Crazy Rich Asians – a hilarious multi-generational Pride and Prejudice meets Gossip Girl epic filled with characters who make the Fortune 500 list look poor – came out in 2013 and it was an instant hit on both sides of the Pacific. Here, for the first time, was a book about Asians – specifically Singaporeans – that had none of the existential angst and cultural introspection of those by Amy Tan and Jung Chang. It was just, well, fun.
Kwan took his readers on a dizzying ride through a fantasy upper-crust world lined with unending credit, gleefully throwing open the doors for a peek into the secret lives of very, very rich Singaporeans.
He filled the pages of Crazy Rich Asians with a ditzy cast of memorable characters – cashed-up Willie Wonkers, every last one of them – including flighty socialites who jet everywhere in first class, ambitious bejewelled tai-tais who hold the entire genealogy of Singapore’s riche in their photographic memory, and indulged trust-fund kids who take over an entire tropical island for a party.
“I live in New York but I still get the village gossip. My apartment is a crash pad for so many Singaporean cousins and friends.”
Kevin Kwan, Author of Crazy Rich Asians.
For Singaporeans, Crazy Rich Asians has been the equivalent of Truman Capote’s Unanswered Prayers, with all the comedy of manners but without any of the malice. “It’s all done in fun,” says the New York-based Kwan.
(Related: Simon Tay gives a more serious overview of how the ultra-rich move their money.)
From the beginning, he has insisted in interview after interview that the whole story is fictional. Even so, for a while, everyone’s favourite parlour game was trying to guess which real-life Singaporean maven each character was based on. But he’s not telling. “All the characters are mash-ups of real people.”
Kwan says he never intended to write Crazy Rich Asians at this early stage of his life.
He was born in Singapore and, while he is circumspect about his family, it’s evident from reading between the lines that he is from the same milieu as the crazy rich characters in his books. His parents – a pianist mother and engineer father – relocated the family to the US when he was 11.
“My father went to boarding school in Sydney when he was 14,” he says. “He was incredibly Westernised and I think a part of him longed for his family to experience this Western-based life.” The fact that Kwan’s two older brothers were “flunking out in Chinese” in ACS helped decide the matter. The family has lived in America ever since.
Then, in 2009, Kwan’s father was diagnosed with cancer. In his last year, Kwan took a year off work as a New York creative and moved to Houston. Every day, as he drove Kwan pere to doctors’ appointments, they would talk about the past, family, and crazy friends and relatives “back home”. “
My father grew up in a life of extreme privilege,” he admits. Car trip by car trip, he began remembering and the seed for a book took root. Not surprisingly, given his father’s illness, the spectre of mortality haunted Kwan. Why wait till I’m retired to write this book?, he thought.
After his father died, with the encouragement of friends, he began writing while working on a book project for Oprah Winfrey. He certainly had an excess of material from family lore and current events. “I live in New York, but I still get the village gossip. My apartment is a crash pad for so many Singaporean cousins and friends.”
An author friend read the first half of the manuscript and was bowled over. “She rang me and said that I’d ruined her Thanksgiving because she’d done nothing except read Crazy Rich Asians,” Kwan recalls laughing. “She really pushed me to finish the book.”
In every way, Kwan was the perfect candidate for writing Crazy Rich Asians. “I’m essentially an outsider,” he says. “That’s given me a different perspective.”
He adds: “A lot of the people who live the lives of Crazy Rich Asians don’t see the humour of their lives simply because this is just who they are. Even though I’m from that part of the world, I’m no longer part of that world. I am an American writer with an outsider’s perspective of wonder and amusement.”
Which is why the timing of Crazy Rich Asians and its sequel has been impeccable. As Kwan puts it, there is so much intense interest in the new (and, by default, the old) generation of rich Asians.
At the time that Crazy Rich Asians came out, Kwan says that “every week in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, there would be an article about how wealthy Asia was getting or stories of outrageous spending by the mainland Chinese”.
“I’ve received a lot of correspondence from prominent Singaporeans who are very much part of that world. They feel complimented.”
Kevin Kwan, Author of Crazy Rich Asians.
He added: “But these articles were all economics-focused, and there was very little insight into the reality of what this wealth meant for these people as individuals. My author friend felt that my book was the first time she had ever read anything that gave all that wealth a personalised, human perspective.”
There is, however, no juicy expose in Crazy Rich Asians. Kwan has taken all the legends and gossip he heard growing up and served up harmless but hysterical, deconstructed versions.
In fact, the most attractive aspect of both books is how good-natured they are in their detailed depiction of the upper echelons of Asian society.
If there are any thinly veiled retellings of famous scandals, they happened a long time ago and he has filtered them through so many layers of fiction, it’s hard to see beyond the comedic timing. “I’ve had such a positive reaction from that crowd,” Kwan says with evident happiness and relief.
“I’ve received a lot of correspondence from prominent Singaporeans who are very much a part of that world. They feel complimented.”
And, if there is an element of unreality about some of the scenes – like the opening scene in Crazy Rich Asians in which the hero’s father buys an entire London hotel on a whim – Kwan is quick to point out that he left out a lot on his editor’s insistence. “Trust me, there are so many stories I couldn’t tell because they’re just so insanely unbelievable,” he says, sighing with delicious despair.
For now, his days are in a crazy schedule involving book tours, marketing and promotions for the sequel. China Rich Girlfriend reassembles the cast of characters from the first book and shoots them out into the fast crowds of Hong Kong and greater China.
Hollywood has come knocking and his first book is being fast-tracked into a movie, with Kwan as an executive producer, alongside Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, the hot-shot producers behind The Hunger Games and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
“I never intended to write these books,” Kwan repeats, shaking his head at the unbelievably charmed turning his life has taken. “This is all cream for me.”