'Crazy Rich Asians' author Kevin Kwan on privilege, excess and believability
With an acclaimed new novel on the shelves and a movie in the works, writer Kevin Kwan talks about how his gilded upbringing in Singapore inspired his fiction
The first time Kevin Kwan realised something was slightly unusual about his Singapore childhood came when, as a tween, he and his family moved to Houston, Texas. "We settled into a perfectly nice, all-American suburb," says Kwan, "but the first thing that struck me was that these houses were far smaller than the one I had lived in, and none had fences or gates around them. They were just out in the open, with nothing but lawns and driveways separating each other."
He found it disconcerting: "Until that point," he says, "I had spent my whole life in a neighbourhood where every house was behind a tall fence and an electronic gate, and many houses even had guard dogs or security posts with 24-hour guards at the gate."
That was the landscape of his life in the Lion City as a scion of the old-money guard. Thinking back to his early years, he remembered one Singaporean family friend's house so vividly - "It was an enormous estate that had a sunken pond in the middle of the living room filled with baby sharks" - that the image stayed with him for decades, providing the inspiration for the character Peik Lin Goh's house in his 2013 international bestseller, Crazy Rich Asians.
Yet throughout his childhood, Kwan had no idea that he had lived in any bubble of privilege. In fact, he remembers throughout his youth he actually worried that his family was poor: "We lived in an old house with my grandparents, while so many of my schoolfriends got to live in these cool high-rise apartments with wall-to-wall carpeting and bunk beds. I had to sleep in an old antique bed, and all I wanted was a bunk bed."
Then, once his family had settled in Houston, it hit him. "I was 11 and I began to realise that my childhood had been rather different from the average Singaporean's," he says.
It was the decade that followed as part of America's middle class, with its everyday terrain of minivans, McDonald's, and strip malls, that finally gave Kwan the distance to think more about his childhood. He realised that hanging out in the gilded dressing rooms of Chanel and Balenciaga while his mother, aunts and cousins tried on piles of US$9,000 dresses was not what most children did when they holidayed in Paris; that private family jets were not as common as family cars.
It took a few more decades of so-called average American life for Kwan, now a publishing-industry creative consultant in Manhattan (he's worked on Kate Spade's coffee table book, Things We Love, and Michael Korda's biography of General Robert E. Lee, Clouds of Glory), to fully make sense of his clan's extraordinary social standing, which he did in part by channelling it into Crazy Rich Asians, one of 2013's blockbuster summer reads.
The novel has since been translated into 12 languages (but, curiously, not Chinese) and snapped up by Color Force, the film production company behind The Hunger Games franchise.
The screenplay is still being polished, but Kwan, who serves as an executive producer, hopes the cast will feature stars from Singapore, Hong Kong and China, as well as Asian-Americans. ( The Hollywood Reporter drew up a "dream cast" including Constance Wu ( Fresh Off the Boat) and Taiwanese-Canadian actor Mark Chao in lead roles, along with Joan Chen, Michelle Yeoh and Daniel Wu).
If the movie proves to be a smash hit with viewers, it could make the author crazily rich indeed.
Canadian YouTube sensation Linda Dong was so inspired she created a spoof of his novel.
WATCH: Dong's Crazy Rich Asians spoof
Kwan got to work on the sequel, the second part of a planned Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, almost as soon as the first hit the bookstores.
China Rich Girlfriend is a supercharged, multilayered, hilarious epic that picks up where the first novel left off. It continues to follow the romance (and marriage) of Singaporean uber-heir Nicholas Young and his Chinese-American fiancée Rachel Chu, and the lives of Nick's scheming mother, Eleanor, and his sublimely stylish, shopaholic cousin Astrid Leong.
But in the sequel, Kwan's gaze turns to China, in particular the newly moneyed in Shanghai. There, we meet Colette Bing, fashion blogger and only child of China's third richest man, and her well-heeled boyfriend, Carlton Bao, who bears an uncanny (and meaningful) resemblance to Rachel (see earlier story).
