“Crazy Rich Asians” author Kevin Kwan on his extravagant world coming to screen and highlighting Filipino high society in trilogy

Since the novel “Crazy Rich Asians” was released in 2013, a lot has come toward author Kevin Kwan’s direction in the past five years.

The best-selling satirical novel, which has sold over 1 million copies worldwide and has been translated in over 20 languages, spiraled into subsequent novels, “China Rich Girlfriend” (2015) and “Rich People Problems” (2017).

Author Kevin Kwan’s trilogy, “Crazy Rich Asians” (2013), “China Rich Girlfriend” (2015), and “Rich People Problems” (2017).
Photo courtesy of Kevin Kwan

“I called the book ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ because I didn’t want it to be specific to just one country. I really wanted in my trilogy to hop around to show the different cultures [and countries] of Asia…and also the very different ways they have class structures in each country,” Kwan said in a recent interview with the Asian Journal.

The author has traveled to the Philippines to promote his books and has on numerous occasions called Filipinos his “superfans.” The last book in the trilogy includes Filipino socialite characters in Manila and a substory that takes place in Palawan.

“The Philippines is a prime example. I really felt like it’s kind of a place that is not very much portrayed in Western media. It’s such a rich culture and blend of East and West. I’ve always had an amazing time because I think the Filipinos are some of the warmest, if not the warmest, people in the world,” he said. “They really roll out the red carpet for visitors and it’s such a beautiful, diverse country that I wanted to showcase it. And also showcase the style. Some of most fashionable women I know are Filipina so I just wanted to celebrate that how I could and have cool Filipino characters and also really feature the country in the [third] book.”

This August, Kwan’s “crazy rich” world as introduced in the first book comes to life in a Warner Bros. Pictures film and is slated a hit.

Through the outsider, American-born character of Rachel Chu, the story introduces audiences to privileged, powerful and well-educated Asian characters from Singapore and takes them inside their homes, lavish parties, the country’s most-anticipated wedding of the year, and more extravagant visuals to illustrate how the wealthy live.

“It’s funny when I hear people say they don’t find the book to be believable because every single story is based on truth,” Kwan said. “It’s either based on a story I’ve heard, that has been verified, or something I’ve personally witnessed. It just shows the gulf between East and West and that people think this is totally made up. When it’s part of the reality of what’s happening in Asia right now.”

However, Kwan intends his work and the film to give insight into Asian culture and show that there are commonalities underneath it all.

“I hope that people who don’t know this world see this movie come away with a deeper understanding, first of all, and an appreciation for Asian culture and people. But ultimately to see that we’re all alike, whether you’re crazy rich or a crazy Asian or whatever you are, we all have same hopes and dreams. We all feel like outsiders at times. We all feel that we want the acceptance and approval of our parents,” he said.

Before writing his own novel, Kwan worked for Martha Stewart Living, Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, and established his own creative studio.

Kwan, who was born and raised in Singapore and later migrated to the United States at age 11, said “Crazy Rich Asians” is his “valentine” to the island country and a tribute to his family heritage.

“For me when I wrote the book, it was important to show the Singapore that I knew. That’s the Singapore that’s off the tourist’s beaten path — this is the Singapore of the real families who live there and who participate in the culture of the island,” he explained. “So much of it is being in people’s houses, private clubs, very exclusive restaurants that could happen to actually be hawker stalls. It’s not about how much you spend at the meal, it’s about how special the meal is and sometimes the most special meal can be $3. I feel like Singapore really is a character in my books.”

In the weeks leading up to the August 15 release, Kwan has been traveling across the U.S. to get a feel of the early reactions to the film and has not encountered any negative remarks yet.

“It’s been phenomenal. Literally I feel like pinching myself because we have not heard, or at least I have not heard, a single negative thing nor even a lukewarm thing. There has been complete excitement, enthusiasm, and love for this movie,” he said.

He went on to share an anecdote after a screening in Philadelphia when two middle-aged men told him how “they both cried” and “never thought they would be affected by the movie.”

Kwan served as an executive producer of the film and was on hand to consult on aspects like character details, location scouting, access to designers and jewelry collectors.

“I was intimately involved every step of the way. In every major creative decision, they came to me for advice. I had a vote at the table, with casting, with choosing the writers, working with the screenwriters and working with [director] Jon Chu,” he said.

Of the importance of filming on location in Singapore, Kwan wanted that to portray the authenticity of the story.

“I had very specific ideas of where they should shoot, how they should shoot and Jon as much as possible tried to stay faithful to that,” he recounted. “We went to hawker markets and hunted down these stalls and had these amazing food scenes. In the same way, [Jon] shot scenes at the Raffles Hotel, a beautiful, historic Colonial hotel that has a such a great literary tradition, like Ernest Hemingway stayed there…all these great writers passing through. So much of historic Singapore is featured and I wish we could have featured even more.”

Kwan’s abundance of details and character descriptions provided a lot of source material for the film, but it became a question of how to translate that into screen when you have a fleeting amount of time to show something. In terms of the script and gave complete freedom to writers Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim to develop it.

“The food scenes translated well. It made me hungry. But ultimately it was the performances of our tremendously talented cast. Their stories and their emotions really ran through and it really touched people, it touched me. Starting with Henry Golding, a man who’s never acted before, started action from the first day to Michelle Yeoh, who is just so amazing, to Constance Wu, who brings such an intelligence and ferocity to her performances. It’s a dream team cast and they all delivered,” he said.

Kwan disclosed that the film version of his novel has exceeded his expectations and was all praises, especially for the performances of the all-Asian international cast.

Though the window for storytelling on screen is limited to two hours, he said that he hopes there will be future opportunities to flesh out the other characters. (There are 3,000 characters in the book, including the riveting backstories of Nick Young’s cousins and relatives.)

“I wish we had more time to tell the stories of the other characters…like Alistair’s story, Jacqueline Ling’s story and really see more of Astrid’s story. But hopefully there will be many more pictures to come where we can explore that,” he said.

For example (without giving any spoilers away), the movie hints at more to the character of Astrid Leong — Nick Young’s cousin who is an audience favorite from the book as she is the epitome of style and beauty.

Played by Gemma Chan, Astrid has a defining moment in the movie that Kwan considers a favorite scene. When he saw the movie again a few days ago before this interview, he remembered the audience reacting to her performance.

“It’s so gratifying to see that other women were so inspired by what she had to say and that to me really encapsulates the character arc that she goes through,” he said.

The good news for Kwan doesn’t stop with the release of “Crazy Rich Asians” as a Hollywood film. At the beginning of August, it was announced that he and STXtv have received a script-to-series order from Amazon Studios to create and write a drama series about a powerful family in Hong Kong and its business empire.

For those who are waiting for more material from him, he said, “I’ve been working on this Amazon series now for a year so we hope to go into production early next year. I’m trying to tell stories in new ways. With TV, we can do 10-12 stories in one season. It’s a new challenge, new characters, and I’m really looking forward to presenting a whole other world that’s very different from the world of [‘Crazy Rich Asians.’]”

With the success surrounding his work, Kwan said it came from being “true to [himself]” in the process and not thinking about creating for anyone else.

“When I started writing my book, I never thought it would be published. I wasn’t writing it thinking how marketable it was or where it would fit into the marketplace. I was just writing from the heart and my truth and I think that’s what came through — that authenticity is why people have connected to,” he said. “I just want to say to everyone, tell your truth and be proud and see what happens. It has certainly been rewarding for me.” 

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Christina M. Oriel
Christina M. Oriel

Christina M. Oriel is the Managing Editor of the Asian Journal Weekly Newspapers.

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