Netflix’s ‘Bling Empire’ Is a Celebration of Culture — Clad in Couture
There’s a throwaway scene a couple episodes into Netflix’s new reality series, Bling Empire, where three of the cast members meet up to confer about recent events, while shopping for soup ingredients at a Chinese health food store. As the guys work their way through bins of deer antlers, sea cucumbers, and ginseng, they start trading jabs about spending habits and relationship statuses. It’s the perfect East-meets-West setup for a reality-show fight, until one of them spots a $15,000 piece of dried fish maw (a type of fish bladder believed to be good for the skin). Suddenly, talk turns from why he hasn’t proposed to his pregnant girlfriend to what type of traditional broth he can make for her using the fish maw instead. This is Bling Empire: a series that not only brings the tea, but serves up a full meal along with it.
Loosely billed as a reality-TV version of Crazy Rich Asians, the show follows the opulent lives of a group of Asian friends in Los Angeles who gather to gossip, party, and shop. The cast includes the son of a Singapore real estate magnate; the daughter of a Chinese tech billionaire; a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon and his glamorous wife; and the half-Russian, half-Japanese daughter of an alleged arms dealer (“Her father sells bombs, guns [and] defense technology, and is worth like, a few billion,” a cast member explains on the first episode, by way of introduction).
The series plays out over eight episodes, following cast members as they jet-set to Paris, designer shop in Vegas, and throw lavish dinner parties and spa days at multimillion-dollar mansions in Beverly Hills, Calabasas, and Malibu. The first episode opens with an extravagant Chinese New Year banquet that purportedly shut down an entire section of Rodeo Drive; it ends at a high-society affair a few nights later, where a dispute over seating arrangements and parting gifts reveals the first fissures between frenemies. (The lesson learned: Sponsoring orphans in China is a much better gift than a Baccarat glass paperweight.)
If it’s all a little ostentatious, the cast is in on the joke, trading light barbs about wearing “couture” versus “off-the-rack,” and ribbing each other for their admittedly over-the-top lifestyles. In one episode, a character remarks that the group “goes to Paris more than Silverlake,” while another jests on an impromptu trip to South Carolina (it’s a long story) that “the Asians are here to buy your property!” Along the way, predictable drama ensues, with proposals, pregnancies, breakups (and maybe-makeups), love triangles, and glasses of wine (among other things) thrown.
When it comes to flash and fancy, it’s no surprise that Bling Empire holds its own against other shows in the reality-TV landscape — the series was created by Jeff Jenkins, the man responsible for bringing shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, The Simple Life and Mariah’s World to screen (though the less said about that last one the better). According to the veteran showrunner, the goal was to find a group of friends who could capture the same magic of Crazy Rich Asians, but for the small screen.
“I think every producer in entertainment watched the movie and thought, ‘Wow, that would be an amazing reality show,’” says Jenkins, who hired Filipino-American showrunner Brandon Panaligan (Deaf U, Shahs of Sunset) to serve as executive producer, and installed Asian heads at every level of development, from marketing to postproduction. At least two cast members are also credited as producers, and Jenkins says “more than 30 percent” of the crew and Netflix team that worked on Bling Empire was Asian. “I know I’m just ‘the white guy,’” Jenkins says, “and so I recognized at the very beginning of this that there needs to be Asian-American talent behind the camera, too.”
Though Netflix doesn’t reveal exact streaming numbers, Bling Empire has been among the streamer’s top 10 most-watched shows since it premiered in mid-January, with viewers praising both its all-Asian cast, and its surprisingly complex, if superficial, storylines.
