Sitting in a tiny screening room by himself, Kevin Kwan watched as the characters he’d created in his 2013 book Crazy Rich Asians began their second life as movie icons. “I’d say 25 minutes into the film, I forgot that the movie had anything to do with my books whatsoever,” Kwan told Refinery29. “That’s how caught up I was in the plot, the action, the characters. It transcended my own personal experience and attachment to this story and these characters.”
Kwan also has an attachment to the world he so vividly describes in the ridiculously addictive Crazy Rich trilogy. The characters in Crazy Rich Asians are "richer than God," as one observer remarks. Their apartment buildings have elevators for their cars; their private jets have on-board pools. Kwan, who is the great-grandson of a founding director of Singapore's oldest bank, socialized among this set until he moved to the United States at the age of 11. Earlier this month, we spoke to Kwan to learn why distance from Singapore allowed him to write Crazy Rich Asians, the reason his extended family doesn't "get" the books, and the utterly surreal experience of seeing a movie that contains a piece of your history.
Refinery29: Crazy Rich Asians is a landmark movie. It’s the first time a major Hollywood studio has made a movie with all-Asian cast in 20 years. How does it feel to be a part of that and to have created this opportunity?
Kevin Kwan: "It blows my mind. It really does. I didn’t set out to write a book that would make any cultural impact whatsoever. I think I’m part of a larger movement of this consciousness and the need for proper representation in our society. I’m so honored to have been a part of this. I really hope that the projects really inspire more creative people to come out of these places, and for more people to reveal their cultures and their world. The more we demystify a culture and people, the more we relate to each other."
Are the characters inspired by real people?
“Oh yeah, absolutely.”
Do they know they’re being written about?
“I think in most instances they do not. People have a very different lens of who they think they are versus how people view them. No one’s come up to me and said, ‘I know this character is based on me.’ Of course, I change enough details so no one is recognizable. But their essential characteristics are there. I’ve had total strangers come up to me and say, ‘I know you write about me in your book.’ I’ll be like, ‘Who are you? Have we ever met?’ I know all my characters — or the people who inspired them – very intimately. If I don’t know you, I can promise you you’re not in the book.”
In that case, you must’ve grown up in close proximity to the Crazy Rich Asians world. Can you talk about how your childhood in Singapore informed this book, and when you started realizing this world was one of privilege?
“I did grow up in that world. I grew up in an old establishment family in Singapore. But as a kid, you just have no idea what people do. An uncle is an uncle. Your dad’s friend is just your dad’s friend. Your childhood playmates are just kids. You don’t know if they’re heirs to gigantic fortunes. You’re in a kid’s world. My parents were never people who emphasized privilege or wealth so, to their credit, I was raised very blissfully unaware of status.
“It was only upon leaving Singapore and moving to the States when I was 11 that I realized I had a really different upbringing from most kids. I was taken from a very rarefied world and put into normal, middle-class Houston, Texas. My dad tried this crazy social experiment. He decided he wanted to normalize his children, because that’s the kind of upbringing he had in Australia. My mom was dragged along, reluctantly. She had to learn at age 50 how make breakfast, how to vacuum. There’s a sitcom in here somewhere called Fresh Off the Yacht.
“I remember not being able to cope the first few months. I came from a world where there were so many people around the house that did everything. The thought of washing a dish and mowing the lawn was unfathomable. Then, my American cousin sat me down, and he said, ‘Shame on you. You need to help your mother with the housework. Don’t you know what she’s going through?’ Everyone knew that she was learning to adapt to a whole new world.”
So eventually you adjusted.
“Totally. I’m a champion lawnmower. I even did it for money in the summers. You have to get with the program. In normalizing to American life, I’d look back at my life in Singapore and go, 'Huh — that was kind of odd.' There I was, every Sunday, having brunch with a princess from Thailand. I don’t think many kids get to do that. I’d tell friends these stories, and of course they thought I was bullshitting.”
Do you think you were only able to write these books because you moved to the States and got distance?
