Kevin Kwan on why the lives of the rich still fascinate readers

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The best selling author of the “Crazy Rich Asians” series talks about Asian literature, the ways of the old rich, and a few things about the much anticipated movie adaptation of his first book. Photo by DAVE ANDERSON

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Kevin Kwan thinks his first book, “Crazy Rich Asians,” the book that put him on the map, is a little all over the place. We’re talking about his growth as a writer over the course of his “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy and he brings up how the first book is vastly different from the rest of the series: “China Rich Girlfriend” and the recently released “Rich People Problems.”

“When you look at the first book and you see it from chapter to chapter, there are so many stylistic differences. It jumps around that, to me, right now, it’s kind of horrifying to look back at,” says Kwan, who was billeted at the swanky presidential suite of Shangri-La Mactan over the long weekend. He was in Cebu for an appearance and book signing for National Book Store.

The event was a unique opportunity for Kwan to share the stage with Kris Aquino, one of the cast members of the upcoming film adaptation of “Crazy Rich Asians.” Aquino interviewed the author during the book signing at SM Seaside in Cebu.

“I was not allowed to talk about ‘Crazy Rich Asians’,” Aquino disclosed to the audience. “But since Kevin broke the news, thank you! I was dying to tell everybody!”

“I was not allowed to say anything, too,” Kwan replied. “We have to thank John Chu [the director], really. He was the one who finally said, ‘Kevin, just say it.’”

Aquino then asked Kwan why he wasn’t in Singapore during the filming of one of her scenes (Kwan was beginning his American tour for “Rich People Problems”). Kwan said that he was sent photos (“Hundreds of it”) and that Aquino was on the set with other cast members Constance Wu (who plays the lead character Rachel Chu) and Henry Golding (Nick Young, Chu's boyfriend who belongs to one of the richest families in Singapore).

kevin kwan kris aquino.jpg Kevin Kwan with "Crazy Rich Asians" cast member Kris Aquino during National Book Store's Kevin Kwan book signing at SM Seaside in Cebu. Photo from NATIONAL BOOK STORE/KRIS AQUINO/FACEBOOK

The Philippines has become part of Kwan’s series, with Filipinos graduating from just house help in the first series to mentions of socialites and other notable people in the latest book, with appearances by Doris Magsaysay-Ho and Karen Davila. Palawan is also a setting in “Rich People Problems,” which Kwan visited in 2015.

Kwan himself is part of Singapore’s upper crust, having been born into a wealthy family. But his father, an engineer, moved their family to the U.S., where Kwan has been living since he was 11 years old.

“My dad had a fantasy about having this cowboy life,” he says. “He went to boarding school in Australia, and he fell in love with the outback. He just wanted us to have this much more American, outdoorsy [life]. He was sick of us being pampered by maids and he wanted us to learn how to mow lawns and become Texans.”

Familial infighting is the core of the series, which is a satirical romp depicting some of Asia’s most moneyed families and their struggle to keep everything within their own circles. Though there is a love story at the center, it is only fuel to the fire of the soap-operatic concerns of these families, including marrying to “lower class” families. Kwan keeps the reader glued, even evoking the spirit of Jane Austen for good measure, but he has created a world that is outrageous yet is every bit true to the world that he has come to know.

CNN Philippines Life talks to Kwan about the real-life characters behind the residents of Tyersall Park, why people still care about the rich, and a few notes about Asian literature. Below are edited excerpts.

Kevin Kwan Books Kevin Kwan's trilogy on the lives of Asia's ultra-rich has been an international bestseller. Photo from KEVIN KWAN BOOKS/OFFICIAL WEBSITE

You’ve already written three books about the crazy lives of rich Asians and there have been books about many rich families elsewhere. Are there any stones left unturned about the lives of the rich?

(Laughs) I do think so. I think wealth and how it’s affecting people and how it’s affecting high net worth families [are] changing so quickly — we’re seeing so many new people come up with money who are behaving very differently from how they normally would behave in traditional structures, like the Silicon Valley multi-billionaires who are 25 years old, they’re not interested in the trappings of the old world, things like that. A lot of the Mainland Chinese new money … everyone’s making their own new rules and so that’s creating for fascinating characters, fascinating stories, so I think people will always be curious.

