The Story Behind Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy

Close Up

August 15, 2018 | BY MJ Jose

Since the first book was published in 2013, Kevin Kwan’s trilogy has been making waves across the globe, unveiling a never-before seen side of contemporary Asia. He shares tales of his idyllic childhood with MJ Jose and touches on how the film based on the series is revolutionising Hollywood

In the essay she penned for TIME Magazine’s Most Influential People of 2018, the actor Constance Wu (who portrays protagonist Rachel Chu in the film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians) says of Kevin Kwan, “[He] doesn’t focus on making Asians cool; he focuses on making our stories whole. The bits we’re proud of, the bits we try to hide, the tremendous heart that beats underneath it all.” And she is right, for the Crazy Rich Asians saga is set in a milieu that was never explored in fiction until the first book was published in 2013. The author himself affirms this; he feels people were initially drawn in by the sheer novelty and aspirational qualities of the world within his pages. “No one else was writing social satires about the upper class of contemporary Asia,” he adds. “But then the characters, theiremotions, and their stories ended up being so relatable, and that is what kept readers hooked. I am often approached by people saying, ‘My family isn’t Asian or rich, but we are just like the family in your books. We are just as crazy!’”

TALES FROM THE OLD COUNTRY

Kevin’s own upbringing—“normal” and “idyllic” are his choice words to describe it—could not be more different. Though his writing drew inspiration from his own life, it was not in the way people might expect. “I w as not brought up in a lavish manner—quite the opposite, actually—as my paternal grandparents, whom I lived with, were not ostentatious people,” he shares. “But there was a quiet elegance in the way they carried on with their lives, as well as a beauty to the customs and rituals we practised that inspired me as I beg an to conceptualise the idea of Tyersall Park.”

In the seventies and early eighties, life in Singapore was very different from how it is today. The shadow of its colonial past was still deeply felt by its residents; hence the vibe was more relaxed, and there was little to no pressure on the young when it came to their studies. The Kwan family’s roots are significantly entrenched in that of Singapore’s: Kevin’s great-grandfather, Oh Sian Guan, was one of the founding directors of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), the country’s oldest bank. Reverend Paul Hang, his maternal grandfather, founded the Hinghwa Methodist Church. His paternal grandfather, Dr Arthur PC Kwan, was the first western-trained ophthalmologist as well as the Commissioner of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade. Well-known for treating the poor free of charge at his clinic, he was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II for his humanitarian services. “He was a humble, compassionate soul, and the epitome of a dream grandfather,” Kevin fondly recalls. “I remember how he would sneak me and my brothers to the hotel at the bottom of the hill from our house for ice cream, and we weren’t to tell a soul. He had gone to the University of Edinburgh, and was quite the anglophile—he had the most impeccably tailored suits and enjoyed smoking the pipe every evening after dinner.”

His grandmother, Egan Oh, was an elegant and imperious lady who was more traditional in her ways. Though she was the disciplinarian of the household, she also had her gentle side, which often showed whenever she would recount fascinating stories from her youth. “She was the most sought-after debutante of her day, admired for her beauty and distinctive style,” says Kevin. “Each time she left her house in Newton, there would be a cluster of male admirers waiting by the gates, who would run after her car, trying to throw roses and love letters through the window.” It was she who would instill in her grandson a sense of self-respect and pride in his Chinese roots. Because Kevin lived with them from the day he was born to the day he moved to the United States, he remained very close to his grandparents.

A scene straight out of a day in the life of Asia’s upper class

Rachel Chu meets Nick Young’s grandmother, Shang Su Yi

Rachel and her best friend, Peik Lin

The protagonists with Nick’s mother, Eleanor Sung-Young

Araminta Lee on her wedding day

Like the Young, T’sien, and Shang families in the books, the Kwans had their own customs. Kevin distinctly recalls how each year, their household would be buzzing with activity when it was time to make zhong—sticky rice dumplings stuffed with various fillings wrapped in bamboo leaves—for Dragon Boat Festival season. The gardeners would hack down leaves from the bamboo hedges and soak them in water. The cooks w ould then prepare huge vats of glutinous rice and different fillings—some sweet, some savoury—and the marathon dumpling wrapping sessions would begin. By the end of the week, the Kwans would be distributing the treats to relatives and friends.

“It was a very Huck Finn kind of life,” says the author of his childhood. When not in school (he went to the Anglo-Chinese School [ACS] on Barker Road), he could be found whiling his time away outdoors, biking around the neighbourhood with his gang of friends. At that age, he did not have a concrete idea of what luxury was. “I grew up in an old house filled with old furniture, and I was afraid of going downstairs after dark because everything seemed creepy,” he adds. “Of course, being a young kid back then, I had no appreciation for my grandparents’ custom-made Huan Pao Fang pieces. I was envious of my friends who lived in high-rise apartments, not because they were wealthy but because I found them cool—they had lifts, wall-to-wall carpeting, and garages filled with vintage Rolls Royces and exotic sports cars. One estate even had an airplane hangar in the garden!” He only began to recognise his own privilege after they left for the United States, where his world became one of suburban neighbourhoods, smaller homes, no household help, and certainly no airplanes in the backyards.

