Daily Features

Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians

A photo editor turned novelist casts a gimlet eye on East Asia’s jet set

By Molly Heintz, Superscript August 7, 2013

Crazy Rich Asians was released in June and is already on track for the silver screen. Published by Knopf Doubleday, the cover was designed by Ben Wiseman.

Kevin Kwan’s debut novel, Crazy Rich Asians (Knopf Doubleday), would make Edith Wharton proud. In taking on the lifestyles of the super rich of Singapore, Hong Kong, and mainland China, Kwan cites Custom of the Country, perhaps Wharton’s most withering critique of the wealthy, as an inspiration. But the photo editor turned novelist brings a hefty dose of humor to his own tale of Eastern traditions meeting off-the-charts consumption. Packed with design and branding details, the highly entertaining result has already become a national bestseller and—breaking newsHunger Games producer Nina Jacobson has acquired film rights. Superscript’s Molly Heintz talks to Kwan about his path from design studio to book tour.

Molly Heintz: You’ve made a career to date as a photo editor and creative director for a variety projects, most notably lushly illustrated coffee table books. How did you decide to make the transition to fiction?

Kevin Kwan: It’s hard to call it a transition because I’m still working on other creative consulting projects, but about three years ago I really felt the urge to begin writing this book. My father became terminally ill, and I was able to spend some extended time with him down in Texas, reminiscing about his early life in Singapore and my childhood there, and he really inspired me to finally put down words on paper. The idea for the book—a novel based on Southeast Asia—has been brewing for 20 years.

MH: Is the story autobiographical in any way or related to your childhood years spent in Singapore?

KK: It’s fiction, but it is inspired by stories I grew up hearing of other families and certainly of my own experience as a child growing up in Asia. I grew up in an old, established Singapore family, so just going to school, going to church, these are the types of people that were in my social circle growing up and are still in many ways in my social circle now. But I think what is unique about my experience is that I left Singapore when I was 12 and moved to suburban Houston, Texas. My world immediately changed, and after growing up in a place of privilege I found myself suddenly in this very normal middle-class American world where one is forced to be self-reliant. I had to learn to be a normal kid in many ways. And I think this was really part of my father’s plan—he wanted to instill a sense of independence in his children versus us being surrounded by servants all day long.

MH: Aside from your very personal connection to Singapore, there is also a tremendous amount of general interest in that part of the world right now—politically, economically, culturally. Did that affect your timing?

KK: Definitely. It’s a fresh look at Asians as these incredibly sophisticated, modern cultured people. It’s breaking through a lot of the tropes and what we’ve seen in the past. As an Asian American, I felt going into a bookstore there were really only two types of books out there about Asia—the historical novels set in 1940s Shanghai or during the Boxer Rebellion, and then the modern Asian American immigrant assimilation story, The Joy Luck Club's, the Maxine Hong Kingston books. These are all amazing books, but I wanted to look at Asians now, how they are thinking and reacting to this explosive new gilded age that is happening over there.

MH: Your story takes place in 2010, but the book opens with a flashback to 1986. Members of the wealthy Singaporean family who are key characters in the book are turned away from a posh London hotel, despite having a reservation for the most expensive suite. So, in a matter of hours, they simply buy the property. Why that beginning?

KK: That story was inspired by a true event—and it’s no coincidence that three of the top hotels in London are owned by Singaporeans. I first started to go to Europe with my family in the ‘80s. There was an incident in Paris at a top hotel where they didn’t want to have us there for tea. We were all dressed up very nicely, and they said “Sorry, we are totally booked.” But it was like a Tuesday afternoon in the winter off-season. There was no one in the lobby of the hotel, and this guy was clearly being snotty. I walked through the lobby towards the bathrooms, passing their beautiful tea salon, which was completely empty save two tables. They just didn’t want us there. Contrast that to when I go to Europe today, people are tripping over themselves. If you walk into a store and you happen to be Asian they really go out of their way to be friendly to you because they immediately assume that you are a big-ticket buyer.

The Book

Crazy Rich Asians Kevin Kwan

MH: You write in such vivid detail of the trappings of this world of luxury, from describing priceless artwork to noting the style and brand of shoes the characters wear. Was creating these images in words influenced by your work as a photo editor?

KK: I’ve always been a very visual writer. I really wanted to have fun with the book, and I wanted to push the extremes and the outrageousness, so therein lies the sort of Proustian descriptions of interiors, of clothing, of priorities. I wanted to present all of these different overlapping worlds of wealth and show that in Asia there are all of these different degrees of taste. At the top end of the extreme you have someone like Astrid Leong, who is the main character Nick’s cousin and who has been wearing couture since she was a teenager. For her, it’s not about brand name dropping, and in fact she actually she doesn’t drop a single name throughout the entire book. For her, it’s about an appreciation of the craft of couture, seeking out interesting designers. Then you contrast that with the vulgarity of the very new money, like Peik Lin’s family, who are trying to recreate Versailles in their Singapore home, where every surface is covered in gold.

MH: After design school at Parsons, you worked with Tibor Kalman of M & Co., who as editor of Colors magazine and books like (Un)Fashion, was well known for critiquing consumer culture at the same time he was celebrating it. How did the experience of working with him influence you?

KK: He was one of the most influential people in my life. He taught me how to appreciate the beauty of things that weren’t necessarily all high gloss and high design, the beauty of the un-designed, and in a strange way that’s kind of an Asian theme—for example the concept of wabi sabi and how the Japanese look at decayed objects. Growing up, I was privy to this world where people didn’t live in design, but they lived surrounded by very beautiful, very old things that you didn’t necessarily see at first were beautiful. An appreciation for that as well as for quirky things, that all came from Tibor. Certainly his politics and his worldview of consumerism and mass consumption have been influential on me. One of the things I remember the most was Tibor always saying, “Whatever you do, just be conscious that you are not creating landfill.” Now every time I decide to do a new project, I think, “Is this landfill? Is this completely self-indulgent, or is it worthy of being done?”

Photo editor for Tibor Kalman's 2005 book (Un)Fashion, Kwan counts Kalman of M & Co.as a key influence.


comments powered by Disqus