Pouring himself a cup of tea at one of Vancouver’s most stately hotels, Kevin Kwan tells a story about being denied the same privilege at one of Paris’s finest. It was a Wednesday in January – 2002, he thinks.
The weather was miserable. He and his parents were looking for a warm, dry place to land. But they were told they couldn’t be seated; there was no room. Kwan, suspicious, asked to use the bathroom. On his way – while being followed by two security guards, he says – he had a look at the café: pretty much empty.
“I was really shocked. And I was like really? Paris? In 2002, this is happening? And we were very elegantly dressed,” he says.
“What excuse do you have in this day and age for this kind of racism?”
The story is on point; we are talking about Crazy Rich Asians, his wildly successful, international bestselling novel that has been adapted into one of the most hotly anticipated movie releases of the summer. In the book’s prologue, set in 1986, a family arrives from Singapore late one rainy night at the regal London hotel where they have a reservation under the surname “Young.” When they turn out to be Chinese, the manager denies their reservation and sends them packing, suggesting they try “perhaps someplace in Chinatown?”
The scene was inspired by something that happened to a family Kwan knows well, from Singapore.
“There isn’t a single story in any of my books that is untrue,” he says. They’re all rooted in either famous stories, famous anecdotes, famous scandals, or it’s something I’ve personally witnessed or heard about. Because I don’t have an imagination; I really don’t. Not for this kind of stuff.”
Kwan was born to a well-to-do Chinese family in Singapore, where he grew up in a multigenerational household that also enjoyed hired help. It was a pampered life: A nanny woke him up each morning; he was fed a large breakfast and escorted to the private school he attended.
When he was 11, the family moved to suburban Houston, Tex. “It was shocking. I came from a culture where my nanny tied my shoelaces. At age 11, I didn’t know how to dress myself.” His father opened a chain of ice cream stores and Kevin became a latchkey kid. Always a reader, with that extra time and space, Kevin was able to further escape into literary worlds.
“You know what? It was great. I don’t begrudge it at all; it transformed my life. I can’t fathom if I had grown up in that other world. We wouldn’t be sitting here right now. I would be running a bank or I’d be in surgery now operating on someone. I wouldn’t be a writer; no way, not possible.”
In Crazy Rich Asians, New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) travels to Singapore for a wedding with her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding) – and discovers that his family is exceedingly wealthy.
The book’s buzz was immediate; offers seeking rights for film adaptations started coming in two months before its 2013 publication (he has since published two related novels, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems). One of those offers proposed a major change to the Rachel character.
“They said, right off the bat, we feel that we need to change the heroine to a lovely white Scarlett/Reese/Johansson/Jolie character,” Kwan says. “And I said: You’ve missed the point, goodbye. Not even worth discussing.”
Kwan selected the production team of Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, whose track record includes bringing The Hunger Games and Diary of a Wimpy Kid book franchises to the screen.
“They were also really committed to the vision of an all-Asian cast and this was way before the whole Hollywood whitewashing thing,” Kwan says.
An executive producer on the film, Kwan had input into the choice of director (Jon M. Chu) and screenwriters (Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim) and was involved in the casting process. “Why wouldn’t you want to involve me? I created this world, I know this world, I have access to this world.”
Kwan, who has a design background, also worked with the costume and production designers. He is a watch aficionado and wanted every watch to be perfect for every male character. In one case, he had a Paul Newman Rolex Daytona that he says was worth about half-a-million dollars lent to the production for a day for a brief moment onscreen.
“It appears in a scene for one second,” he says. “It literally has a one-second shot and it was flown around the world with its own bodyguard.”
When we sit down, I tell him, honestly, that when I first heard about his books, I was pretty uncomfortable and reluctant to read them. The titles felt somehow racist.
“That was the initial reflex reaction, especially amongst Asian-Canadians and Asian-Americans, I think,” he says. “There was an initial suspicion of, like, what is this? Who is this? Why this title? And what is this trying to say? And it’s justified I think, because Asians living outside of Asia are so used to seeing their culture portrayed incorrectly, negatively or not at all,” he laughs. “So there was a conscious effort on my part to try to change the narrative.”
I won’t spoil anything plot-wise, but I talked to Kwan about a further personal discomfort with the concept – that the racism we see in that opening scene, for instance, is resolved not through enlightenment, but piles of money. If a character is able to avenge racism only because they are crazy rich, what is the takeaway?
Kwan’s response, essentially, was: Lighten up. The books are character-driven satires. “I’m not trying to portray the grim reality of any social issue,” he says. “I’m really trying to create a romp.”
Kwan was back in Paris last year, and he took a walk through that hotel where he and his parents couldn’t have tea that time, just to have a look.
“It was full of Asians,” he reports. In the restaurant, in the lobby, beautifully and chicly dressed. “So things have changed very quickly.” Not that he would ever spend a dime there. But it was good to see.
Crazy Rich Asians opens Aug. 17