Released earlier this summer, China Rich Girlfriend has attracted the type of attention that even seasoned scribes can only dream about, including a nod from New York Times critic Janet Maslin. "Mr Kwan has good aim with his fashion world- and ego-skewering shivs," she wrote.
Indeed, Kwan writes about the outrageously wealthy in China with texture and nuance, something he could only have accomplished through extensive research.
"I spent time in China and travelled to all of the places featured in my book," he says, a list that includes Shanghai, Beijing and the Four Seasons Hangzhou, of course. "For me, it's really important to see every location with my own eyes, breathe the air of the place, or taste the food. I had the opportunity to meet many locals and really try to gain insight and a true sense of their lives."
He also visited Shanghai for the first time, and the experience moved him deeply, ancestral memories seemingly rising to the fore. "My grandfather had lived there, and I felt an intense connection to the place. I went searching for his house, which was in the former French Concession, and of course I was blown away by the scale of the city, and how modern, ancient and decadent it all seemed at once."
As might be expected, Kwan spent time hobnobbing with China's new money crowd, which brought a few hilarious moments. "I was once trapped in an elevator with a [Chinese] tycoon who wouldn't stop trying to set me up," he recalls. "He had invited me to a lavish banquet, and since he was bringing two dates for himself - one on each arm - he insisted that I needed at least one date for the evening. He was talking on the phone with his girlfriend and kept asking me questions like, 'Do you have a big apartment in New York? Do you have an American passport?'"
Kwan may have the coveted passport, but not the massive pad in New York, at least not yet. Meeting with the author in person, you might never guess that he came from such a rarefied background. His manner is low-key, funny, and charming. He favours vintage post prep-school clothes and speaks with a slight Singaporean patois - a mix of British, American, and Cantonese inflections. And he's known to channel some of his characters - often bitchy society dames he so skilfully captures in his book.
The author lives in a pre-war apartment in downtown Manhattan filled with books and contemporary art and photography, and his social life is a mix of movies, museums, concerts, dance performances, readings, and sampling the local fare. "My life is quite similar to that of many New Yorkers - we all live under the same delusion that it's the greatest city on earth. It's been a non-stop adventure since moving here 20 years ago."
Before Crazy Rich Asians, only a few friends knew of his family background - his great-grandfather was a founding director of the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation, Singapore's oldest bank.
"It's not that I was hiding anything - it simply never came up," he says. "My friends tend to be in the creative field, where there's less interest in where you came from and more emphasis on what you're creating. Most friends didn't even know I was writing a novel."
Kwan finds that his books are not only making readers laugh, but inspiring them to think, debate and cheer as well. "When the book first came out, I think some Asian-Americans were initially wary - they assumed it would be rife with stereotypes, maybe even worse," he says. "But as word got out, the reaction swiftly changed. I've met many Asian-Americans who were tremendously affected by the book. They tell me this is the first novel they've read that offers a different depiction from how Asians are usually portrayed in pop culture. Younger Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians, especially, have told me how grateful and proud they felt to finally be able to read about Asian characters that are successful, attractive and progressive thinking."
But the reaction hasn't all been serious. "The funniest comment I've gotten about the books was when someone tweeted, 'Astrid Leong is my spirit animal'," he says.
Kwan is clearly enjoying the wild ride of literary success, even though he sometimes can't fathom how popular his books have become. He recalls a girl sitting near him at a restaurant recently who loudly whispered to her dining companions, "Oh my god, it's that Kevin Kwan guy." "For the next 10 minutes I heard her friends encouraging her to approach me. She ended up coming over at the end of the meal and telling me how much she loved the book."
It was surreal, Kwan says. "I'm slightly shocked whenever I meet anyone who's actually read my book."
Kevin Kwan book signings: Aug 6, 6.30pm-8pm, Bookazine, Prince's Building, Central; Aug 8, 3pm-5pm , Page One Books, Harbour City, Tsim Sha Tsui. Cocktails, reading and talk: Kee Club, 32 Wellington St, Central, Aug 7, 6.30pm festival.org.hk/kevinkwan/