Still, in a time where calls for inclusion and representation have never been louder — or more necessary — is Bling Empire really the Asian narrative that should be pushed into the spotlight? What about the thousands of Asian nurses and doctors risking their lives in the fight against Covid? Or Young Kim, Michelle Steel and Marilyn Strickland, recently sworn in as the first three Korean-American women (Kim and Steel from California and Strickland from Washington) to be elected to the House of Representatives? Their stories are powerful yet mostly unnoticed, their inspirational deeds unheralded. It all begs the question of whether a reality series about affluent Asians comparing blinged-out “promise rings” and private-jet etiquette is the best way to showcase diversity onscreen. The answer is neither an easy yes nor no. After a year of racial reckoning in the U.S., the lines between representation and reality remain as gray as ever.
Adrian De Leon, Ph.D., assistant professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, is a self-professed fan of “over-the-top, opulent, and unwieldy reality TV shows.” De Leon says how you respond to a show like Bling Empire depends on your perspective. “I grew up on Surreal Life, Flavor of Love, and Survivor, and catch myself enjoying shows like Selling Sunset and yes, Bling Empire,” he says. “[But] like all pop-culture productions, the sales pitch always needs to appeal to a ‘broad market.’ And whenever that market and that breadth are talked about in the abstract, it’s almost always assumed to be white and middle-class.”
“The problem,” De Leon explains, “isn’t the untold Asian story; it’s that Asians, and other minoritized people in the United States, have had too many stories forced upon them by white people, [so] any type of story that doesn’t fit that mold always gets the short end of the stick.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Dorothy Wang, one of the most prominent Asians on reality television in recent memory as a cast member on the E!’s Rich Kids of Beverly Hills. (Worth noting: The series was originally titled The Dorothy and Morgan Show, with Wang and her friend Morgan Stewart as leads, until the network changed the title to play off the popular “Rich Kids of Instagram” account.) While Wang says she was generally happy with the way she was portrayed on camera, she was also careful not to make her “Asian-ness” a plot point (in the first episode, she turns to the camera during a confessional and straight-up says, “I don’t do fetish”). Still, her ethnicity and culture inevitably made their way into the storylines.
“I remember around Season Two or Three, they had done some testing and found that viewers loved ‘Dorothy doing Chinese things,’” Wang recalls. “So there was a big focus on trying to capture me doing ‘Chinese things.’ I remember anytime I would speak Mandarin on the phone to my mom or dad, all the cameras would suddenly zoom in on me. We would have meetings about what other ‘Chinese things’ we could include in my storylines. It was kind of cute and endearing, but also a little ironic that there was zero diversity on our production team, and I had to educate all my white producers on what were appropriate ‘Chinese things’ to include that felt authentic to me.”
Ping Hue is another Asian reality-TV vet as a cast member in the 2018 E! docuseries, Model Squad, which followed a group of models as they navigated catwalks and castings in New York City. “This was a special opportunity to represent Asian-Americans on mainstream TV, which always felt really important to me,” says Hue, who was born in New York to Chinese parents.
But Hue admits that the experience “felt isolating” at times, something she says is “almost always the norm on sets where my ethnicity is my defining trait or the main reason I exist in the narrative.” Because she was “so physically different from my cast members,” she continues, “I stood out in an obvious way, and especially when I spoke, because I often had different viewpoints and opinions.”
When producers set up Hue on a blind date, the model recalls feeling as though her “ethnicity was fetishized” and being used to “further exaggerate the Asian stereotype for entertainment.” In another scene, a white model professes to empathize with Hue’s struggles with feeling like an outsider, arguing that she understands because she’s “worked in a different country every month for two years” (“I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t speak Paris,” she proclaims, in a now oft-memed quote from the show). The conversation is seemingly played for laughs as the credits roll.
Despite the questionable editing, Hue says she still looks back on her reality-TV experience fondly, and is grateful for the opportunity to even be part of a mainstream show. “People subconsciously internalize the omission of Asian faces in the content they watch as an indication of our perceived invisibility, or the box we are subjected to in the workplace and the world,” she says. “I needed to represent the underrepresented. And suddenly there was this freedom to be a real, three-dimensional person and to do good work while contributing to culture onscreen. So I said, ‘Yes, where do I sign?’”
