"Aiyah, Nadine, there's a difference between being grand and being discreet," Daisy commented, knowing full well that families like the Leongs and the Youngs guarded their privacy to the point of obsession. (1.2.15)
There's a tension in the novel about what is an "appropriate" display of wealth. Daisy Foo points out here that the highest crust families value privacy over celebrity.
And that was the other, more essential detail about Astrid: she was born into the uppermost echelon of Asian wealth—a secretive, rarefied circle of families virtually unknown to outsiders who possessed immeasurably vast fortunes. (1.5.34)
Astrid's life is dictated by one fact: she comes from the wealthiest family in Asia. Much of it is luxury, but poor Astrid faces a lot of pain as a result.
To Eleanor, every single person occupied a specific space in the elaborately constructed social universe in her mind.[…] Eleanor could meet another Asian […] and within thirty seconds of learning their name and where they lived, she would […] calculate precisely where they stood in her constellation based on who their family was, who else they were related to, what their approximate net worth might be, how the fortune was derived, and what family scandals might have occurred within the past fifty years. (1.7.7)
Born of a wealthy family, Eleanor Young spends a lot of time concerned about her placement the placement of others within her social stratosphere.
Every man cheats. This is Asia. Every guy has mistresses, girlfriends, flings on the side. It's a normal thing. A status thing. (1.15.25)
What an interesting status symbol: extramarital affairs. This underscores a tension in the novel: does money mean class?
"He's so well brought up. I can tell just by looking at how he behaves during dinner. Such lovely manners, and he always offers me the best part of the meat, like the fish cheek or the juiciest piece of duck." (2.17.16)
Nick Young is a pretty stand-up guy, and Kerry Chu knows it. While he's been polished up by finishing schools, it's easy to say that his behavior isn't a result of his upbringing, but a result of him just being a darn good guy.
But in Singapore, Annabel soon discovered that beyond the bold-faced names that eagerly invited her to all the glamorous galas, there hid a whole other level of society that was impervious to the flash of money, especially Mainland Chinese money. These people were snobbier and more impenetrable than anything she had ever encountered…Tonight she was finally going to be invited in. (3.2.5-3.2.6.)
Even Annabel Lee, a woman able to drop $40 million on her daughter's wedding, is excluded from the social world of the Leongs, Shangs, and Youngs.
The ladies craned their necks to look, but much to their disappointment, Alistair and his new fiancée were greeted cordially by his relatives and ushered into the row.
"No such luck, Nadine. Those people are for too classy to make a public show out of it. But I bet you they are sharpening their knives in private." (3.4.34-3.4.35)
To what extent is this really that classy? And, to be fair, Daisy isn't wrong in her assumption.
Nick bristled. "This is Singapore, and the idle rich spend all their time gossiping about other people's money. Who's worth how much, who inherited how much, who sold their house for how much." (3.13.41)
Deep in the third part of this book, Nick finally puts a finger on what we've been witnessing the rest of the book. We're exhausted!
"Imagine wanting to marry a girl from such a family! So disgraceful! Really, Nicky, what would Gong Gong say if he was alive? Madri, this tea needs a little more sugar." (3.13.105)
Social status and clean bloodlines are far more important than love to Shang Su Yi. Can you imagine your grandmother telling you the person you want to marry is a disgrace? Ouch, Nana.
"Face it, Astrid, your parents will never respect my family the same way they respect your brothers' wives' families[…]They were born that way—it's just not in their DNA to associate with anyone who isn't from their class, anyone who isn't born rich or royal." (3.14.40)
Only certain families are eligible for respect in this world. But, let's not take it personally. Super rich people just genetically don't know how to be nice to the rest of us.