From The Great Gatsby to Dynasty to The Real Housewives of Wherever, society has always been captivated by the private lives of the super rich. Couple this with the western world’s fascination with Asian culture, and it’s of no surprise that when Kevin Kwan Kwan’s debut novel Crazy Rich Asians hit shelves in 2013, it quickly became the blockbuster seller of the season, was optioned for film rights by none other than Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson, two years later he followed up with a sequel, China Rich Girlfriend. Later this month, the long-awaited movie will be hitting box office.
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Like so many before him, Kwan — who was born into an ‘old established Singapore family’, moved to Houston with his parents at age 12 and grew up regularly visiting absurdly wealthy friends and family — has used his insider’s eye not to write an exposé or biography, but instead used the guise of fiction to allow himself the literary freedom to detail how the nouveau riche in Asia got their money and how they spend it.
We spoke to Kwan about the art of backing up a best seller, whether he experienced any backlash after exposing a notoriously private part of the world, and the real-life redefinition of filthy rich.
RESCU: How do you back up from a bestseller?
Kevin Kwan: That was really the challenge I suppose. I really had the success with the first book because it was so unreal in away and really just back into the lives of the characters. There is always so much more expectation and so much more pressure with any author’s sequel. I had to really consciously go, ‘you know what, I just have to write the story that I want to write and I have to go where the characters want to take me and forget about everything else.’
So I was really, really focused on that and saying this book is going to exist in it’s own world and we need to forget everything that happened in Crazy Rich Asians and just let this be.
RESCU: And I’m sure that, some of the pressure was self-imposed, but some of it would be from external. But it seems like everyone’s having an awfully good time – which suggests that the author was having a good time writing it?
Kevin Kwan: I really had a blast writing this. It was such a different context this time around than the first book. The first book took me about three years to write, although, I’d been playing with that idea and had the story warming over the past two decades. With the new book, I had to write it in a year really and, in some ways, it was more challenging because I’ve always planned the book as a three part series – so I know how the book ends, I know how the storylines end in book three; book three is there, already written in my head.
RESCU: So book two was like a bridge to book three?
Kevin Kwan: Very much so, it was like a puzzle piece that I had to put together.
RESCU: There does seem to be this – particularly in Australia – phenomenon of the supremely rich Chinese is very newsworthy at the moment. Did you anticipate hitting a nerve of a moment in history?
Kevin Kwan: Well, yeah. It’s not just affecting Australia, it’s affecting the whole world. Even in Africa there are whole cities that are being built and financed by Chinese money as the Chinese really try to maintain their hold on the minerals and commodities and essential resources that they need. So you’re seeing this phenomena affect almost every country in the world. In Italy, for example, there are whole towns where it’s been taken over by the Chinese Department of Industry. So you have a town filled with thousands of Chinese immigrants.
There are so many levels of irony that are happening in reality. Certainly in New York you’re seeing how the real estate market has been so over inflated and so much of it is because the rich Chinese are buying up all the condos in Manhattan. But it’s not just the rich Chinese, it’s the rich Russians and the rich anywhere-becoming-dominant-players and I think it’s really going to become a global issue going further and further into this decade because the wealth gap it’s really widening so much.
RESCU: One of the things that I love about your books is the amount of richness of detail that is absolutely captivating and I feel like when I’m reading either of your books I’m truly transported in the way that a novel is meant to transport you. It feels like you’ve done such a lot of work with every single character. There isn’t an inconsequential character in your book. Can you tell me a little bit about your process? A little bit about your background, first, and then the process in which you’ve gone to, to create each of your characters.
Kevin Kwan: I was born and grew up for the first 11 years of my life in Singapore. As a child, I was very much immersed in this world of crazy, rich Asians in Singapore. However, I grew up in a very old, established Singapore family that wasn’t showy at all and so I almost grew up feeling like I was, in a way, poor. I remember, as a child, thinking ‘why do all my friends live in these really cool high-rise apartments with this amazing thing called wall-to-wall carpeting and glass sliding doors. Meanwhile, I was living in a very old house with hardwood floors and every piece of furniture was an antique and I had no appreciation for that. It was just like living in an old dusty house with my grandparents rather than living in modern life. But, we knew people who were Crazy Rich Asians. We were part of that circle so I would go over to friends’ houses to play and there would be shark ponds in the middle of their living room.
RESCU: Did this affect you as a child?
Kevin Kwan: None of this fazed me as a child. It was only when I left, when I was 11 years old, and moved to America. I was taken out of this world and put into a very normal, middle-class American lifestyle, which I really enjoyed – but it was only then that I realised the contrast of where I’d come from, to where I was now.
RESCU: I need to ask you where you do you get the richness of the depth for each character and the sheer amount of detail on wealth. Did you travel to China? Do you know people who live like this?
