Imagine “Gossip Girl” meets “Crazy Rich Asians,” but set in Los Angeles and 100% real. This essentially describes Netflix’s hit series Bling Empire. The series follows a group of extremely wealthy Asian friends who throw extravagant parties and spend heaps of money on the daily. Bling Empire presents the seemingly fantastical reality of the top 0.1% of the world.
Featuring heirs and heiresses to major empires, self-made entrepreneurs, and second-generation billionaires, the series rolls out a red carpet filled with drama, gossip, and an extremely expensive costume department.
Dazzling Drama in “Bling Empire”
Created by Jeff Jenkins, the man behind “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and many more hit reality shows, “Bling Empire” guarantees drama—however out of touch from reality it may seem. With wealth laying the foundation of the show, many conflicts revolve around money, or more specifically, what money can buy.
The first episode of the series, titled “Necklacegate 90210” presents a glimpse into the world of the wealthy, as the first catfight of the season commences. The series places two women at the centre of conflict: Anna Shay, a half-Japanese, half-Russian daughter of a billionaire weapons manufacturer, and Christine Chiu, wife of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. self-proclaimed philanthropist and “queen” of couture.
There is a stark contrast between the two characters; Anna represents the side of old money, while Christine’s extravagant spending habits and mindset illustrate the stereotypical nouveau riche behavior. As the show sets up a rivalry between the two from the beginning, Anna seems rather unbothered by Christine’s superficial efforts, while Christine constantly attempts to outshine Anna through her lavish clothing and jewelry. The tension is subtle yet stirring.
Throughout the show, we see a generational difference among members of the cast. While the younger stars have a carefree and somewhat reckless attitude toward life, Anna’s more grounded and well-mannered nature presents a contrast from their ostentatious mentalities. As the older and wiser character of the show, the audience sees glimpses of her strict upbringing—despite her extreme wealth, she seems the most down-to-earth when it comes to etiquette and how to treat people. She knows how to have fun and not take life too seriously—not everything is about money.
Friendship and Family
The series is initially introduced from the perspective of Kevin Kreider, an Asian American model who was adopted from Korea and grew up in Pennsylvania. After moving to Los Angeles for his career, he was brought into the group through befriending Kane Lim, son of a Singaporean billionaire. Kevin’s perspective is the most relatable and the closest to anything normal in the show. Living in a $1000 per month apartment with roommates and a shared bathroom, Kevin’s presence in the show seems to be an attempt to ground the group of extremely rich friends.
His looks of shock and disbelief toward their excessive lifestyles reflect the general reactions of the audience. For instance, when one of his friends mentions that her rent is “only $19000 a month,” Kevin’s response is like all of ours: “Only?” His sarcastic comments every now and then rein the show slightly back into reality, deflating the bubble where the top 0.1% live in.
As the show progresses, we get a peek into the deeper sides of the stars’ lives. For instance, the series shows trips to a fertility clinic, therapy sessions between a rather toxic couple, as well as the grueling process of giving birth. However, despite the show’s attempts to ground these characters by showing their experiences of relatable problems, their efforts are quickly undermined as these scenes are sprinkled in-between those of extravagant parties and excessive spending. It makes it difficult for audiences to sympathize and relate to them as the moment we try to do so, we are immediately snapped back into reality—their reality.
Nonetheless, there is one thread throughout the series that allows the audience to truly feel for the characters. As Kevin attempts to look for his birth parents, his frustration and distress lead to one of the most raw displays of emotion in the series. Similarly, Kim Lee, a famous DJ born in Vietnam, attempts to get in contact with her father after decades of losing touch. It is in these scenes where we are given a glimpse into their real feelings, behind layers of haute couture. We also see a support system of friends and family form around those in need, however toxic and competitive they may be at times. During moments of love and loss, it is their vulnerability and sincerity that shine brighter than any bling we’ve seen.
East Meets West: Asian Representation in “Bling Empire”
As a show centered around Asians and Asian Americans in the United States, “Bling Empire” makes various attempts to present Asian culture, to connect the East with the West, although not very successfully. The series largely depicts Asian culture through luxurious parties that take place during holidays, such as Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival. But in the midst of the over-the-top decorations and gourmet treats, the essence is lost. There are much deeper meanings behind Asian holidays, and instead of delving into the deep-rooted history and traditions, the series chooses to perpetuate its exaggerated depictions of wealth.
In addition, the show often hints at Asian culture being backward, conservative, and highly critical. For instance, when Christine and her husband are discussing having another child and considering the option of surrogacy, Christine harps on the fact that her in-laws would be entirely against this idea. She mentions that her in-laws have kept her in the “doghouse” for ten years due to simply not being able to produce an heir for their family. In their opinion, bearing children is the primary duty of wives.
Similarly, when she visits her friend Cherie, who has two children but is yet to be married, she mentions how having children out of wedlock is looked down upon in Chinese culture. Although these statements hold true to a certain extent, merely displaying this single facet of Asian culture presents a one-dimensional depiction of a multi-faceted culture.
As a series advertising its diverse Asian and Asian American cast, “Bling Empire” doesn’t actually do a very good job in displaying the diversity within its cast. With their lavish lifestyles and extreme wealth, the characters in fact seem rather homogenous. Is money really all Asians have to offer?
The show seems to be trying to present the stars as an embodiment of “East meets West,” but does a poor job in truly reconciling the two contrasting cultures. As a show intended to showcase aspects of Asian culture, the series strays away from the complexities of Asian cultures, and instead chooses to sprinkle one-dimensional and stereotypical clips within the overarching glitz and glamour.
Is “Bling Empire” really the Asian narrative that should be put under the spotlight? Asians and Asian Americans have so much more to offer than the stereotypical idea of being ‘rich’ in the United States. We’ve seen various adaptations of the rich Asian character in the media, a product of Hollywood’s poor attempts in shifting away from stereotypical Asian characters such as the nerd and the immigrant. This is a change, but not necessarily for the better.
There are so many stories in Asian communities that have gone untold, should we really be focusing our time and resources on stories as such? Yes, “Bling Empire” provides good entertainment. However, in a day and age where we are all fighting for representation and diversity on screen, should these stories really be the ones taking up our precious screen time?
Netflix’s Bling Empire: Simply Entertainment
In a period of chaos, uncertainty, and distress worldwide, “Bling Empire” brings a sort of light-heartedness to a trying time. The series was filmed in 2019, and many have questioned the choice for the series to be released in 2021, after a year of pain and hardship. Was it insensitive to release a show about people’s extravagant and excessive lifestyles while so many others are struggling to put food on their tables?
Perhaps it would be easier for the audience to view the show as fiction, as a comedy or a drama, anything that can help us swallow the fistfuls of gold that’s being shoved down our throats. The stars’ flippant actions, words, and lifestyles would definitely seem less infuriating, and be much easier to digest from an objective standpoint. Among the glitz and glamour, at least there’s some good drama.
With love triangles, petty drama, subtle shade, and everything over-the-top, “Bling Empire” makes for the perfect entertainment—as long as you don’t take it too seriously.