Kevin Kwan: "Don’t be afraid to tell your truth, and never give up"
In his words
In 2013, Kevin Kwan wrote Crazy Rich Asians, the outrageously funny and satirical saga of three super rich Chinese families. Now, for those living in Singapore, I'm sure you're pretty familiar with the novel's story (even if you haven't read the book): Handsome heir to one of the largest fortunes in Asia travels back to Singapore with humble new girlfriend (who doesn’t know what she’s getting herself into) to battle a scandalous world of backbiting and scheming. Sounds like something you only see on reality TV? Yup, except it’s real life. Based in part on Kwan’s own childhood, what was meant to be a dramatised account of the Singapore-born writer's experiences became an international best-selling novel, and is currently being adapted into a movie by Warner Bros.
But it’s not just the book’s success that’s such a big deal — it’s the fact that this Hollywood-produced romantic comedy has an all-Asian cast. In a time when casting caucasians for Asian roles — for example, Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange (2017) — has garnered criticism, not only is this film finally giving Asians the representation we need, it’s also changing what that Asian stereotype is (read: poor and hardworking immigrants). And what a stellar and diverse cast this book-turned-movie boasts. Directed by Jon M. Chu, there’s Fresh Off The Boat star Constance Wu as leading actress Rachel Chu; Singaporean TV presenter Henry Golding as heir to one of Asia's biggest fortunes, Nick Young; Michelle Yeoh as Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young; and British-Hong Kong beauty Gemma Chan as the book’s It girl, Astrid Leong. Other names include Glee alumni Harry Shum Jr., Japanese-British actress Sonoya Mizuno, and Singaporean actors Pierre Png, Fiona Xie and Tan Kheng Hua.
After the book release of Crazy Rich Asians, Kwan went on to publish China Rich Girlfriend in 2015 and, earlier this year, Rich People Problems, the last of the Crazy Rich trilogy. If you think the drama dies down by the third book, think again. In fact, it’s juicier than ever. Rich People Problems follows the Shang-Young clan from Singapore to the Philippines as they battle over fortune, family and love. Cue: Hijinks and hilarity.
Want the inside word on this must-read latest novel? Kwan talks to us about his writing process, the journey as an author, and his upcoming plans for the future.
How different or similar was your process in Rich People Problems as compared to Crazy Rich Asians?
Rich People Problems was by far the easiest of my books to write. I had so much time to think about it and every plot point in the two previous books was put in place to lead straight into the story of Rich People Problems. So the process was so fast and smooth. I wouldn’t do a single thing differently.
You mentioned before that out of all the characters in the book, you find aspects of yourself in Alastair the most. However, if you were to create a character solely based on you, what do you think he’ll be like?
I’m not sure I could ever write a character based on myself — I think readers would find me extremely boring! He’d be a guy who sits at a desk all day writing. And when he’s not writing he’s on tour. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
How has your ambition evolved over time as the books were released?
As the books have been released, my ambitions have evolved. I realized the impact the books were making, and now I want to create more projects in books, film and TV that help move the needle in terms of representation and celebrating diversity.
Writing about Singaporeans in America and across the different classes of Singapore society — were there any concerns of misrepresentation?
I really didn’t worry much about that. I was telling a story that was inspired by experiences and my truth, and that’s the only thing I could control.
Your upbringing was used as a loose inspiration for the book. How do you think your experiences would be different if you grew up in the States instead of Singapore?
I don’t think it would have been possible to write any of the three books had I not experienced part of my childhood in Singapore. I would have written entirely different stories — if I had written anything at all. I’d probably be a marine biologist if I grew up in the States.
Is there a plan for the entire trilogy to be adapted into film?
That’s what everybody is hoping for!
What’s the journey been like as an author to see your words brought into another medium? Was there any content that you’re scared to let go of, for entertainment’s sake? It’s been fascinating to see the adaptation process from book to film. I was never precious about anything in the book, as I never wanted this to be a word-for-word adaptation. I really trusted Jon M. Chu’s vision on how to bring this story to the big screen from day one.
How would you like readers to remember you?
As an author of books that brought them joy.
If you could personally send Rich People Problems to one person to read, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Dominick Dunne. He is one of my favorite authors, and his works have been such an influence on my writing.
Any advice for Asians looking to make it big in the literary scene?
Don’t be afraid to tell your truth, and never give up. Before I wrote Crazy Rich Asians, I had many failures in the publishing world, but I kept on trying.
What’s next for you this year, and can we look forward to any more Asian or non-Asian narratives?
I’m writing a TV show for STX Entertainment. It’s going to be a one-hour drama, completely different from anything I’ve ever done before, and that’s all I can say for the moment. I’m just tremendously excited for the new challenge, and to be able to tell my stories in a whole new way.
Buy Rich People Problems at Kinokuniya stores islandwide.