Home truths

Drawing on his privileged childhood memories, author Kevin Kwan dramatises the crazy lifestyles of rich Asians in his new book, writes Tiffany Ap

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 2014, 3:54pm

It's been described as Joy Luck Club meets Real Housewives or Gossip Girl with a dose of Jane Austen. Kevin Kwan's debut novel, Crazy Rich Asians, chronicles the lives of the Asian elite. Just three months after its publication, a Vogue excerpt and a Vanity Fair interview, Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson signed on to adapt it for the big screen.

The book taps into the global curiosity about the nouveau riche in Asia. Americans in particular look at the rise of mainland wealth with a mix of fear and fascination.

Rich mainlanders are also an obsessive topic of discussion whenever they appear in Singapore and Hong Kong, where cutting comments are tinged with anxiety that China's vast size, numbers and rapidly expanding wealth will overtake us all.

Kwan's addictive story invites readers into the fictional world of three Singapore old money clans. Nick Young, the heir to one of the largest fortunes, has been living in New York with his overseas-Chinese girlfriend Rachel Chu. He asks Rachel to join him in Singapore for the summer to attend the wedding of his best friend.

Unaware of Nick's background, Rachel arrives and is thrown into the deep end of the city's scheming and gossip-crazy upper crust. It's a world of socialites named Astrid and Araminta who snap up fine jewellery as if they were macarons and fly on private planes equipped with yoga studios. The characters jet at a moment's notice to Indonesia, Australia and Macau, turning their noses up at the salaries of investment bankers.

The plot hinges on Nick's fearsome mother who disapproves of his relationship with Rachel and pulls out all the stops to prevent their engagement so he can date the "right kind of girl". Rachel was raised in the United States, educated at Stanford and Northwestern, and teaches at New York University. The old-money Singapore crowd sees a middle-class wannabe with a mediocre education. To boot, Rachel was born in the mainland.

This opens the central theme of the book - old versus new money.

The book spells out hierarchies among the Singapore social scene. There are the established Chinese Singaporeans at the top, followed by rich Taiwanese, and the nouveau-riche mainlanders at the bottom - no matter how loaded.

When the Post catches up with the author over the phone, Kwan is enjoying the view from Los Angeles' Venice Beach. "The water looks great," the Manhattan-based writer says.

The idea for the book came about when he started noticing all the media attention showered on the new riches arising from mainland China.

"One of the reasons I wanted to write the book is because four or five years ago I started seeing all these articles in The New York Times on mainland Chinese wealth every other week. How rich they're becoming or corrupt officials, it was always centred on the new wealth coming out of Asia," he says. "No one was telling from the personal perspective in the form of fiction, from a family perspective of how money is affecting their daily lives."

In the book, that translates into mothers who chide their children to finish their food because "there are starving children in America" and families that buy a London hotel to spite a manager who behaves condescendingly towards them.

"This is high satire," says Kwan. "So far, a lot of these jokes I've made have really been enjoyed by non-Asian readers. They get the joke. They're not outraged."

Without the recent shift in curiosity to mainland wealth, the book would probably not have the success it is seeing now. However, it was important to Kwan to show to a North American audience that this kind of prosperity has existed in Asia for generations.

"Beyond the mainland Chinese, beyond the princelings, there has always been this world of overseas Chinese, who have long been wealthy, very cultured and sophisticated and different to what has been portrayed in media these days. They began the migration in the 1800s or even earlier. They were the ones who started the palm and rubber plantations, the tin mines, the traders. There are some fortunes that are very old, for example, the Aw family who invented Tiger Balm in the 1870s."

While readers may be dubious about all the opulence in the book, Kwan describes events from his own experiences. He grew up privileged in Singapore, attending the city's elite Anglo-Chinese School, before moving to Texas at age 12. He made lasting connections to his own set of crazy rich Asians and much of what he describes in the book is pulled from real life.

"My editor said to me, 'I think this is one too many helicopters. I think the readers will be sick of private planes and things like that. It will just detract from the story'. I adapted and simplified things that otherwise I would've given much more detail to precisely how someone arrived at a party or you know, every minute detail of how a certain house is decorated."

One plot line also got the axe - a bachelor party that takes place in Macau but Kwan is mum on what it exactly entails.

"I hope to put it in a future book so I shouldn't reveal it, but it's something that happened in Macau, let's put it that way. What happens in Macau, stays in Macau."

A planned trilogy will follow the three families and their jet-setting escapades all across Asia, including more adventures in Hong Kong and the mainland.