Author Kevin Kwan on Bringing Crazy Rich Asians to the Big Screen
Kevin Kwan has done it again.
The mastermind behind the delicious Crazy Rich Asians series has drawn a cult-like following with his extravagant tales of Asia’s upper echelon. He’s back at with the series’s final installment, Rich People Problems (rest assured, it’s just as enthralling as the trilogy’s first two volumes). With his third novel hot off the press and a star-studded adaptation on the way, we couldn’t miss the chance to grill Kwan on all things pertaining to the literary (and soon to be cinematic!) phenomenon.
Scroll down below to find out more about the man behind the excess in our exclusive Q&A.
What has the book-to-film process been like for you?
It’s been kind of like a waking dream that keeps unfolding. I didn’t write the book intending it to be a film, but it just seemed so natural when Hollywood came calling.
It’s interesting how the movie has become almost like a lightning rod—it’s a movie that so many people are placing so much hope on—Asian Americans, Asians around the world. Like this is a movie where they all kind of focus their attention on it, they’re watching it, they care so much about keeping it as authentic as possible, and it’s kind of moved beyond the book. There’s a movement behind it that I’m not even part of.
Ken Jeong was recently added to the cast of Crazy Rich Asians. Can you tell us which character he’ll play?
I can’t tell you. That’s part of the fun of the cast. We’re going to do some unexpected things with casting. People are expecting Ken [Jeong] to play certain characters—you know, there’s a lot of talk on social media that he’s going to of course be Eddie, you know, the really snobby obnoxious cousin—and that could be the case… It’s going to be fun for the audience to sort of discover these actors. They want a challenge, too. They don’t want to just play the stereotype.
The trilogy really reads like a series or film, did you have any movie or soap opera influences when you started writing?
Absolutely! As a little kid, I was always, like any kid, sort of glued to the TV, but my grandparents actually watched a lot of these Asian soap operas. Growing up in Singapore, every afternoon, every evening, there was this amazing universe of TV operas and soap operas and dramas that no one in the U.S. knows about. They existed in Asia, they still do, and they were these great, frothy, fun—like the equivalent of Young and the Restless, and The Bold and the Beautiful, all that kind of stuff. I grew up just kind of inhaling that stuff. Of course, when I moved to the states in the mid-‘80s, that was the heyday of Dynasty, and Dallas, and Falcon Crest. I was one of these kids who watched all of them, so that whole soap opera world really did influence my writing of this book. There was one that sort of stands out that I remember the most, it was called Yesterday’s Glitter. It was set in the 1930s. It was set in Shanghai and it revolved around this very wealthy tycoon who was also a politician…That stuff got ingrained in my life very, very early.
What has the response to the series been like abroad?
The books here have done so well, but in Asia it’s become a phenomenon. I was interviewed by a Singapore radio station and I said to her “I still can’t believe Singaporeans actually read my book,” and she was like “Oh my God, Kevin, it’s a tsunami. The only thing anyone can talk about all the time is your books. Everyone’s trying to figure out who you’re writing about…” So it’s been really, really well-received, which I think is because it’s done with humor and good intention. I’m not taking down anyone, they’re fun, frothy stories that everyone can relate to, so much more in Asia, because there they see it.
Even if you’re not a “Crazy Rich Asian,” if you’re living in Singapore, if you’re living in Hong Kong, if you’re living in Thailand, all day long you see an obnoxious parade. You see the young couples cruising around in their Bentley’s, it’s so much more in your face in Asia than it is in the U.S.
I think my book is read by such a wide range of people in Asia, it’s really become a cultural touchstone for all of them, and it’s kind of amazing to see. It’s funny, people have really adopted these characters, and really claimed to be them, in some cases. To me, it’s the ultimate form of flattery, in a way. They love them so much they want to be them, or they claim to be them.
Are any of the characters inspired by people in your life?
I would say the characters are inspired by a wide variety of people that have been in my life, absolutely. How can it not? A lot of the characters are amalgams of many people, not just one. So yeah, a lot of it is influenced by family, by friends, by people I’ve come across—not just in Asia. I mean, I could be writing about a friend in New York I’ve disguised in the book. Stories are stories, and they sort of transcend geography, I find.
Where did your initial inspiration for the series come from?
