The Real-Life Story Of Kevin Kwan That Inspired "Crazy Rich Asians"
August 17, 2018 | BY MJ Jose
Best-selling author Kevin Kwan tells us about the childhood memories that inspired the characters and events in his popular books.
When Time magazine named Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan as one of its Most Influential People of 2018, actress Constance Wu cut straight to the heart of the trilogy’s success in the testimonial she wrote for the magazine. “[Kevin] 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.”
Wu—who plays Rachel Chu in the Hollywood film adaptation, which premiered this month—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. “No one else was writing social satires about the upper class of contemporary Asia,” affirms Kevin.
“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.’”
The 44-year-old Singaporean-American describes his own upbringing as normal and idyllic, and says that where his writing drew inspiration from his 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 says. “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.”
Back then, life in Singapore was very different from today and its colonial past was still deeply felt. The vibe was more relaxed, says Kevin, and there was little to no pressure on the young when it came to their studies.
The Kwan family had deep roots there. Kevin’s great-grandfather, Oh Sian Guan, was one of the founding directors of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), the country’s oldest bank. His maternal grandfather, Paul Hang, founded the Hinghwa Methodist Church.
His paternal grandfather, Arthur PC Kwan, was the city’s first Western-trained ophthalmologist as well as being commissioner of the St John Ambulance Brigade. Known for treating the poor for free at his clinic, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his humanitarian services.
“He was a humble, compassionate soul, and the epitome of a dream grandfather,” Kevin 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.”
Kevin’s paternal grandmother, Egan Oh, was an elegant and imperious lady who was more traditional in the household. She showed her gentle side when recounting 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 instilled 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.
Like the Young, T’sien and Shang families in his books, the Kwans had their own customs. Kevin distinctly recalls how their household would be buzzing with activity each year when it was time to make zhong—sticky rice dumplings stuffed with various fillings wrapped in bamboo leaves—for the Dragon Boat Festival.
The gardeners would hack down leaves from the bamboo hedges and soak them in water. The cooks would prepare huge vats of glutinous rice and different fillings—some sweet, some savoury—and the marathon dumpling-wrapping sessions would begin. By the end of the week, the Kwans would be distributing the treats to relatives and friends.
“It was a very Huck Finn kind of life,” says the author. When not in school (he went to the Anglo-Chinese School on Barker Road), he could be found whiling away his time outdoors, cycling around the neighbourhood with his friends. At that age, he had no real concept of luxury.
“I grew up in an old house filled with old furniture, and I was afraid of going downstairs after dark because everything seemed creepy,” he says. “Of course, being a young kid back then, I had no appreciation for my grandparents’ custom-made Huan Pao Fang pieces. I was envious of my friends who lived in high-rise apartments, not because they were wealthy but because I found them cool—they had lifts, wall-to-wall carpeting, and garages filled with vintage Rolls-Royces and exotic sports cars. One estate even had an airplane hangar in the garden.”
He only began to recognise his own privilege after the family left for the US, where his world became one of suburban neighbourhoods, smaller homes, no household help, and certainly no airplanes in backyards.
Though only a few of his relatives work in the creative industries, an artistic streak runs through the family. Kevin’s father studied architecture (but ultimately became an engineer), and his mother is an accomplished pianist. His aunt is also a writer and contributed to Singapore Tatler in the 1980s. Had he stayed in Singapore, he doubts he would have had the opportunity to exercise his creativity—perhaps his fate would have been to crunch numbers in a finance post.
Writing a novel had always been on Kevin’s bucket list. Originally filed under “save it for later,” it quickly migrated to “do it now” after his father was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. Kevin would drive him to medical appointments, and their daily conversations would often turn to stories of the not-so-distant past, of a place that was once home, of a colourful cast of characters he wished to memorialise on the printed page.
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“So many of my childhood memories permeate the books—from the aunties’ Bible study luncheons, to Mrs Singh’s armed-guard-strewn jewellery parties, to the mansion that boasted a pond filled with baby sharks,” he says.
“From the very beginning, writing a novel was something I wanted to do for myself as a means of preserving the memories that had been percolating in my head for so many years.
It was also my goal to show the rest of the world an aspect of Asia that isn’t limited to what we read about in gossip magazines—that isn’t just about people dropping millions on weddings or Hermès bags. I wanted to depict the society that I knew well, one of educated families with style and taste that have been quietly going about their lives for generations.”
Moving to the US had a profound effect on how Kevin saw and understood the world he had been privy to. Characters such as Nicholas Young, who had been sent off to boarding school in the UK, have an inevitably Westernised worldview despite being Asian, something that the author himself can relate to. “My own perspective is that of an outsider looking in.”
Reactions to Crazy Rich Asians have run the gamut. A number of his cousins love the books and have been supportive of Kevin since day one. Some aunts and uncles don’t quite understand what the fuss is all about. Kevin’s number one fan is his mum, who does a wonderful job of convincing even total strangers to get copies of their own (“She really should be put on my publisher’s payroll”).
“A chef at a famous Michelin-starred restaurant in a rather remote location told me that so many people have come in saying they found out about the place through my books,” he says. “My friend Antonio Ruocco—the sandal-maker who runs the legendary Da Costanzo on Capri—said that many women come into his boutique to commission the same sandals that Astrid wore.”
Our conversation turns to Time’s Most Influential People list. “I was in absolute shock,” he says of his inclusion, which he had learned of via email just a few days before it became public. “I was sure they had made a mistake. Or perhaps someone was playing a prank on me. But a couple of days later, it was on newsstands, with a beautiful essay by Constance Wu—who had managed not to give away anything despite our correspondence just a few days before.”
And now Kevin’s name is back in the limelight with the Hollywood premiere last month of Crazy Rich Asians. Kevin worked closely with director Jon Chu, the cast and crew, scouting for locations, choosing costumes and even helping train the actors in the right accents.
He personally approached people he knew to borrow one-of-a-kind jewellery and timepieces—one even lent a rare Rolex Daytona Paul Newman Panda worth more than US$500,000—to establish a truly authentic feel.
“This film—which is the first Hollywood studio romantic comedy to feature an Asian couple—is important in that it’s part of a larger movement to create greater representation in mainstream entertainment,” he says. “There are now over 20 million Asians in the US, and the population has grown 72 per cent since the year 2000.
When I speak to book clubs abroad and share the story of how a producer who was initially interested in the film rights suggested that Rachel be cast as a Caucasian girl, women get outraged at the thought of Hollywood patronising them, thinking they only want to see films starring white people. The tide has really turned and people everywhere are craving for new faces and new stories.”
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