“I was not brought up in a lavish manner—quite the opposite, actually—as my paternal grandparents, whom I lived with were not ostentatious people”

AN OUTSIDER LOOKING IN

Though only a few of his relatives work in creative industries, there has always been an artistic streak that runs through the Kwan family’s blood. Kevin’s father studied architecture (but ultimately chose to become an engineer) while his mother is an accomplished pianist. His aunt, a fellow writer, wrote for Singapore Tatler in the 1980s. Had he stayed in Singapore, he doubts that he would have had the opportunity to exercise his creativity—perhaps he would have been fated to crunch numbers in a finance post.

Writing a novel had always been on Kevin’s bucket list, originally filed under ‘save-it-for-later’ but quickly migrated to ‘do-it-now’ after his father was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. Kevin would drive him to medical appointments, and their daily conversations would often turn to stories of the not-so-distant past, of a place that was once home, of a colourful cast of characters he wished to memorialise on the printed page.

“So many of my childhood memories permeate the books—from the aunties’ Bible study luncheons, to Mrs Singh’s armed guard-strewn jewellery parties, to the mansion that boasted a pond filled with baby sharks,” he shares. “From the very beginning, writing a novel was something I wanted to do for myself as a means of preserving the memories that had been percolating in my head for so many years. It was also my goal to show the rest of the world an aspect of Asia that isn’t limited to what we read about in gossip magazines—that isn’t just about people dropping millions on weddings or Hermès bags. I wanted to depict the society that I knew well: one of educated families with style and taste that have been quietly going about their lives for generations.”

“I am often approached by people saying, ‘My family isn’t Asian or rich, but we are just like the family in your books. We are just as crazy!’”

Moving to the United States had a profound effect on how Kevin saw and understood the world he had been privy to. Characters such as Nicholas Young, who had been sent off to boarding school in the United Kingdom (this was a common practice, even in the real world), have an inevitably westernised worldview despite being Asian, something that the author himself can relate to. “My own perspective is that of an outsider looking in,” he affirms.

Reactions to Crazy Rich Asians have run the gamut. A number of his cousins love the books and have been supportive of Kevin since day one. Some aunts and uncles don’t quite understand what the fuss is all about. His number one fan is his mum, who does a wondrous job of convincing even total strangers to get copies of their own (“She really should be put on my publisher’s payroll,” he quips fondly). Among readers, it has reached cult favourite status. He has heard anecdotes of people using the books as shopping or eating guides, or as reference points to some capacity when designing homes or planning weddings. “A chef at a famous Michelin-starred restaurant in a rather remote location told me that so many people have come in, saying they found out about the place through my books,” he shares. “My friend, Antonio Ruocco—the sandal-maker who runs the legendary Da Costanzo on Capri said that many women come into his boutique to commission the same sandals that Astrid wore.”

 

CHANGING THE WORLD

“I was in absolute shock,” he says of the honour he has been accorded by TIME Magazine, which he had learnt of via email just a few days before the announcement was made public. “I was sure they had made a mistake. Or perhaps someone was playing a prank on me. But a couple of days later, it was on newsstands, with a beautiful essay by Constance Wu—who had managed not to give away anything despite our correspondence just a few days before.” Kevin is humbled by the experience, happy to be sharing the honour with many of his own longtime heroes, as well as grateful for the incredible levels of support he has received from readers all over the world.

“I wanted to depict the society that I knew well: one of educated families with style and taste that have been quietly going about their lives for generations”

And there is even more reason to celebrate, for his work has made a successful transition from the printed page to the silver screen. Involved in all creative aspects of the film, he worked closely with director Jon Chu as well as the rest of the cast and crew, scouting for the perfect locations, choosing the appropriate costumes, and even helping train the actors to speak with the right accents. He personally reached out to people he knew to borrow one-of-a-kind jewellery and timepieces—a distinguished collector permitted them the use of an incredibly rare Rolex Paul Newman Panda Daytona worth over half a million dollars—to establish a truly authentic feel.

“This film—which is the first Hollywood studio romantic comedy to feature an Asian couple—is important in that it’s part of a larger movement to create greater representation in mainstream entertaiment,” he adds. “There are now over 20 million Asians in the U nited States, and the population has grown 72 per cent since the year 2000. When I speak to book clubs abroad and share the story of how a producer who was initially interested in the film rights suggested that Rachel be cast as a Caucasian girl, women get outraged at the thought of Hollywood patronising them, thinking they only want to see films starring white people. The tide has really turned, and people everywhere are craving for new faces and new stories.”

Philippine Tatler will hold a special by-invitation-only block screening of Crazy Rich Asians this month

Family photos copyright (c) Kevin Kwan Collection

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