Especially five, six years ago, Asia was in the midst of an incredible economic boom and these people were getting so unbelievable wealthy, and the power that came from that, the influence, and how the entire faction of the luxury market has really morphed to cater to Asia. It’s the largest consumer base for luxury goods now. They consume 70 percent of the world’s luxury goods. People weren’t really aware of this so much in the West, so I felt like it was time to tell this story.
I wanted to tell a story rooted in culture and character—what does it look like for these people, on a really personal level, to grow up and come from so much money at a time of such massive change in Asia. I thought it’d be interesting to sort of explore that.
The novel is so detailed and exact when it comes to fashion. How did you cultivate that knowledge, did it require a lot of research?
I didn’t have to do any research at all, just being a creature of New York and having worked for fashion magazines, I went to Parsons school of design, so fashion’s always been in my life, following fashion and just being an admirer of design in general, it’s really kind of part of my vocabulary. But it’s also really at the forefront of what’s happening in Asia and with the people there. Connoisseurship is so important, people really take things so seriously. People really take such attention and they’re so meticulous in their scholarship when they’re also enjoying and consuming these things. I think that’s such a distinction that is very, very unique about Asians and their spending habits. In the U.S. people don’t tend to talk about brands as much. Unless you’re speaking to your close friends or family members, people aren’t namedropping labels, it’s considered déclassé—in Asia, it’s just matter of fact, people talk about their purchases, people talk about what they’re wearing, it’s much more open. I remember, this was even 10, 15 years ago, I would go visit my cousins in Hong Kong and they’d want to know “What jeans are you wearing? What sneakers are you wearing? What shoes are you wearing?” and I thought that was so odd at first, but then I realized this is just part of how they communicate and how they share. Branding and brand signifiers are so much of our defining people, and it’s very interesting in that way, how important it is, and that’s why you get so much brand loyalty from Asian customers. There’s people that will only, only, only wear Chanel and wouldn’t touch Louis Vuitton … People really kind of follow their style influencers in a much more rigorous, disciplined way than they do here, so I really wanted to capture that world authentically.
If you followed that tradition of extreme brand loyalty, which designer would you exclusively wear?
It would be Dries van Noten. He’s such an eclectic designer and he has such an intellectual and yet poetic approach to fashion. Every collection he does is so surprising. There are aspects you can recognize in his work, once you see them, but he’s not immediately identifiable all the time. He’s always morphing, he’s always influenced by culture and art… I think he has the most imaginative and wearable clothing. Some of my favorite pieces that I own are from him.
I know you’ve said this is a trilogy, but any chance you’ll return for another installment?
Never say never. At this point I’ve written three books, over 1500 pages, on really one family, and I’m really ready for a change. I’m ready to flex my muscles and try something totally different and my artistic reach in a slightly different direction, but I might return to it, you never know…
What’s next for you?
I’m beginning to develop a TV series. That’s my new project now that I’m done with the books. It’s with SPX, the studio, it’s very, very early days, there’s very little I can say, but it’s going to be entirely different that the Crazy Rich Asians universe. It’s going to be a one hour scripted drama series and some of the scenes might reoccur. For me, it’s all about bridging East and West in my projects. I think that’ll remain at the core of what I do, but it’s going to be a very different story and very different cast of characters, but hopefully something much more experimental.
Is there a character in the series you see as yourself?
I think so many of the characters have different facets of me. I think that’s true of any writer—their DNA is in almost everything they write.
On social media a lot of people speculate about me and who they think I am. It’s always very hilarious for me to read that. Some people think I’m Nick, some people think I’m Eddie, some people think I’m Oliver, and it’s like these are just characters. My life is so different from any one of these crazy rich Asians, it’s just funny that people would relate me to them. A lot of them have different aspects of me in them.
There are aspects of me in Alistair, for example, the cousin. He’s the cousin who’s in film production and he’s kind of misunderstood and everyone’s always underestimating him and thinking he’s this silly boy top type tool, and I think for myself as well, a lot of people, especially friends and family back in Asia, they could never really figure out what I was doing in New York, because I wasn’t a doctor or a lawyer, or a banker, you know? I was doing so many different things all the time and people were like “Does he have a job? Is he unemployed?” and it’s like I’ve run my own business for 20 years, but no one really takes that seriously. No one really took that seriously because it’s so out of the realm for so many people in Asia, where everyone works for multinationals and things like that. To imagine that you have a life where you create your own projects and you have a creative life… in that aspect I’m sort of very similar to Alistair in a way.
I think it’s just part of the creative process when you’re creating characters. They embody certain aspects of you.
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