“Absolutely, 100%. Being an outsider to this world is what really gives you the lens. I’d return to Asia every few years and would begin to notice, as I was growing up, that my friends were getting richer and richer. I’d be the really poor American cousin. ‘Oh, you live in a little house. You don’t have any maids. You go to college and you live in a dorm? Your parents didn’t buy you a house?’ You’d hear the reactions of people when you were amongst this set. And I thought: This is hilarious."
Right. Sometimes the characters seem so…not self-aware.
“It’s self-awareness when you're in another culture. But within that culture, it’s just their lifestyle. They don’t know any better. They're not trying to be snobs. It's just how it is. You live in a home that has 20 maids. The end.”
Which character do you personally identify with the most?
“It’s Alistair Cheng, Eddy’s little brother. He’s a film producer. No one takes him seriously. Everyone’s like, ‘What does he do?’ there’s a running joke about what he actually does, and who he actually works for, even though it’s totally stated — he works for one of the best directors in the world. Everyone’s dismissive of that. I really do identify with him in many ways. For so many years — and this was really before I started writing books, when I worked in creative consulting — no one knew what I did. I was once at a cocktail party with my parents, and I witnessed them being asked, ‘What does your son do?’ I think my father finally said, ‘He works in radio.’ That was his answer. Another time, a cousin who I’d long been out of touch with was coming to visit New York. He said, ‘I heard you were a guitarist.’ He thought I was in a band. People could not grasp that I had a career in the creative space.”
Are you surprised by them the same way they're surprised by you?
"Not really. It would surprise me if one of these characters did something radical with their lives, but they don’t. They walk the more expected threads. Sometimes it’s surprising to hear what they do with their money. You hear these outrageous stories and you think, ‘Oh, gosh. This is great.’ In terms of how they choose to live their lives, that’s not that surprising, really."
The books lend themselves to visual adaptation well. They’re so lavish. Can you speak about the set design and what went into creating wealth on screen?
"I was super involved that. I sent maybe a thousand images to [production designer] Nelson Coates of stuff from my own archives, pictures I’d been collecting for years, family photographs of old houses that had belonged to my family way back in the past, just to give him a sense and continuity of this world. Then, I got to the main set, Tyersall Park, and saw it for myself. It was just so moving to walk in there. I felt I was walking into scenes of my book, but also layered on top of that were memories of my childhood home. Nelson led me up the staircase, and on top of the staircase were these beautiful framed photographs of my grandparents. He literally brought back my childhood family and home into the setting. It was so touching. I teared up.
"I also worked really closely with Mary Boyd, who’s our costume designer. She had three days to prep for going to Malaysia. She got on the ground in Kuala Lumpur, and she had to go out about finding the most impeccable, kickass fashion from all over the world and get them ready in a month."
Fashion’s such a big part of the book, too. You’re so specific in the brands and what’s cool versus what’s not cool. What kind of intimate knowledge of fashion did you have going into the books?
“I’ve always been a follower of fashion. I went to Parsons School of Design and worked for Interview Magazine producing fashion shoots. Even before that, just coming from a family where the women have been always really well-dressed. Big shoppers. It’s something I've always known. Writing these characters was really very easy. People always ask, ‘Did you have to do research?’ No, there’s no research. I just think of the character and who it’s inspired by, and I know innately what they would wear and what they would never wear. Like Astrid. There are brands she’ll always favor.”
Has your family read the books? Do they get it?
“My mother has read the books, and she just laughs her way through them. She recognizes a lot of the stories, of course, because a lot of the stories she actually told me. My siblings have enjoyed the books, though I think they’re still mystified others enjoy them.
“But the people who know me, who have read the books, and who are also in that world in Singapore, Hong Kong, and other parts of Asia, don’t get it. Once again, it’s out of context for them. They don't see how it’s funny. They’re suspicious of it, in a way. They know other people are in on the joke but they’re not sure why it’s funny or interesting. They’re too in the bubble.”
Interview has been edited and condensed.