Kevin Kwan Reveals the Secret Origins of Crazy Rich Asians
Practically everyone has heard of Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan’s satirical novel about Asia’s richest families, which has spawned two sequels and a movie adaptation that counts Kris Aquino as part of the cast. In town from August 18 to 22 to promote Rich People Problems, the third installment in the series, Kwan says that the hilariously absurd books began as a product of grief.
What did you originally envision for Crazy Rich Asians, and at what point did the book turn into a satire?
My father was sick for about a year and a half before he passed away. I took time off from my job in New York and spent a lot of time with him while he was getting treatments, and we would just chat about our childhoods.
He had a much more interesting childhood than me—growing up in Singapore at a time when it was going through such an amazing transition from a colonial backwater to the metropolis that it is today. So it was fascinating to hear his stories. When you start talking you start remembering things, and combined with just looking at the fragility of life, it convinced me that I didn’t want to wait until I was 60 years old to write. That was always my plan—when I’m sixty, when I’m retired, when I have a little beach house in Italy, I will maybe start writing a book and remembering bits of my childhood. I feel like everyone has a book in them, so I just wanted to tell my story.
Of course, after my father died I was very sad. I was in a cloud of grief and that’s when I realized I was going to start writing. I was already busy working on a project for Oprah Winfrey, but that was in the daytime. At night I had to come back to a hotel room that was empty, and I just wanted to occupy my mind by doing something. So I decided to channel all this grief and emotion onto the page and see what would happen. But I started writing, the funniest things happened out of the writing, quite literally.
At first, what I thought would come out was a very serious social commentary of this strange world with vast income inequality and the people who are the haves and the have-nots, and the prices you pay and the tortures of growing up with great wealth. People don’t know the hidden burdens and paranoia of those who inherit or make a lot of money. It was going to go very dark, and I don’t know what happened. Something strange happens between your brain and your hands, and what happens on the keyboard. And what came out was very satirical and kind of ridiculous to me. I think there was a conscious decision where I was at some point thinking, 'I’m just gonna go with this. I’m writing scenes that I find funny. I’m gonna keep going down this road.'
I took a lot of very troubled situations that I knew of, stories of women like [series protagonist] Rachel Chu coming to a country she doesn’t know and getting treated like complete crap by all the queen bees of that country, and that’s a dark story. It’s a story of being bullied, of learning the dark side of these people you never knew and it became a comedy. I can’t explain how. And I think it’s ridiculous because it’s so true. I was really tapping into the truth of it. And if I tried to make it more moderate and more serious, it wouldn’t actually be as true as the ridiculous position Rachel found herself in, which is really based on these true stories of quite a few women I knew who married into these families and had to deal with these dragon mothers.
You just write the situation for what it is and people draw humor from it. I never write things with the intention of “Oh this is gonna make people laugh.” I never think that way and this is high comedy. I’m just writing it and then the dialogue comes out and it is what it is. People just happen to find it funny.
There was a whole other storyline in Crazy Rich Asians that never made it into the book, a huge storyline that was actually quite dark, that actually involved Eddie’s family. Yeah. So there was a whole Eddie plotline. Of him…I mean I can say it now, it’s been so long. He was cheating on his wife, and all these things happened, and he learns a very dark truth about his family, and his parents’ marriage, and it almost unhinges him. And my editor who is brilliant saw that this was just one too many stories. This is really distracting us from the main story which is really about Nick and Rachel and that’s what people want to connect to and Eddie needs to be saved for another book.
The books portray this glaring social hierarchy with the overseas Chinese and the mainland Chinese at the bottom. How does that come about?
Well, I think it’s human nature. I think every culture feels that they’re the most superior. The Filipinos think that they’re the best and everyone else in Asia is crazy, don’t you think? [laughs] And the Singaporeans would feel the same way about the Filipinos or the Hong Kongnese, so I think every culture feels that they’re right and they’re special.