What’s the most fascinating thing about the way the new money set are behaving?

The decisions they make. I think it’s fascinating that one of the richest men in the world still lives in a small house and still won’t leave the neighborhood he grew up in and chooses not to participate in the wealth culture. I think it’s fascinating when a billionaire decides to give 90 percent of his money away, as someone I know has. And his joy is just giving away as much of his fortune as possible to help other people. So it’s nice to see these original thinkers and innovators with money as opposed to the old, stereotype fat cat millionaires, the tycoons who are running around in their Rolls Royces, smoking cigars, that’s all changing. It keeps things changing and hopefully does a lot of good for the people.

Why do you think the lives of the rich are still compelling to readers? Why are people still interested in them?

I think people have always been interested by people in power, since the beginning of time. In a little village, you’re always fascinated about what happened to the family of their tribal leader, and that hasn’t changed; it’s part of human behavior. And now that we live in cities, people look to these families, the ones who created the cities, as the fascinating people, because they do have power, influence and wealth, and they do things that change other people’s lives.

Look at what happened on T.V. Now there are all these reality shows about the rich and beautiful, and it’s funny because I find most of those shows incredibly boring, because the most interesting people won’t put themselves in front of the camera. It’s just these attention-seekers and people who are looking to publicize and promote themselves that are in these shows.

Your books actually shed light on these ultra-rich people who don’t want to be in the spotlight.

I quite recently met someone from one of the wealthiest families in the world and this person said to me, “Thank you for writing your books because my children are grateful to me now. Everything I told them and warned them about is true. (Laughs). And you’ve shown that in your books so now they believe me when I say it’s better to be private, it’s better to be just discreet with your wealth, it’s better to do good things with your money than just spend it on frivolous material objects …”

"I think it’s fascinating that one of the richest men in the world still lives in a small house and still won’t leave the neighborhood he grew up in and chooses not to participate in the wealth culture."

 

With the behavior of the new money, do you think the old rich would find ways to prove how their traditions are “better” in some ways?

Yeah, absolutely. People always believe that their way is the best way, and if they’ve been doing it longer, they’ll definitely believe that, wouldn’t you say? They don’t like it when people come in and change the rules.

How do you think your works fit in the discussion of privilege?

I think the book really highlights this world where very privileged characters go through different challenges because they have this privilege, and how it affects them differently based on that. Not just the characters, but you look at the social classes, social systems. There’s a lot of talk in the U.S. about white privilege but here in Southeast Asia and Singapore, they talk about Chinese privilege because they are the ones with more money and power. It’s a dynamic that’s very much at play in my books.

How do you make sure you have characters that go beyond being a caricature? Especially when you’re writing a satire?

You know, it’s easy for me because my characters are inspired by real people, and real people are inordinately unusual and diverse and strange in their own way. No one’s ever a cookie-cutter cartoon character, I find. Everyone has idiosyncrasies, everyone’s original in their own way so it’s easy for me to just observe them and help them inspire these characters.

One of the interesting things raised about your work is that you’ve created a new stereotype for Asian people. How do you react to that?

I think as long as you’re creating new stories and characters and breaking the mold of the old stereotypes, I’m hopefully helping to change things. For so long, there were only few, very dated stereotypes of Asian people and I’m trying to challenge that. I’m trying to present Asian men as attractive and desirable, and dynamic, powerful, and sexy. That’s not something you see in the West, at all. I’m trying to show that not all Asian women are gold diggers, some of them are economics professors who are trying to affect change in a different way. I’m just trying to show people as people. My goal is for people to read my books and forget that they’re reading about Asians. They’re just reading about people who have dramatic, fascinating lives.

Crazy Rich Asians Cast 1.jpg Kevin Kwan (third from right) with the cast of the "Crazy Rich Asians" film adaptation. From left: Chris Pang, Carmen Soo, Constance Lau, Jing Lusi, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, and Constance Wu. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

What were some of the things you learned along the way of writing these three books? What are the things you learned in the first book that you applied to writing the subsequent books?

