Rachel Chu accepts an offer by her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, to spend the summer in Asia with him. They’ve been dating for two years, and since Nick’s inviting her to meet his family and attend his best friend Colin Khoo’s wedding, Rachel’s friends think he might propose to her on the trip. Nick isn’t marriage-minded, though — he just wants to introduce Rachel to his favorite foods, places and activities.
His family, however, sees Rachel’s invitation to the Khoo wedding as fraught with significance. Nick is from a complicated extended family based in Singapore; the Young, T’sien and Shang clan, all of whom are overseas Chinese, descendants of Chinese citizens who left mainland China before communism took root. His family members run international businesses, marry minor members of the Thai royal family and extravagantly spend their unfathomable wealth.
When Nick’s mom, Eleanor Young, hears through the gossip chain that her only son will bring a girlfriend to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding, she panics. Nick has kept his relationship with Rachel a secret. All that Eleanor is able to learn about Rachel is that she’s of Chinese descent and is a professor of economics in New York.
Eleanor is obsessed with her place in the international community of Asian socialites and is concerned that her son has picked a girl from a “new money” family, whose people have only maintained their wealth for 30 or 40 years. She hires a private investigator to dig into Rachel’s background and is horrified to learn that she was born in mainland China, immigrated to America as a baby and was raised by a single mother.
Eleanor isn’t the only family member with troubles. Nick’s cousin Astrid, who is like a sister to him, discovers that her husband, Michael, is cheating on her. When Astrid is confronted with overwhelming evidence of Michael’s infidelity, she gets distracted by her worries and crashes her car. When she wakes up after her concussion, she confronts her husband about his cheating, but instead of being willing to repair their relationship, he decides to move out of their shared apartment and initiate a divorce.
Rachel gets her first taste of the Young family fortune when Nick pays for a first-class luxury cabin for their flight. Soon, she’s sampling the amazing array of local Singaporean foods and enjoying the company of Nick’s down-to-earth best friend, Colin, and Colin’s fiancée, Araminta.
The next day, she is shocked when she arrives at Nick’s grandmother’s house for a party with close friends and family, only to discover that the house is essentially a palace. Rachel enjoys the party and is treated with courtesy by most of Nick’s relatives, though his mother, Eleanor, has purposely left Singapore for Shenzhen, China, for a few days, so she can make it clear that she does not welcome Rachel’s presence.
Rachel is invited to Araminta’s bachelorette party, which involves traveling on a private jet to an equally private island resort in Indonesia for the weekend. Rachel tries to enjoy the beautiful resort, but she is plagued by the other girls’ nasty comments about her inferior birth and financial insufficiency. The other girls break into Rachel’s hotel room, leave a bloody, butchered fish in her purse and write a threat on her mirror in fish blood.
At Colin’s bachelor party, Nick isn’t having a good time either. The festivities begin with one of Colin’s acquaintances, Bernard, dragging everyone to an underground dogfight in Macau, which Nick and Colin walk away from. Bernard then provides alcohol, drugs and prostitutes for all the guys on the weekend trip — once again, things that Nick and Colin avoid. Finally, to escape Bernard’s partying ways, Nick fakes a medical emergency and calls a helicopter to lift himself, Colin and two of their friends to a more enjoyable location — Australia.
After the disastrous bachelorette party weekend, Rachel doesn’t tell Nick how the other girls treated her. She and Nick go to dinner to meet his parents for the first time. Eleanor, anxious to keep Rachel at a distance, invites numerous friends and family members to make the meeting seem less significant. More and more social events fill up the week before the wedding, all of which go rather smoothly, but Eleanor is still plotting to break up Nick and Rachel.
Astrid’s husband, Michael, doesn’t come to the wedding because he’s visiting his mistress in Hong Kong. Astrid runs into an old flame of her own at the wedding. Charlie Wu was her fiancé when they were in college. Now they find they both have a strange kinship, since they are both living in sham marriages. Charlie offers to fly Astrid to Hong Kong in his plane so she can spy on her husband’s activities, and she accepts his offer.
Moved by emotion during Colin and Araminta’s wedding, Nick decides that he definitely wants to make Rachel his wife. At the reception, he attempts to propose to Rachel, but is interrupted by Mandy Ling, his first girlfriend, who is attempting to woo him away from Rachel, with Eleanor’s blessing. Francesca, another former flame, tells Rachel a raunchy story about her own romantic past with Nick, which makes Rachel break down in tears. When Nick realizes how badly all his acquaintances and even family members have been treating Rachel, he tells her how valuable she is to him and offers to take her to Malaysia for a few days to escape the social pressures.
Eleanor tells her son outright that he cannot marry Rachel, but he insists that he will. Eleanor takes her mother-in-law, Nick’s grandmother, to Malaysia to their family’s summerhouse to intercept Nick and Rachel. As soon as the couple reaches the summerhouse, Nick’s grandmother confronts him and tells him that he may not propose to Rachel because she is poor and she also comes from a terrible family.
Eleanor reveals old press clippings dug up by her private investigator, showing that Rachel’s father, Fang Min, did not die when she was a baby, as her mother told her. Fang Min remains in mainland China, serving a life sentence in prison for illegal cost-cutting measures, which led to construction accidents that killed dozens of people. Rachel faints from shock at the revelation.
In Hong Kong, Michael tells Astrid that he hasn’t been having an affair. He’s been elaborately faking an affair so he can get out of his marriage with her. For five years, her family has treated him like an outsider and an inferior, and he hates the fact that he can never earn enough money to support her properly. With tears in his eyes, he begs her to divorce him. Astrid’s ex-fiancé, Charlie, however, advises her that Michael still loves her and that she should stall the divorce for a year to let him change his mind.
Rachel stays with a friend for a few days and resolves to go see her birth father in prison in China. Rachel meets with Nick and breaks up with him, tired of the constant drama and bitterness that his family has introduced into her life. Nick grieves for a week until Colin returns from his honeymoon and convinces Nick that his relationship with Rachel is worth fighting for.
As Rachel prepares to fly to China, her mother, Kerry, arrives in Singapore on a private plane chartered by Nick. Kerry says that Fang Min was not Rachel’s real father. Kerry married Fang Min when she was a teenager, but his horrific domestic abuse drove her to seek comfort from a kinder man, who was Rachel’s real birth father. Fang Min’s parents were disappointed that Rachel was born a girl and wanted to pour acid in her eye so that they could claim she had a birth defect and thus get around China’s one-child policy and have a grandson.
Rather than let her child be mutilated, Kerry left China for America. Rachel feels relieved that her mother had good reasons for hiding the truth from her and feels closer to her mother than ever. She reconciles with Nick and thanks him for flying her mother out to Singapore.