Wang sums up her reality-TV experience similarly. “I think any added Asian visibility and representation in Hollywood is great,” she says. “As I always said about myself, even if I’m not your favorite aesthetic or what you think is the ‘best representation,’ at least there’s an Asian face out there.”
It’s the familiar refrain that having some representation is better than no representation at all. But De Leon cautions against too quickly subscribing to that reasoning. “I’m getting tired of onscreen presence if it doesn’t lead to off-screen change,” he says. “By and large, so-called diverse stories are written for white audiences because white producers and creators assume that people like them are the default consumer of culture.” Citing the writer Zora Neale Hurston’s adage “All my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,” De Leon adds, “For me, any story, no matter how diverse, that has consciously been made for white audiences can never be a story in which I see myself onscreen.”
If Christine Quinn was the breakout star of Selling Sunset (a show Netflix has giddily referenced in its marketing campaign for Bling Empire), Christine Chiu is the tour de force of B.E. The wife of a wealthy Beverly Hills plastic surgeon — and a successful philanthropist and entrepreneur in her own right — Chiu is at once fiery and vulnerable on the show, ducking disses in diamonds and Dior in one scene, while breaking down in a doctor’s office in another.
The Taiwanese-American says she’s proud of the way the show portrays the cast, adding that the fashion and fights are really just a front for deeper conversations. “I think that while the show leads with glitz and glamor, and that is maybe the clickbait or hook, it really retains [the audience] with heart and laughter,” says Chiu, who also serves as a producer on the series. “I’ve taken a couple of hits, as you can see on the show [and] it certainly pushed my personality in a way that, you know, creates more entertainment value, but it was both a necessary evil and also a fun and wild adventure for a greater purpose. I wanted to incorporate more voices and faces that represent Asian perspectives, values, morals, traditions [and] pressures into pop culture, and into the pop-culture discussion in America.”
From this perspective, even having outspoken Asian voices like Chiu’s onscreen is a shift in the stereotypical depiction of Asian women as quiet and demure, a perception Chiu is quick to push back on. “As you know, open discussion is not a common thing in Asian cultures,” she says, dismissing criticisms that her unfiltered personality on the show is a bad thing. “I think that the mere fact that we are opening up and sharing otherwise very private, intimate matters is already breaking the stereotypes, because Asians are very private people.”
Indeed, one of the most surprising revelations in Bling Empire is Cherie Chan, introduced as a Hong Kong-born heiress to a Chinese denim manufacturer. Chan’s storyline follows the new mom as she grieves the sudden loss of her own mother, while preparing to welcome a second child with her commitment-phobic long-term boyfriend. Cameras follow Chan as she attempts to find clarity, first from traditional Buddhist meditation, and later through a reading with celebrity clairvoyant Tyler Henry (one of the few non-Asian faces to appear on the show). Her journey touches upon a host of familiar Asian tropes — spirituality, honor, family — but reveals oft-hidden ones too, as Chan speaks openly about the stigmas of being an unwed mother of two, and questions whether her mother has been reincarnated or has simply left the earth for good.
Parental-child relationships are at the forefront of many of Bling Empire’s storylines, making a show founded on the proclivities of the upper class surprisingly relatable to everyone else as well. (“You’re a very wonderful daughter — did you gain weight?” one mother asks, in a scene that’s perhaps the realest conversation Asians have ever seen on reality TV.) And while Chiu is presented as a sort of couture-clad ice queen in the first few episodes, the facade begins to crack as the season progresses, and she deals with residual trauma from a decade of fertility issues and the pressures of living up to family expectations.
“I think feeling the pressure is almost the greatest Asian stereotype, and admittedly a stereotype that’s quite true, at least for every Asian I know,” she says. “It’s the pressure to follow tradition, the feeling of ‘Oh, I’ve never been good enough,’ the pressure of never doing enough, and the pressure of not disappointing your parents.