For example in Rich People Problems, when Wandi Meggaharto [mentally rates other Asians using her “ten-point social placement scanner”], this is just her universe and the way she sees the world. Of course she sees herself at the top. Who she thinks is more important and who isn’t is completely based on her upbringing and her social background and her baggage. If you ask anyone personally, they have a different hierarchy in their minds. So I wanted to play with that and show what one woman’s very limited view of the world is like.
I think it’s very common—your own mother could probably tell you who she thinks comes from the right family, who doesn’t. Who’s more respectable, who’s not, who’s very uncivilized. All the different social snobberies are fascinating to me.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews how one of the things that troubles you the most is global inequality. How do you think the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy contributes to the conversation?
I’m revealing a world, and readers have to make up their minds about how they feel about that world. Some people read my books and say, “Oh, this is disgusting.” I see online reviews of people going, “It’s upsetting to read about such people—the fact that this much money exists in the world when there’s so much poverty and hunger, the fact that a woman can spend $80,000 on a handbag when you could feed an entire village for a year on that.” Some people have that attitude. Others have a more nuanced reaction to it, and then some people just say “Oh yes, I want this life!” I’m not trying to really impose. I think that’s part of satire, that you really reveal this world and it’s up to the viewer to decide how much they want to take away from it and how much they want to use it to live their lives.
You’ve also said that one of the biggest rich people problems is that they become jaded about their wealth.
I think there are so many rich people problems. I think too much money is definitely a problem, especially for the younger generation. If you come from a family with great inherited wealth, it’s very hard for these kids to go out and make a name for themselves and to decide what to do with their lives when you don’t have that hunger, that literal hunger to say “If I don’t go out and challenge myself to get this job, to do this and that, I will not eat. I will not have rent.” I see that within the circle of one-percenters.
A lot of the children really fail to launch because life is tough and to go out there and get a job and to do something, to create something and make a name, it takes a lot of effort. And you have to have that drive and that hunger. If you’re not hungry and everything’s taken care of for you, you might not do it. I have a friend who is so talented in so many different ways. He could have been a photographer, a filmmaker…he’s just a brilliant, brilliant person. And every time he gets to a place where there’s a bit of a challenge, he just gives up. Every time there’s a pushback, I’ve noticed he’ll be like, 'Ugh, screw this. I’m gonna do something else.'
So he’s had 38 jobs now, because he won’t break through. He won’t get to a point where he will compromise his own personal standards or how important he feels he is. Like I was with him when a very talented, experienced individual dared to challenge him and say, 'You know, maybe you should do it this way.' And this woman was twice his age, has had a lifetime of experience, was one of the top experts in her field. But after the meeting, he said to me, 'How dare she talk to me like that? She knows my parents,' implying 'She knows the family I come from.'
He was 25 years old at the time and I was like, 'What are you talking about?' This is a woman of such wisdom and experience and just because she talked down to him or challenged his idea and said he had to work harder, he was like 'Screw this.' That’s one example of what I see a lot with these people. The minute there’s a real challenge, it’s gone. Because there’s no motivation beyond 'I know how to do this.'
So it’s as if they’re stuck in their own little sheltered worlds.
Yeah. I think that’s one of the burdens of not having to worry about money. You have to really be self-motivated and challenge yourself to do something. So this entitlement is something I see a lot with this young generation that comes from great wealth. They feel like they don’t have to pay their dues, that they can begin at the very top of their field. And I always say there’s no shortcuts. I was almost 40 years old before I got my first novel published.
Were there other novels you tried to get published before?
No, actually. But I had worked on a lot of other different types of book projects and there were many rejections. But that was part of work. You think you have a great idea for a book, you pitch it, and people turn it down if they don’t see the possibilities. I think it took that experience of learning how to navigate the publishing world for 15 years to get to a point where I could create something I knew had a better chance of being published.
Which authors do you feel have influenced you as a writer?
So many. Dominic Dunne, Edith Wharton, Julian Fellowes, Marina Rust, Nicholas Coleridge. Most of these authors really specialize in works of social commentary. And I do like great dramas about characters and families and people. So those are the ones I gravitate towards that tell these stories that are intergenerational. Jane Austen, another example. She was a big influence for Crazy Rich Asians.