Kevin Kwan: Absolutely – in America I had a very normal but lucky upbringing. I grew up in a very nice upper middle-class community. So, whenever I went back to Asia, I would arrive and I would be at Hong Kong airport and there would be four maids waiting outside the gate to take my bags and you’re immediately put into a chauffeured car and I’m staying with cousins and the way live they’re like the crazy rich. So, that was part of my experience through the decades and every time I would go back to Asia, it got more and more extreme – because this was the 80s and the 90s and the rich were just getting richer. So, some must have been inspired by my trips.
RESCU: I get a sense that what you’re saying there are some crazy, rich things happening in the world right now.
Kevin Kwan: South East Asia is one thing. But then, in recent years, travelling to China you would see there’s only one way to describe it, it’s China Rich. It’s wealth on a whole other level. First there was crazy rich where these people are just your run of the mill, average millionaires. But, in China, because the fortunes are so new and so much vaster than anything you’ve ever seen before in human history, it confounds you.
So it was only natural in my writing these books that you really have tried to see all what’s happening in China as well because China is affecting everywhere else, not just South East Asia, but the whole world.
RESCU: Did you get any backlash from your own community for divulging some of these secrets because you’re part of this society and then you’re, kind of, revealing some of the inner machinations…Have you ever had anyone say you’ve gone too far?
Kevin Kwan:Not to my face, it’s really only been positive comments – and I’m speaking, specifically, of this privileged crowd. You know, crazy, rich Asians. The ones I’ve met that have said things to me have all been extremely positive.
I’m just really documenting a world as I see it and I think it’s very endearing that there is so much thrift in this world of wealth and there’s so many idiosyncrasies in this world. I’m just really documenting what I see and I understand, I think, the root causes of all this behind every thrifty socialite maiden is a woman that also survived World War II and the Japanese occupation of Singapore and the deprivation of going there.
RESCU: It does give a beautiful nostalgia to some of your characters to show the historical reference point of some of the families and why they have this relationship with money. Then you make some really astute social commentary about the ‘China Rich’ class, as you call it. Do you have a sense that if someone else who has never seen this is picking up the book for the first time, they’re going to have sympathy or they’re going to have a sense of revulsion for this amazing world of conspicuous consumption?
Kevin Kwan: I think it really depends on the reader. Some people get it and appreciate it and love reading about the crazy rich and they see the satire and they appreciate the nuances – like you do. Then there are some people that are completely revolted by it and say “why do you have to mention so many name brands? Why is it all about money? I can’t stand it.” My answer to them is “why did you pick the book up? Why would read a book called Crazy Rich Asians if you have no interest in this or if the world of wealth revolts you?”
RESCU: Can I ask you if you have a favourite character?
Kevin Kwan: That’s a hard question to answer because, in many ways, I love every single character for different reasons. It’s like having a child, you appreciate the nuances of every child you have. It’s hard to play favourites, it really is. I would say some of the minor characters are actually some of my favourites.
RESCU: So when’s the movie coming?
Kevin Kwan: The movie will hopefully start going into production later this year/early next year. Things are just gathering steam, the script is almost done and then we can begin casting and going into pre-production.
RESCU: And who is the studio that you’re working with?
Kevin Kwan: The producer is Nina Jacobson. And her studio is called Colour Force. She was responsible for a little group of movies called The Hunger Games. Now she’s really beyond The Hunger Games and I think she’s such a genus adapting books and bringing them to the big screen.
She did it for The Hunger Games, she did it with The Diary Of A Wimpy Kid. Those books and now she’s doing mine, she’s doing Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. She really was so committed to making this movie and doing it right. I feel like I’m in really good hands with her team. It’s been a pretty amazing dream to see it all unfold.
RESCU: I have one more question; I got a note from your publisher saying that you’ve created some kind of a fun app?
Kevin Kwan: It was just a really fun thing to do to promote the book. Go to CrazyRichCollection.com, it’s an exhibition and pop-up shop. I’m working with some amazing designers and artists who created things inspired by my characters.
RESCU: Oh wow! So it’s actually bespoke? It’s things you’ve made inspired by the book?
Kevin Kwan: For example, there’s a luxury submarine that’s for sale. Everything is for sale in the exhibition – of course it’s also fun. I don’t benefit in any way financially from any of these sales. It’s just a fun little promo for me and for them. Georgina Chapman of Marchesa designed a beautiful couture dress, one of the new characters in the book – Collette – and you can see it and you can actually buy it if you want, things like that.
Scott Diffrient who’s this amazing jeweller that I discovered in Santé Fe, is doing the most precious, amazing jewel work with turquoise; created a piece, a necklace, inspired by Astrid. Things like that.
RESU: I love it. I’m going to go check it out.
Kevin Kwan: Check out the website and you’ll… it’s fun little fantasy. What would my characters buy if they could? So, check it out.
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