Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

HBO Max’s House Of Ho is a bleak portrayal of life as a crazy rich Asian

House Of Ho
House Of Ho
Photo: Elizabeth Morris/HBO Max

House Of Ho is HBO Max’s entry into the rapidly growing genre of culturally specific reality series following extremely wealthy Asian multigenerational families. Similar to the Bravo series Family Karma, centered around wealthy multigenerational Indian families in Miami, and Netflix’s Fabulous Lives Of Bollywood Wives, which chronicles the privileged wives of four Bollywood actors, House Of Ho is an eight-episode “docusoap” following the intergenerational culture clashes of the Houston-based Vietnamese multibillionaire Ho family. The series was pushed from a summer premiere to December 10, presumably to align with the timeline within the show, which follows the Ho family members through the holiday season, from late November 2019 through a lavish Lunar New Year celebration in January 2020 (including optimistic references to how amazing the year will be that are not edited out).

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Though marketed as being “in the spirit of Crazy Rich Asians, with the attitude of the Kardashians, House Of Ho is no romantic comedy—and ultimately has little in common with either. While Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t shy away from the toxicity of patriarchy and parental expectations that can often become heavy burdens upon children who must choose between filial duty and personal happiness, the narrative is ultimately hopeful, with some kind of happy ending for most of the female characters. And in Keeping Up With the Kardashians, whatever the drama may be—whether genuine or manufactured—the audience gets the sense that the women of the family are ultimately in control of the narrative we see.

This is not the case with House Of Ho. Though the series employs familiar devices like talking head interviews, a glamorous opening theme song introducing the family members like characters on a scripted show, and punny episode titles (“Ho Sweet Home”, “Ho Lotta Gossip”), it’s more straightforward documentary than a soap opera or scripted reality show. There’s no sugarcoating of the strict collectivist (and sexist) expectations of family patriarch Binh and his wife Hue, and the iron grip they have on the lives of their adult children Judy and Washington, as well their daughter-in-law Lesley. Viewers seeking an entertaining romp through the privileged lives of an incredibly wealthy Asian family will be in for a rude awakening—the series is less about clashing values within different equally outspoken generations than it is an uncomfortable glimpse into how traditional patriarchal structures continue to make the lives of women absolutely miserable, even in the wealthiest families.

Patriarchy and traditional values are supporting characters in House Of Ho, ones that ultimately overwhelm the glamorous lifestyles the series is ostensibly meant to highlight. The trailer hints at this when Judy, the eldest child and only daughter, introduces her family by saying “My family is Vietnamese, but loves being American. My brothers are named Washington and Reagan. I was a disappointment because I was a girl, so I’m named Judy.” Later, she sobs on a date that “Everything looks good from the outside but the inside is just so hard.”

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Photo: Elizabeth Morris/HBO Max

As the oldest daughter and the wife of the main family heir, respectively, Judy and Lesley face different but equally difficult challenges. Recently divorced Judy receives relentless criticism from both her parents, who are staunch Catholics vehemently against her decision to end her unhappy marriage. They refuse to take down the enormous wedding portrait of her and her ex-husband hanging in their dining room, openly tell her that the happiness of their grandchildren is more important than hers, and accuse her of not only failing as a wife, but as a mother and daughter. Because they refuse to accept Judy’s divorce, they even reject her invitation to her 40th birthday party, simply because her new boyfriend will be there. Lesley, on the other hand, juggles a full-time pharmacist job, motherhood, and pressure from Binh to be stricter and help Washington overcome his immaturity so that he can take over the family’s business, while simultaneously facing pressure from her mother-in-law to be a sweeter and less critical wife to ensure marital bliss.

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Meanwhile, Washington is thoroughly unsympathetic. The heir to the family business is extremely irresponsible and acts out in petulant, entitled ways—drinking excessively, wasting thousands of dollars, constantly disrespecting his wife, and tattling to Hue whenever Lesley voices any concerns about their marriage. Lesley handles it gracefully, but it’s particularly hard to watch her tearfully beg the rest of the family to try to hold Washington accountable for his uncontrolled alcoholism, only to subtly be accused by Hue of driving him to drink. We learn that one alcoholic episode led Washington to become so violent that Lesley called the police to take him to jail overnight (the episode ends with a PSA to seek help if you are experiencing domestic violence). While it’s not surprising to see this kind of sexist favoritism within such a traditional family, it’s bleak and disheartening to watch Judy and Lesley bend over backwards to fulfill their duties as members of the family and never measure up

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Photo: Elizabeth Morris/HBO Max
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Especially since, despite their larger-than-life presence in their children’s lives, we never get a chance to know Binh and Hue well enough to fully understand their perspective or the foundations behind their beliefs. While the opening credits show photos of their early lives in Vietnam and we know they came to America as dirt-poor refugees in 1975, we get little sense of who they really are as people. Mostly, we watch Binh as he pressures his children to bend to his will, while Hue quietly enforces his rules or enables Washington’s entitled behavior. The most personal detail Hue ever reveals about herself takes place when she and another family member, Aunt Tina, visit a Vietnamese supermarket to buy fresh catfish and crabs and she mentions she would love to spend a few months of the year in Vietnam if she didn’t feel that she needed to stay in Houston to watch over her children. Watching Hue’s eyes light up is a delightfully genuine moment, and it’s a shame we don’t get to see more like them.

Aunt Tina, who is an independent stylist and one of Binh’s younger sisters, and Cousin Sammy (who is not Aunt Tina’s daughter), mostly serve as commentators to the drama with Judy and Lesley, which doesn’t affect their own lives in any meaningful way. Introduced as the erstwhile family eccentric, Aunt Tina is clearly intended to add entertainment value, but even her snappy one-liners and gossipy asides serve as a mouthpiece to reinforce patriarchal Vietnamese values, and how neither Judy nor Lesley ever quite measure up.

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Ultimately, House Of Ho indulges fully in the drama and excess of being a crazy rich Asian. But despite the boundless glamour and endless riches, we’re left with the sense that when the patriarchy grips so tightly, if you are a woman, such wealth is little more than a gilded cage—not exactly an uplifting watch for the holiday season.

Priyanka Bose is an Indian American writer & photographer based in Chicago. A Fulbright Scholar born and brought up in the Midwest, she loves writing about all things food, fashion, film, and fiction.