In this age of excess, the success of Kevin Kwan's debut novel, Crazy Rich Asians, wasn't hard to understand. For those with a penchant for life in the fast and uber-glossy lane, the Singapore-set, Dynasty-style saga focused on three decadent Asian families and the mad swirl surrounding a lavish wedding. Vogue deemed it the summer of 2013's "splashiest read," and almost immediately movie producers came knocking to option the rights (though the future feature is yet to be cast). Just in time for beach-blanket season, Kwan is back with his newest book, China Rich Girlfriend, about over-the-top Asian affluence in mainland China. The Singapore-born, New York-educated Kwan was in Toronto recently, and I caught up with him at the Shangri-La Hotel to talk about the pressure inherent in writing a sequel and what's ultimately driving the "crazy rich" Chinese.
People were chomping at the bit to hear more from you after the wild success of Crazy Rich Asians. How keen were you to throw yourself back into that whole process?
I was really excited to keep telling the story and the opportunity to do that was amazing. Almost immediately after the first book came out and this tornado of love happened, my publishers were immediately saying, "Okay, when can we have the next one?" They wanted it the following summer and there was just no way, because I needed a little time. But I had a really, really fun time writing this new one. Even more fun than the last one.
You wrote about Singapore in your first book – a place you were intimate with because you spent your childhood there. How quickly did you become as intimate as you needed to be with China in order to write about it?
I wouldn't say I ever did become intimate with it, because I think you can't if you were not from there. I don't speak Mandarin fluently, so I was already an outsider coming in and I knew I would have to remain an outsider in order to really look at this world the way I wanted to. But an amazing thing happened when I was there in that I was able to reconnect with my roots while I was in Shanghai. I remembered that my grandfather had spent his teenage years in Shanghai and that he went back after he finished medical school to work there in a hospital. So I went back into my family archives and was able to find out his exact address; it was a street that was in the French Concession. Now all the names are, of course, in Chinese. But I met a Shanghai photographer who finds these old streets and matches the French names to what they are today. I was able to find my grandfather's block, and just walking the same streets and finding his house was deeply moving. I finally felt connected to China. It was pretty amazing.
It must have given you an appreciation for the place, the culture, the people…
...and what they've been through. That's something that people don't really talk about much. Until 1985, people were desperately poor. People were starving. They'd gone through 50 years of oppression. They had nothing. They had their Mao regulation outfits and that was it. So how can you fault them, now that they have money, for wanting to enjoy their lives, wear couture, have private planes? It's a reaction to how deprived they were. You see that extreme swing.
Crazy Rich Asians had some wonderful fashion details in it. Now you've turned up the fashion focus even more in this new book. Why?
Because I'm really trying to show the truth of this Shanghai set. And they are such obsessive, meticulous fashionistas. When they want something, they want the best. And they want to know they're the only person in the world with this outfit, even more so than the Singaporeans and Hong Kongese. And the way they've put together outfits, the imagination they use – they're travelling in droves to Paris to shop! There are three chapters in the book about Paris.
How optimistic are you about where the public perception of modern Chinese culture is going?
I think like any culture, it's going to evolve. If you look at North America and what happened in the 1900s when all the rich robber barons were going over to Europe for the first time, like the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers and J.P. Morgan, buying up the treasures of Europe, dismantling palaces and moving them to North America…well, there was a lot of disdain initially, like, "Here come these nouveau-riche vulgarians!" But their taste and sophistication evolved, and they became philanthropic. And now Rockefeller is an old-money name. It only took less than a hundred years! But with the warp speed at which China is transforming itself, I think people's perceptions will also change at warp speed.
This interview has been condensed and edited.