Author Kevin Kwan has been a celebrated name in Southeast Asia since the launch of his first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, in 2013. Following the success of the cheeky comedy about the Singaporean ultra upper-class, Kwan released his second novel China Rich Girlfriend in 2015, expanding his readers’ radar into Hong Kong and mainland China’s glamorous lives of the rich.
In May 2017, Kwan released the third and final book of the trilogy, Rich People Problems, which takes readers back to Singapore and focuses on the drama revolving around Tyersall Park, the mansion of the family matriarch, Shang Su Yi. Kwan talks exclusively to The Jakarta Post about the trilogy, celebrity appearances in the books and how similar the third book’s conflicts are to real-life happenings.
What got you into writing Crazy Rich Asians in the first place?
Writing the first book started simply as a hobby. I simply wanted to see what I could do with memories of my childhood and experiences from my frequent trips back to Asia. But as the pages began to accumulate and I began to get encouraging feedback from writers that I greatly respected, I realised that there was an opportunity here. No one in the United States had written a satirical novel of the privileged class set in contemporary Asia, and I felt that it was important to bring this world to Western readers.
Was it always meant to be a trilogy? Why?
I always knew the story that I wanted to write, and I felt that writing a first novel that would be 1,500 pages long would be a bit much for readers to handle. I’m not Tolstoy! So I felt that a trilogy would be the ideal format in which to tell the tale. Each book could build on the last, but also it allowed me to take the reader on a journey into different cultures of Asia and introduce new characters and stories. Crazy Rich Asians begins in the Old Money elite circles of Singapore, China Rich Girlfriend takes you into the world of the mainland super rich in China and Hong Kong and Rich People Problems closes the circle by returning to Singapore, but also going into flashbacks to the past and making sojourns to the Philippines, Thailand and India.
Everyone is theorizing, personifying the characters in the book with someone in the real world. How do you deal with all the questions about who’s actually who?
I smile politely and say nothing! Actually, the responses I’ve gotten have all been tremendously positive. People who think they are the inspiration for characters in my books are nothing but flattered, and after Crazy Rich Asians was released, some notable people in Asia even approached me, demanding that I include them in future books!
Has there been anybody that came up to you and say that they love your portrayal of them?
Yes indeed! And it’s all been rather amusing because I find that the people who are truly the inspirations behind characters most often have no clue that they are in the books. But the people who have approached me and thanked me for putting them in the books have been complete strangers to me! I have no idea why they thought they were in any way connected to the character they claim to be. I guess I should take it as a compliment.
There’s a lot of famous names in the trilogy, did you have to ask for permission to use their names in the book?
If it’s a real person and that plays an actual role in the book that’s longer than a line or two, I am absolutely getting their permission. For instance, Nigel Barker, the celebrated photographer who is portrayed in Rich People Problems doing a pivotal photo shoot with an important character, very kindly took the time to answer many questions I had about how he sets up his photo shoots, what sort of equipment he used and how he gets the best out of his models. I try to strive for complete accuracy and authenticity in every detail of my books.
Do they know they’re portrayed in the book at all?
In my first book, I gave Lynn Wyatt — the legendary philanthropist and fashion icon — a cameo by making her one of the guests at Araminta Lee’s wedding. Lynn came to one of my book events and said in that fabulous Texan drawl of hers, “You know, I thought I was losing my mind! I don’t remember going to a wedding in Singapore!” I did not let her know that she was going to be in the book, but she was so gracious about it and we had a good laugh. But ever since then, I’ve told most of the people beforehand, unless they are friends that I know will enjoy the surprise of seeing themselves on the page, like Cornelia Guest or Janice YK Lee, who both make cameo appearances in Rich People Problems.
You included some Indonesian characters in the trilogy. Any particular experience with prominent Indonesian families?
Indonesia holds such a special place in my heart. My family has a few good friends from Indonesia, so I grew up knowing them, and also I have a few distant relatives from Indonesia. Part of my grandmother’s family settled in Indonesia in the 19th century, and I remember her telling me that she visited them once when she was a girl and their estate was so enormous, it took a week on horseback to travel across their lands.
What’s your favourite out-of-this-world scene from the trilogy? Ours is the arowana fish plastic surgery, because it exists no matter how bizarre it might sound.
I love so many of the scenes, it’s impossible to choose an absolute favourite. It would be like naming one of your children as the favourite! I suppose I have a soft spot for the scene when Nick and Mehmet rescue Colin from the horrible Bachelor Party and they all end up sitting in the middle of the Australian outback, watching the sun set over Uluru while sipping on flat white coffees.
How involved are you in the Crazy Rich Asians movie?
I’ve been very involved all through the process. It’s been an incredible privilege to work with the amazing producers, screenwriters and our brilliant director Jon M. Chu to bring this movie to life. As the filming began, I also made myself available to the costume designer, the production designer and all the actors whenever they had any questions that I could help answer.
The third book, Rich People Problems, has a strikingly similar conflict to the recent family drama involving the Singapore PM. Is Tyersall Park really the fictional version of Oxley Road?
Absolutely not! First of all, I wrote my book long before the events involving Oxley Road took place, and my story is pure fiction. Family wars over real estate in Asia are such a common occurrence, and this is why I always knew I wanted to write about it. It’s something I witnessed firsthand growing up in Singapore — so many families torn apart fighting over issues of inheritance and property. Because it’s never just about the house or the money –these families are playing out much deeper issues involving their childhoods, involving grief for the loved one they have just lost, and how they feel they were treated within the family dynamics. You see that at play with every character in Rich People Problems, and how they each reacted at the reading of the will. What’s happening with Oxley Road is actually vastly different from the drama involving Tyersall Park, and I only hope there will be a happy resolution for all.
What advice would you give to those wanting a life of luxury?
Everyone has a different idea of what luxury is, and I feel that luxury is always most gratifying when it’s most personal. If you make luxury all about impressing others — like building a lavish house that’s full of details and gadgets you don’t actually enjoy, what’s the point? As Dr. Gu said in my first novel, “Remember, every treasure comes with a price.”