fellow EP Stephanie Chambers was moved by the family’s story. “It’s the quintessential example of the American dream coming true.”
This show, too, bears the mark of “Crazy Rich Asians,” though its focus on the dysfunction that comes from patriarchal expectations gives it a more dour tone. Awareness of Kevin Kwan’s book and the eponymous movie helped the project along, says HBO Max unscripted head Jennifer O’Connell. But so did the producers’ ability to find an interesting family with a story to tell, warts and all. While she wouldn’t get into specifics of viewership data, O’Connell is “pleased” with its performance on the service so far.
“I think the appetite right now for diverse storytelling across the board has increased,” she says. “And I think because of that, it just seems like fertile ground.”
Before “Crazy Rich Asians,” there existed the perception among reality producers, says “Bling Empire” exec producer and longtime “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” producer Jeff Jenkins, that Asians were more private and less likely to open up to the camera. In casting the series, Panaligan and Jenkins sought to build on an existing group of friends. As it happened, Jenkins had known Shay, socialite Christine Chiu and Andrew Gray — former red Power Ranger and sometimes-boyfriend to Li — for over a decade.
Chiu, prone to engaging in one-upmanship tactics with frenemy Shay on the show, has tried her hand at reality TV before. Working with Jenkins while he was at unscripted powerhouse Bunim/Murray, her husband Dr. Gabriel Chiu was the original doctor on “Botched,” the plastic-surgery-gone-wrong makeover show, she says. (The show ultimately starred Dr. Paul Nassif, ex-husband to early-era “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Adrienne Maloof.)
“Bling Empire” marks Chiu’s first outing as a TV producer. This means she has a limited amount of creative discretion on the show, and has “taken one or five for the team.” (When asked what she means by that, Chiu says, “There are times when maybe I wouldn’t have said certain things or maybe I would have spoken up more, but in the interest of the overall tone and direction of production and story, I wanted to keep it as entertaining as possible.”)
Beyond the glitz and glamour — and there is quite a lot of it — the show readily unpacks the Chius’ history of fertility issues and Kreider’s decision to find his biological parents. But the show wasn’t initially as dramatic as it turned out, says Chiu.
“We were very passionate about not only the Asian representation on television, but also to be able to showcase the entrepreneurial side of our lives and the business we’ve built and, of course, the nonprofit organizations that I was and am very passionately involved in,” she explains. “Of course, that’s not always entertaining all the time. So infused in that are deeper stories and crazy antics and, of course, petty drama.”
One potential worry is whether this new characterization — being wildly, over-the-top wealthy — is a new stereotype into which Asian Americans might get pigeonholed, after a generation of being cast as straight-A model minority overachievers and nerds. Panaligan optimistically sees it as an igniting point for different kinds of stories.
“I look forward to all the different sorts of stories that can be told, because obviously, the ‘Crazy Rich’ angle gave us a crazy rich ensemble here, but the Asian American story is so deep and so broad — there’s so many facets and entry points,” he says. “I think that once we prove that this can work here — that people can fall in love with this cast — the world is completely open.”
“Bling Empire” is streaming now on Netflix; “House of Ho” is streaming now on HBO Max.