Kevin Kwan talks 'Crazy Rich Asians'
Bachelor parties with chartered helicopters, women accessorized in earrings that cost more than a Manhattan apartment, living rooms with decorative fish tanks of baby sharks — Crazy Rich Asians delves into the unfathomable wealth held by the richest tier of Asian elite. The story explores the social and political hierarchies of three pedigreed Chinese families and the drama that strikes when Nicholas Young brings his American-born Chinese girlfriend home to Singapore for the summer.
Author Kevin Kwan chatted with EW about his sparkly new book, as well as consumerist culture, and the possible Crazy Rich Asians trilogy in store.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You grew up experiencing the lifestyle that this book articulates. What motivated you to put it in writing?
KEVIN KWAN: I really felt that this was the right time to share it. There’s Asian wealth, and specifically mainland Chinese wealth, with these outrageous spending sprees and things like that coming out of mainland China. I sort of wanted to reveal this other side of Asia: Southeast Asia, where the Chinese have been wealthy for generations and have different ways of relating to money. I wanted to sort of reveal this world to readers. But, traveling to Asia and talking about memories from childhood with my friends, people were always urging me for years and years to write about it, put it down on paper, and I finally did.
It sounds like you had the support from the people in your life that can relate to these experiences. What kind of reactions did you receive from the book?
It’s all been extremely positive. I think everyone in my family, people I know from Singapore, old childhood friends and classmates, people like that, they realize that this is a highly satirical comedy. It’s fiction, but it perhaps gives you an insight into this world. It sheds some amusement onto it.
Was it a challenge to balance fact and fiction in order to protect peoples’ identities?
There are very loose threads of inspiration that come from my experiences and things that I’ve witnessed. These are the seeds that I was sort of able to nourish into the flower of the story. I don’t think there was anything that I needed to truly disguise too much. But I also had fun adding in stories that I think other people would be familiar with, scandals that are very well known within these cultures, that I could, in a way, parody in the book. Those I think I was safe to sort of mention in passing. The main structure of the book — the wedding, for example — did not really happen. I’ve been to extremely over-the-top, lavish weddings where pop stars are flown in, and there are helicopters, amazing palaces, and ice sculptures. But, the actual specifics were kind of invented by me.
Your editor advised you to edit certain parts that seemed almost too over-the-top and unbelievable. What kinds of details did you omit?
It’s so funny because I think truth is often stranger than fiction. People always disbelieve the true parts of the book, and the parts that I completely made up were almost more believable to them. The parts, for instance, going to a house and seeing priceless antiques get destroyed because they are believed to be satanic, people thought that was way over-the-top and that no one would ever do that. But I saw that with my own two eyes. When it came to editing the book, there were a few scenes where it’s like, the descriptions were so over-the-top, but it does actually happen. She would say, “People are not going to believe this amount of vulgarity and excess exist. It’s a bit too Hugh Hefner Playboy Mansion.” So we did some subtle tweaking here and there. I think we limited the amount of private jets and helicopters people were using. We thought at some point readers are going to get sick of this. How many people actually charter a jet with the press of a button this often? But that’s what happens. For the reader, I made some adjustments. I do think they are good adjustments, because people can get sucked into the story more.
The book also feels like a critique of this consumerism and excess materialism.
I think there is a subtle critique there in certain ways. But I didn’t want to be pedantic about it. I wanted to present this world and leave it up to the reader to decide how they feel about this. There is no lesson or moral that I am trying to browbeat into my readers. I’m trying to give them a really nice summer read. But hopefully, as with any book you read, you learn something and take away something to think about the issues that you’ve looked at in the book, whether it be conspicuous consumption or if money really buys you happiness.
The story is also about relationships and their dynamics. Are there parts of the book that you want to be taken seriously?
Absolutely. At the end of the day it really is about the complexity of relationships, both between Nick and Rachel, for example with their romance, and Michael and Astrid with their marriage, but also between Nick and his mother and Rachel and her mother and the struggles that I think modern Asians have kind of living in an increasingly westernized world. Fundamentally, Nick is someone who was born in one culture and educated in another, lives in a third, and has to reconcile all of these different mindsets and still feels a responsibility to his family, but he is no longer this traditional Singaporean man. He doesn’t believe in the rules that this clan lives by. It’s a story of three families and Nick is really at the nucleus of it. Then you meet his cousin Astrid and then you meet his other cousin Edison. Then you have Rachel, who is kind of the interloper. She is our guide, our guide being that we are these western readers entering this new world. Even though she is Chinese, she is American. She thinks she knows what it’s all about, and then she goes into this world and discovers that all of her misconceptions and all of her perceived ideas of Asia are challenged.
You finish the book with a quote from Rachel to her mother that says, “This is just how they all are.” What message were you conveying with that ending?
I think that was more of a jokey, throwaway comment on her part, that this is their nature. But I do believe that peoples’ natures can be changed, and they have to be changed if we want to live in this modern world and be a part of it. I think that is the essential struggle of what Asia is having to do at this moment, how to define itself in the 21st century. It’s one thing to be a global powerhouse but it’s another thing when you start looking at all of these deeper issues of how people in Asia are contending with the changes of all the new money and new development.
What are you up to next? Will we see another book in this mock epic genre?
I’d love to. This was my first attempt at fiction and I really enjoyed writing it. This book really allowed me to fuse my love for many things, my love for design, travel, food. I was sort of able to encapsulate all of that in this book, hopefully. I’d love to keep writing more stories in this vein. I think there are a lot more stories to be told. I’d like to continue telling the story of what happens next. That was always my original conception, to make this a trilogy. I think it would still revolve around these three families and what happens to them. Nick of course being central, and Rachel being central to her story. But, it would be interesting to me to go back with each book one generation. The story still would move forward, but I think there are these other interesting characters like Nick’s dad and mom, Eleanor, and people like Jacqueline Ling, because they have fascinating stories too. They lived the life in the 70s and 80s. Then, maybe go back even one generation after that. I think there is so much more territory to be explored, and it would be interesting to look and see how the actions of previous generations have affected who these people are today, who Nick is, and who Astrid is, because family is so important. Not only your lineage and your bloodlines, but all of the various baggage you inherit. To me, families are fascinating. I choose to explore it through comedy and through comic situations.
We’d love to know what you are reading now. Any recommendations?
I’ve recently rediscovered Anthony Trollope. I used to read him back in college, and a friend turned me on to a whole new series of his work, The Palliser Series. It’s a series of seven or eight books. I’m on book three right now. It kind of revolves around these families, the Palliser Family. It’s all about the British social and political life in the nineteenth century, around the 1860s. All of these top politicians and their families, their ambitious wives, and all of the scheming going on in the corridors of powerful England. They are vividly historical and yet there is an amazing social element.
It sounds similar to the political family hierarchies you explore in your own book.
Yes, it’s been really fun to read these books and sort of learn from the master.