I think I became more focused. The first book had so many characters, so many story lines, so many tangents. The second books and third books began to focus more on certain characters, certain families because the first book was about all these families. But I did jump around more different countries in the subsequent books but the story became more focused.

I think I became a better writer. Because I became more confident in my voice and I used the voice so much more now that I didn’t have to think about it more consciously, I could just write the story.

What kind of Asian literature did you read when you were growing up?

Amy Tan’s books. She’s a very very inspiring writer to me. Maxine Hong Kingston who I think is a pioneer Asian-American writer. I’ve read my fair share of that genre.

Now that you’re one of the authors who tackle the lives of Asians, what kind of conversation or discussion do you want to set in your writing?

You know, I don’t have a set agenda … I wrote this trilogy of books about this very specific world. To me, it’s just a family story but I’m portraying a very different type of family than the [ones] that have been portrayed in the past, in fiction. I just want to keep evolving and telling new stories and see how that goes. My new book might not even be about rich families at all.

There’s also this theme about how a new generation of Asians is becoming more Westernized. How does this relate to you in real life?

I’m an example of that. I spent the first part of my life in Asia and then I went to the U.S. and have been there ever since. How you find your way in a foreign culture, how you adapt, how you assimilate, these are all issues I’ve been through and these are all reflected in the characters that I write about.

The older I got, the more I wanted to reconnect with my past but Asia’s changing at such warp speed. The entire world, I feel, is being Westernized and I hope that as Asia changes they can also start putting up their barriers and become more Easternized. I hope the world becomes more Easternized than vice versa.

Kevin Kwan in Capri.jpg Kevin Kwan has actually based "Crazy Rich Asians" in his real-life experience as a member of a wealthy Singaporean family. Photo from NATIONAL BOOK STORE

In the book, it’s easy to write about this extravagant, opulent world since it’s just confined in words and pages, but how do you translate that onscreen with the “Crazy Rich Asians” movie?

It’s interesting, watching a book turned into a movie was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever witnessed. You have to take words on paper and there are many stories, so you have to pick and choose and really reconstruct the story that is completely different, shorter, and visual.

First of all, I’ve noticed that writing novels is a very individualized sport. It’s one person sitting in a room. Making a movie takes a village of very, very talented people, from the technicians, cameramen, to the costume designers, to the director, John Chu. It takes a huge team to make one scene happen. One chapter that I wrote on my own takes hundreds of people to recreate. Even just one scene, it takes a really long time. You sit on the set and all day long they’re filming and that’ll just be 20 seconds of footage. So it was fascinating for me to be on set and see how they did that. It gives me just so much more respect for the artisans and all the amazing people who come together and make a film.

Of course, this is going to contribute to how Asians are portrayed in films. Was that a big pressure during the casting?

It was definitely something we were very mindful of because when we began the process, the Hollywood whitewashing thing wasn’t [in the news]. It was only last year that [issue] happened, when we were beginning to wrap up pre-production, but we were hyper-conscious of making sure that we got it right in terms of casting. You couldn’t make this movie with anyone but Asians (laughs). That was the easy part. But finding the right people from different parts of Asia that would lend authenticity to their characters … that was the challenge.

Finally, can you recommend three books by Asian writers that you think would enrich the way Asians are portrayed in literature?

There’s a book called “The Windfall” by Diksha Basu. It’s about contemporary India and New Delhi high society. There’s another book by Patty Yumi Cottrell, “Sorry to Disrupt the Peace,” and it’s one of the most original books I’ve read in a long time and the character is … I don’t want to give everything and spoil it … it’s just truly an original. It’s nice to have a fresh new voice in the literary scene. And the third is Janice Y. K. Lee, who wrote “The Piano Teacher” and her most recent novel is “The Expatriates,” and it looks at lives of expatriates living in Hong Kong and how they collide with the world of Hong Kong.

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“Crazy Rich Asians,” “China Rich Girlfriend,” and “Rich People Problems” are available at National Book Store.