When you hear that Kevin Kwan, the author of best-selling novel Crazy Rich Asians is in town to promote a sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, it’s difficult to resist asking all the obvious questions, like “Did you come from a family of crazy rich Asians?” and “What’s the craziest thing you’ve bought with your money?”
During a quick one-on-one with the author, we find out more about his own privileged background, the status of the Crazy Rich Asians screen adaptation, and who the Filipina character in China Rich Girlfriend was based on.
So, we need to know: Did you come from a family of crazy rich Asians?
My personal family? I would say no. They’re not crazy rich Asians, but I think I’m related to a lot of crazy rich Asians, so in the larger family, there are some CRAs, definitely.
Did you grow up hearing about the CRAs in your extended family?
Well, I grew up partly in Singapore, so definitely in Singapore, I was completely exposed to that world—the early CRA culture of Singapore. And I always say, “Once a Singaporean, always a Singaporean.” You can’t kind of escape it.
So even after my family left, so many people come to visit, constantly. I live in New York now, and my apartment’s a revolving hotel for relatives and friends from Singapore, so, [I’m] never really far away from it. All my life, I’ve been hearing stories—in on the gossip, you know? I get the down-low on everything, and a lot of that inspired what went into the book.
What is the craziest thing you’ve bought with your own money?
With my own money? Ooh, that an interesting question. I collect art, so a lot of it has no rational sense. (Laughs) You know, like a lot of people try to be smart about investing in art, and I’m not. I’m very reckless, I just really buy what I love, so I think, in that sense, maybe I bought some crazy things. (Laughs)
Who are the artists you love right now?
There’s a great photographer that I love called Chris McCaw that’s doing really revolutionary work with photography. He actually invented a whole new process of photography by accident that is equal parts post-modern and also ancient. It pays tribute to the original photography and the original old-fashioned processes and yet, it’s so new, and so fresh. So he’s one artist that I really love.
There’s a British artist that I love named Kate Montgomery, and she is very much influenced by Islamic art. So her work is a melding of, sort of, very British themes, but with the format of Islamic manuscripts. They’re very geometrical, they look like illuminated ancient paintings, in a way. Prince Charles is a big fan of her work, so he has a few of her paintings, as well.
You have a Filipina character in China Rich Girlfriend named Evangeline de Ayala, who is probably based on the Zobel de Ayalas of the Philippines. What type of research did you do to develop her character and backstory?
I wouldn’t say I did any research. I really felt that it would be fun to have a character that represented the Philippines. Because the books are about crazy rich Asians, and as we know, they’re all over Asia; they’re not just in Hong Kong and Singapore. So there have been Indonesian and Malaysian characters in my book, and I thought it was high time to spotlight someone that was just a beautiful, cultured, sophisticated Filipina woman.
And I just thought that with “Evangeline,” there’s a personal significance in the name for me with the Philippines, and “de Ayala” is just a nice, kind of iconic name. It’s aristocratic, beautiful, it rolls off the tongue, and you know, we’re sitting here on Ayala Avenue right now. I wanted something very recognizable to readers who aren’t Filipino, that it sound grand, but I also wanted to sort of wink at Filipino readers.
The other with Evangeline was that she needed to be an outsider to Hong Kong society to set up what happens in that storyline. I wanted someone that was accepted and really welcome by Hong Kong society, but who didn’t know exactly know all the rules yet.
In a previous interview, you mention that your editor had you remove certain parts of Crazy Rich Asians because they were just too unbelievable, even though they were grounded in reality. Can you give us some examples?
My editor Jenny Jackson—she’s an amazing editor—said a lot of descriptions of houses and shopping sprees were, a lot of times, too extreme. Like, [she’d ask,] “Would they really go everywhere in a helicopter?”
Yes, they would! Because that’s what they do! And she’s like, “Well, there’s just too many helicopters in your book. Too many private jets. It’s going to alienate the reader, in a way, when everyone is doing this. So we can have one fun private jet ride, but not everyone has to have private jets.”
But they all do. She’s like, “It doesn’t matter, we have to make it believable for the reader.”
The fashion described in the book is incredibly detailed and plays a huge role in the narrative. Are you into fashion yourself?
I’m very much an admirer of fashion, and really, I’m a follower of design. I went to Parsons School of Design and at one point wanted to be a fashion photographer myself. So it’s always been an interest of mine. You know, great design is great design.
Has anyone ever went up to you and claimed to be the basis for certain characters?
No. Because actually, there’s no one in my personal circle that’s in the book. You know, I wanted to maintain friendships and family ties. (Laughs) That’s something that would never happen.
It’s interesting, though, that people who aren’t in the book claimed that they are in the book, which is much for revealing of their personalities.
Has it ever occurred to you to do a meta storyline where a character who writes a book about the lives of wealthy Asians is introduced?
(Laughs) You know, it has occurred to me. And we’ll see. It might happen, but you know, right now, I think the characters are interesting enough as it is, you know what I mean? Like, why bring in yet another character that lives that life, but you never know! That could happen.
At which stage of productions is Crazy Rich Asians the movie in right now?
We finished the script, so now we’re about to move into the casting phase. There are some differences just because you’re condensing a 500-page book into an hour and 45 minutes, so there are a lot of choices that need to be made. What do you focus on? Which storylines should be focused on? And then, for the sake of continuity and to make the make the plot work as a film, we had to slightly adjust some of the storylines.
So it’s not 100-percent authentically faithful that every bit of the book [is there]. And I don’t really mind that. You know, I really wanted a movie that was true to the spirit of the book, that kept the same characters, that followed the general storyline. I knew that to make this a fun, interesting movie, we had to change things around because some things just don’t work out in two hours. You’ve got to compress time, sometimes two events have to be mashed up, one character might show up to another event that she wasn’t [supposed to] in the book, but I think in the end, I was happy. I was thrilled by the very smart choices they’ve made, so hopefully, readers won’t mind.
What are the challenges with casting so far? I read that there was an idea to make the protagonist Rachel Chu a Caucasian.
That was never an idea. That was a proposal that came in very early from a top Hollywood producer who was interested in acquiring the film rights very, very early on. Even before the book came out, he said, “There’s no way we can make this unless Rachel is white.” And I just said, “Well, then you’re not making it. You’ve completely missed the point.”
I didn’t write this book to make a movie, at all. I don’t care, really, if the movie even comes out. It’s great that that’s happening, but I’m not going to change the essential plot of my book and the reason for its existence just so you can have a successful Hollywood movie.
And thankfully my producers have never, ever considered changing the cast because it’s absurd! That’s not what the book is about. And the success of this book has shown the power of the Asian audience. And not just in Asia, but in the US. The American readers get pissed off when they hear that people would suggest that they change the character to a white person.
And do you have any particular actors in mind for certain roles?
I am involved, I have my dream list of who I hope will be in it, but I’m really open to seeing what happens in the casting process. I can’t wait to see auditions and really see how different actors who are trying out for the role, what they bring to the table. And I think that will be the true test. Oftentimes, who you see in a movie may not be the perfect person to be in the movie.
I’m just trying to be as open as possible. Let’s see who surprises us.
But just for fun, can we know who’s in your dream list?
I think it would be really unfair for me to reveal it, but there is one person I can say that everyone would say would be great, if she agrees to be in the movie. That’s Nancy Kwan—who actually is a distant cousin of mine—for one of the more elder roles, I think she would be fantastic. She could play whatever she wants, actually, if she agrees. (Laughs) You know, she’s beloved by Asians around the world.
Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend are both available at Fully Booked Online.