“I think it’s really unfortunate and exhausting, and more so now than ever, for me as a mom,” she continues. “Now, I feel like I need to set the right example for my son and to teach him that love is not earned, which was something that was very much impressed upon me as a child.”
“The biggest hurdle in documentary reality television is that culturally, Asian-Americans or Asians in general are very private,” says Jenkins, the Bling Empire creator. “They hold their cards close to the chest and don’t share a lot of emotions, and I think they honor and respect privacy. People always say, ‘Why is Kim Kardashian so famous?’ or ‘Why are the Kardashians so popular?’ It’s because they jumped in and shared, and that’s not always an easy thing to do.”
Bling Empire though, is starting to shift the conversation, both figuratively and literally, with cast members who refuse to be muted. Showrunner Panaligan says that from the very beginning, the cast was adamant about using the show to enact positive change. “Sitting down with the cast originally, we talked about what images we’ve all seen of Asians on TV, and how that has affected us,” Panaligan recalls. “And I think we all agreed that what we grew up with was hurtful.” On a personal note, he says, “I just think about growing up and being with my Filipino family, and we watched a John Hughes movie and the character that looked like me was Long Duk Dong. And that’s just something that sticks with you.”
Bling Empire is also helping to start new conversations about what Asians can look like or be doing on TV, and the types of stories they can tell. The cast includes people from Singapore, China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, in addition to the U.S., and Panaligan says producers took great care to highlight cultural practices and narratives that were inherent to each of the countries. In one episode, Chan is seen preparing a popular Chinese postpartum soup made with pig’s feet, vinegar, and ginger, while another episode features the Singapore-born Kane Lim explaining the virtues of chanting and meditating as part of his Buddhist faith.
“I’m very proud of the show’s swinging pendulum of froth and complexity,” Panaligan says. “It speaks to the efforts taken by the team to make sure the audience has the chance to see this cast as full, multidimensional humans.”
Hue for one, is excited to see the ripple effect of Bling Empire on mainstream audiences. “I think people’s idea of Asians in the U.S will be more faceted,” she says. “There’s an absence of Asian stories, and whether it is comedic, dramatic, or informative, or whether the viewers are appalled or amazed, a show like Bling Empire can help change the traditional and fixed view of Asians within America. An Asian-American is not just the convenience-store worker or nail salon lady. They can also be a lawyer, a poet, or even a new Congresswoman.”
De Leon says he hopes the success of the show will also inspire more people of color to push for their stories to be told. “We’ve got to be the filmmakers, the producers, the creators, the writers, the cinematographers, the loud audiences, and the allies to other communities of color trying to write and film their own stories,” he says. “The onus should not be on us to promote more diverse storytelling, then rewarding the powers that be for the pathetic slivers that they do provide. The question is not so much about diverse and accurate representation, but more the space to just be creative on our own terms, with other creatives of color.”
While Bling Empire doesn’t profess to be anything more than escapist entertainment, and it shares many of the same qualities that have made other reality shows a success — namely, big houses and beautiful people living in them — it’s impossible to watch the series without recognizing its potential to spark debate beyond the hookups and throw-downs.
Jenkins compares the show to a pill pocket, an edible treat for pets that disguises medicine inside. “Ultimately,” he says, “while you’re having your mind blown with entertainment and you’re escaping your troubles for an hour, I hope some people might also experience the effect of our ‘pill,’ and take it all in. I hope it does bring up questions at the dinner table about diversity and inclusion. What does it mean to be Asian-American? What does it mean to be wealthy? Where do we go from here?”
For Chiu, the next step is clear. “I don’t know if I’m a role model yet,” she says, “but I certainly aspire to be one one day, and not for the clothing, or the couture, or the jewelry, or the party, cars, none of that stuff. But to be a role model for having the courage to keep dreaming, to break boundaries, and to set my own identity.”
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