Ultimately, members of this elite clique view their resources — earned or inherited — as theirs to spend, on their terms, on themselves and those they care about. “Richard asks a lot of everyone,” Tina says. “I don’t even have time in my day to even do anything else. So he needs to calm down a little.”
“When you grow up with money, it’s kind of hard to find friends,” Dorothy says in a confessional. “I want to be generous and giving, but, like, I just met you. This is why I can’t be nice to people.”
Both Dorothy and Tina have insomnia and keep each other company through sleepless nights. Richard calls them one night and name drops his medical company, saying it offers services that can help — acupuncture and treatments for stress, anxiety, or depression — and that he will make an opening for them, as friends. After the call ends, they dismiss the invitation, calling it a “loaded pitch.” The two never show up at the appointment or text Richard to give him a heads-up. “How could friends put me in the position to look so bad at work?” Richard asks, embarrassed.
Confronted about their absence, Dorothy and Tina say they never asked him for an appointment. They say his invite came with texts saying, “This is very important to me and the mental health space so I hope you will help me tell this story in the best light.” Richard says he’s offered Dorothy help with anything she’s needed since arriving in New York; she responds that she’s never asked him of anything, but that he has asked a lot of her. He tells Tina that he is inspired by the size of her audience and her potential to change the world. She responds that when they hear words like “your audience,” they feel exploited.
bling empire isn’t about Asian people; it is about rich people of Asian descent, and this season touches lightly on inequality and opportunity, even if it is between those whose resources are abundant and those whose resources and influence seem limitless. Unlike previous seasons in which the LA group’s one friend who isn’t wealthy, model Kevin Kreider, seems to be naively content to tag along (at the expense of being called a freeloader) and gawk at their excesses, Richard is desperate to rise to their level of riches and clout — and it causes conflict. Wealthy people are not used to feeling exploited, and they have the privilege of saying no.
As a native New Yorker, I mainly watched this season to see how it would treat my hometown. In some ways, New York City is an obvious setting for this show: It is home to more Asian people than any other city in the US, and the population has been growing quickly. Yet 23% of the city’s Asian residents are living in poverty. the ways bling empire fell short should have been obvious to me. While it incorporates cultural themes viewers might relate to — challenged relationships with parents, rituals celebrating Lunar New Year or honoring the dead, and lots and lots of food — the boring hopes of the average Asian person trying to get ahead were never what this show was about.
Still, I was puzzled that a show with an Asian cast and an Asian fanbase would lovingly spotlight the Greek immigrant community in Queens’ Astoria neighborhood while chastising the Asian American cast member who was actively, if clumsily, pursuing the American dream: Richard.
I can’t help but be on Richard’s side. But the show makes it harder to sympathize with him than it should — he is not a likable underdog. His portrayal is of an egocentric man who is unaware that his acts of kindness come off as self-serving. He seems more motivated by a desire to appear magnanimous than any intuition about (or interest in) what people actually need or want. Richard, who was raised by his mother after his parents divorced, is unapologetically focused on success and upward mobility. His Instagram handle is @chairman_chang. He is no stranger to the power of networking. These things make me feel embarrassed for him, but I also understand his anger. What kind of friends wouldn’t use their social media to help support cancer research when your mother has cancer? Or call to let you know they won’t make it to your clinic? What this tiff reveals is that Richard just isn’t very good at networking, not at this level.
Writer Xochitl Gonzalez recently made a compelling case to destigmatize social climbing in theAtlantic, as cultivating these relationships can meaningfully improve a person’s lot in life. Wealthy people, Gonzalez argues, constantly use their social capital for advancement, but it is widely perceived as their right. When someone from another class tries to move up, on the other hand, social climbing is seen as a brazen transgression, a moral shortfall. “Wealth, and the things it can procure—elite education, invitations to private clubs, stays at exclusive resorts—come with a cascade effect of trust, merited or not,” she writes. For those who aren’t wealthy, who don’t have this privilege of trust, the secret to successful social climbing is “not about seeing what people can do for you, but rather seeing people. You learn where they grew up, what books or shows they like, how old their kids are, what you might have in common. You get into the room not to use people, but to know people.”
On bling empire, even Dorothy tacitly acknowledges this: “I’m surprised by how tactless Richard is, right? You’d think he’d be better at it.” She tells him their exchanges have been more about extraction and taking, and less about friendship. She makes it clear to Richard that she hasn’t asked anything of him — he can’t offer her anything she needs.