Who better to describe the global “crazy rich asians” phenomenon than the man who has written three satirical bestsellers —Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend, Rich People Problems—about it?
It’s bright and early on a Friday morning, and I’m on a WhatsApp call with author Kevin Kwan himself. “Skype is too distracting,” he insists. As we get off on a friendly note, I throw Kevin off guard with a very blunt and simple question: If you had the power to be a crazy rich Asian, what’s the first thing you’d change? Kevin laughs, before saying, “I would love to change my name.” Sensing my bewilderment, he explains, “The most precious thing money can’t buy is privacy. If I had known that the book was going to be a big hit, I would have done it under a pseudonym.”
Fame came in tow after Crazy Rich Asians was published in 2013, but the saga took the world by storm when American director Jon M Chu posted an international casting call on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Warner Bros. acquired and pushed production with an all-Asian cast—the first in 26 years. Before the film hits cinemas this August, Kevin talks about his journey of describing Singapore’s elitist culture in mockery, and bringing Crazy Rich Asians to screen.
We are showing the worldwide audience, regardless of race and religion, what it means to be Asian. – Kevin Kwan
What sparked the idea for Crazy Rich Asians?
Ironically, I was born into that life. As a kid, having those luxuries were a norm and money was just something abstract. I had chauffeurs ferrying me around, one friend had security guards, and another had a swim-up bar in his apartment. When I moved to suburban Texas and dropped out of the goldfish bowl, I realised that my upbringing was rather unusual, and over time, the story brewed in my mind.
When did you decide to take the leap?
I was a design consultant for publishers, architects, and museums for many years, and had the opportunity to rub shoulders with many acclaimed authors. Literature excites me in a way that when you’re being transported into this world of words, your imagination follows, and you paint the story depending on what you gravitate towards.
There’s also the on-screen visual language for the Crazy Rich Asians adaptation. Are you picky when it comes to how certain scenes are portrayed?
We are in this amazing golden age of TV, where film adaptations give the audience a 3-D experience. What if you could tell stories in a new way? I’m actively passionate about the possibilities of visual language, and excited about the challenge of shaking things up. Right now, I’m in the midst of developing a one-hour drama series with STXtv using a unique East-West appeal, and it’s going to take the audience to a whole new level.
With cultural disparities between the East and the West, how do you keep it relevant for everyone?
It doesn’t matter if you didn’t grow up in Asia; you would still be able to relate to the characters at any point in the book. We showcase so much cultural diversity, as well as similarities. In our current day, more and more cultures are starting to meld. Is that a bad thing? Possibly. There’s too much uniformity; people look up to the same brands, eat the same things, and start to dress alike. Where is the distinct cultural aspect that each place offers? I’m happy that I’m grounded with Eastern values and I cherish the weird, exotic, quirky facets that Asian countries offer.
How momentous is this film to you, and how has it put Asian culture on the map?
The audience will watch and decide how momentous this film is to me. The production of this movie has become so important to a lot of people. We are showing the worldwide audience, regardless of race and religion, what it means to be Asian. We are breaking Hollywood whitewashing stereotypes as the first Hollywood romantic comedy ever to have Asian male and female leads.
Speaking of Asian leads, how does Henry Golding fill the role of Nicholas Young?
Jon and I were on a desperate search for Nicholas. We had sleepless nights and we looked at actors from ages 15 to 100 [laughs]! Many eligible actors tried out for Nick but we just didn’t feel like they were the right one. And then Henry walks into the room. The minute he spoke, we just knew that he was the perfect fit. He is a local Sarawak boy with English sophistication and embodies the character in a way no one else would.
Have you welcomed fame effortlessly into your life?
Fame is very strange. I used to see celebrities who get hounded by cameras on TV and now I completely understand that feeling of paranoia, from getting recognised in public to seeing pictures of yourself taken unknowingly on the Internet. To me, the concept of fame feels very ephemeral. It happens by accident, and then it touches and goes.
Do people, especially those who have read your books, have a misconceived notion of who you really are?
Being a writer, you tiptoe into fame occasionally. When I’m in a public forum representing my books, my fans and readers imagine who they think I might be, and they react to that persona. People think I’m a walking crazy rich Asian. I hear myself being described by other people, and it’s so strange that people assume that I live in a mansion, drive fast cars, have caviar and champagne for breakfast … but really, I’m none of these things.
How is the experience of reading Crazy Rich Asians different for everyone?
I always believe that as soon as the book is purchased off the rack, the experience becomes intimate for the reader. Some relate to Nicholas Young, some are indignant at the way Rachel Chu is treated, and some aspire to be like Astrid Leong. I’m happy to let every person have their own response that is personal to them.
The Crazy Rich Asians saga is available at major bookstores nationwide, and the film is slated to premiere on August 16. www.kevinkwanbooks.com