Kevin Kwan On The Evolution Of Asian Society In Modern Times
How does what you see happening in the world today compare with the some of the more absurd scenes and behaviour you chronicled in Crazy Rich Asians in 2013, and where do you think we are headed?
It’s a big question, and I wish I had some sort of crystal ball, but as long as I have been alive, Asia has been a region that is always full of massive change. I grew up in Singapore, but I visited Hong Kong, Thailand, all over Asia even as a young child. And then I left when I was 10 and didn’t return until I was 14 or so. Every two or three years I would visit again, and every time you would see changes that were profound, especially in Hong Kong. It seemed to have been completely reinvented every time I came, and I feel like this moment is no different. We all know what’s going on at the moment—it is a city that is yet again in the throes of transformation, but where it’s going, I have no idea.
When you first started writing the series, did you have a sense that your story would have such a global resonance as the world started to look at Asia differently?
That was my hope. I mean I really wrote the books for a western audience because I felt that what I was seeing in Asia—this massive change and the way cities were transforming themselves through a 20-year boom cycle—none of that was being reported or even looked at from a sociological perspective. Of course, there were lots of economics pieces in Fortune and Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, but I was interested in seeing how families changed over this period when there was this massive wealth transformation happening within one generation. When you have people who were basically day labourers or living on farms who became billionaires, what are the repercussions for their families and the younger generations that follow?
This story continues to echo among people who see themselves in your stories, no matter what race or ethnicity. But I don’t know how the “crazy rich Asian” you imagined compares to the reality of today. What do you think the title of the book would have been if you were writing about the people of Hong Kong and Singapore now?
I don’t know! “Subversively Rich Asians?” The title became such a phenomenon that it took on a life of its own, beyond all imagination, really. And had I known the book was even going to be published, I might not have used that title because it’s become a bit of a stereotype now. Even people in the upper echelons of Asian society call other people Crazy Rich Asians, or in Singapore you just hear them called CRAs—they love to abbreviate, you know. That it would enter the lexicon was never my intention. I’m actually a bit mortified because what I was really trying to portray was a very nuanced world of sophistication, taste and elegance where old money clashes into new. All these various classes are overlapping, creating a lot of fun moments to satirise, but also showcasing the many ways that wealth disparity exists in the region. I was trying to create a very multilayered portrait of Asia through this one lens.
How have you seen opportunities for Asians and Asian-Americans in the entertainment industry change since the success of the books and movie?
The changes have truly been profound. You see Asians now seeping into Western pop culture and all across the media landscape in ways that are unbelievable and overdue in many ways, from movies like The Farewell to Awkwafina being the first Asian-American to win the Golden Globe for best actress. I had breakfast with a well-regarded Asian actress last week who told me she’s now getting called to read for roles that are not typically Asian—not Asian Judge Number One or Asian Doctor.
I was just in Paris for the Christian Dior haute couture fashion show, in a set designed by my dear friend Judy Chicago as a monument to feminism, where there were so many more Asian faces in the crowd than ever before. And this isn’t Joe Public; the couture guests are the VVIPs of the VIPs. There were Asian fashion icons and influencers who came with their own entourages, posses of stylists, assistants and TV crews. There were clusters of Asians throughout this beautiful hall, and that’s something you never saw before recent seasons of shows.
What has that meant for you personally?
I feel like I’m living in this strange, surreal dream where I really get up every day and work on creative projects of all sorts, meeting some of the most incredible collaborators and getting an opportunity I never thought possible. I also get recognized a lot more in the most random places, but other than that my life is really quite normal. I’m working on a globe-hopping, one-hour drama centred on a powerful Asian family for STX [entertainment company], a documentary series with NBC Universal called Empires of Luxury, and the sequel to the Crazy Rich Asians movie.
What do you miss most about the past?
The Hong Kong of today is virtually a space-age world compared to when I first visited as a child, when the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank and Bank of China buildings weren’t even built yet. I remember being taken by car to the border of China. There was an overlook where you could see across from the New Territories and it was nothing but rice paddies and a fence. Now it’s a very metropolitan area. So in many ways Hong Kong has changed profoundly, but I’m just so glad that they’ve left the Star Ferry untouched and you can still glide across Victoria Harbour in these lovely old wooden boats.