Kevin Kwan is a Singaporean novelist best known for his book “Crazy Rich Asians”, a fictional story inspired by his childhood growing up with the rich elite in Asia.
Since its release in 2013, “Crazy Rich Asians” has become both a national and international best seller while being translated into 12 languages. Its success has spawned two sequels, “China Rich Girlfriend”, which was released in 2014, and “Rich People Problems”, which he’s currently working on.
Contacting Kwan was easier than expected, I simply messaged him after he tweeted our interview with Director Jon M. Chu. A week later, I was calling Kwan’s landline at his secret safe house where he’s been boarded-up finishing his latest book.
While Kwan doesn’t consider himself a crazy rich Asian, he did grow up in a privileged upbringing. His great grandfather was one of the founders of OCBC, Singapore’s oldest bank, and his grandfather was the country’s first western-trained
When he turned 11, Kwan moved to Houston, Texas with his family. From there, he immediately recognized key differences between his new lifestyle and the one he had back in Singapore.
“In Singapore, you grow up with maids in the house which you don’t have in Houston in the middle class,” Kwan said. “It was a culture shock for me moving to suburban America where I had to take care of myself, which I think was my father’s point in moving to the United States. He wanted us to become much more self-reliant.”
Suddenly, Kwan realized that watching his family and friends try on $9,000 dresses, travel in private jets and enjoy other luxuries was not as common as he thought. He went from a life of privilege where everything was done for him to having to learn to do chores himself.
“The concept of housework never occurred to me,” Kwan said. “My job was to go to school. It was never mentioned that you had to clean your room or mow the lawn. I went from having a support system to my parents telling me it was time to mow the lawn or vacuum in the house. I never had participated in life that way before. I was very spoiled in my childhood.”
Despite being one of five Asians in his high school, Kwan never struggled with his identity and actually made friends very easily growing up.
“I didn’t know that there was a social system in America. I did not know that there were cool kids — an in-crowd — an out-crowd. I did not have any imposed barriers because I was so ignorant. I fell in with a lot of cool kids right away,” Kwan said.
One of the things that inspired Kwan to write “Crazy Rich Asians” was that he recognized a void in the western book market that needed to be filled.
“The only works of fiction about Asians were about historical Asia, like Shanghai set in the 1930’s or 1940’s, the Joy Luck Club, or Asian American identity by people like Maxine Hong Kingston.
“No one was really writing about contemporary Asia and what was happening in Asia in 2009. Asia is growing up and enjoying a renaissance with wealth creation which is now being forwarded to the U.S. and Europe. My mission was to showcase this world as accurately as I could.”
One Asian country now famous for its growing number of the newly wealthy is China. The country not only has more billionaires than the U.S., but is also churning out new millionaires at a faster rate.
“It was inevitable with the population of China being 1.5 Billion,” Kwan said. “As China modernized and became a supplier of things to the world, all these companies and people benefited due to just the sheer volume of sales very similar to what happened during the Industrial Revolution in England, and then the U.S.”
“It started with textiles, but now China is making much of the world’s luxury goods. For example, as much as 90% of many European luxury brands are made in China and then sent back to Italy and France for final assembly which people want in their luxury label without realizing much of the raw materials were made in China. A floodgate of opportunity flowed in for people that were entrepreneurs who were starting companies of any sort in China and seeing the result of that trickle down to their kids and grandkids,” Kwan added.
In the era of social media, the new generation of rich kids is much more transparent when it comes to documenting their lifestyle online, spawning a number of popular blogs, including The Rich Kids of Instagram, where rich Asian kids are frequently showcased.
“Social media has revolutionized things with this generation of kids because they are not afraid to document their lives in this way whereas previous generations were taught to keep their lives private,” Kwan said. “It is a whole new set of rules for this generation. I think that is a reflection of the money being new and exciting. They are proud of the fortunes that they have made and are proud to spend it and show it off whereas the families that have had money for generations are much more discreet.”
While some might think that Kwan’s novels paint “rich Asians” in a bad light, it has had the complete opposite effect. While Caucasian readers were the first to embrace Kwan’s book, he has been able to build a large following in the Asian community because of the way he presents his characters which challenge traditional Asian stereotypes.
“I’ve heard echoes of that from other people who have really enjoyed reading about empowered, attractive, sexy Asians who are just living their lives — doing their thing and living fabulously,” Kwan said. “It is so different from what is out there. It has been an awakening for Asians to read about other Asians who are like them but not like them.”
One of the largest controversies happening in Hollywood right now is the “whitewashing” of Asian characters in mainstream cinema. We saw this with Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell” and most recently Matt Damon in “The Great Wall”, the result of castings fueled by the belief that Asian characters simply don’t sell to Western consumers, among other things.
Kwan went through a Hollywood whitewashing experience when his book was being pitched for a film adaptation and a producer wanted to change a pivotal character in his book to a white person:
“It was so absurd. This guy has missed the point. I had no consciousness of joining the fight. The book was about an Asian/American experiencing America. If you turned the character into Reese Witherspoon, it would defeat the whole purpose.
A big argument some people make as the reason for Hollywood Whitewashing is that Asian actors aren’t ‘bankable’ in the mainstream. However, during one of his early book tours in Texas, he told a mostly white audience about his whitewashing experience. Their reaction stunned Kwan.
“They almost screamed when talking about changing the main character to a white woman. One of them said, ‘No, why does Hollywood think we always want to see the same 5 people up on the big screen!?’ Hollywood is still not catching on to what their audience wants. People want originality and to be transported to new worlds and new adventures.”
Director Jon M. Chu, who helmed “Now You See Me 2”, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”, and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” has signed on to direct the film adaptation to “Crazy Rich Asians” with Kwan as executive producer.