In the essay she penned for Time Magazine’s Most Influential People of 2018, the actor Constance Wu (who portrays protagonist Rachel Chu in the film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians) says of Kevin Kwan:
“[He] doesn’t focus on making Asians cool; he focuses on making our stories whole. The bits we’re proud of, the bits we try to hide, the tremendous heart that beats underneath it all.”
And she is right, for the Crazy Rich Asians saga is set in a milieu that was never explored in fiction until the first book was published in 2013. The author himself affirms this; he feels people were initially drawn in by the sheer novelty and aspirational qualities of the world within his pages.
“No one else was writing social satires about the upper class of contemporary Asia,” he adds. “But then the characters, their emotions, and their stories ended up being so relatable, and that is what kept readers hooked. I am often approached by people saying, ‘My family isn’t Asian or rich, but we are just like the family in your books. We are just as crazy!’”
Tales from the old country
Kevin’s own upbringing—“normal” and “idyllic” are his choice words to describe it—could not be more different. Though his writing drew inspiration from his own life, it was not in the way people might expect. “I was not brought up in a lavish manner—quite the opposite, actually—as my paternal grandparents, whom I lived with, were not ostentatious people,” he shares. “But there was a quiet elegance in the way they carried on with their lives, as well as a beauty to the customs and rituals we practised that inspired me as I began to conceptualise the idea of Tyersall Park.”
In the seventies and early eighties, life in Singapore was very different from how it is today. The shadow of its colonial past was still deeply felt by its residents; hence the vibe was more relaxed, and there was little to no pressure on the young when it came to their studies.
The Kwan family’s roots are significantly entrenched in that of Singapore’s: Kevin’s great-grandfather, Oh Sian Guan, was one of the founding directors of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), the country’s oldest bank. Reverend Paul Hang, his maternal grandfather, founded the Hinghwa Methodist Church. His paternal grandfather, Dr Arthur PC Kwan, was the first western-trained ophthalmologist as well as the Commissioner of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade. Well-known for treating the poor free of charge at his clinic, he was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II for his humanitarian services.
“He was a humble, compassionate soul, and the epitome of a dream grandfather,” Kevin fondly recalls. “I remember how he would sneak me and my brothers to the hotel at the bottom of the hill from our house for ice cream, and we weren’t to tell a soul. He had gone to the University of Edinburgh, and was quite the anglophile—he had the most impeccably tailored suits and enjoyed smoking the pipe every evening after dinner.”
His grandmother, Egan Oh, was an elegant and imperious lady who was more traditional in her ways. Though she was the disciplinarian of the household, she also had her gentle side, which often showed whenever she would recount fascinating stories from her youth.
“She was the most sought-after debutante of her day, admired for her beauty and distinctive style,” says Kevin. “Each time she left her house in Newton, there would be a cluster of male admirers waiting by the gates, who would run after her car, trying to throw roses and love letters through the window.”
It was she who would instill in her grandson a sense of self-respect and pride in his Chinese roots. Because Kevin lived with them from the day he was born to the day he moved to the United States, he remained very close to his grandparents.