Book Series to Big Screen: A Q&A With Kevin Kwan

Imagine a world of excess so extravagant and dramatic, it makes the Kardashians seem like an ordinary lower middle class family. Author Kevin Kwan created a fascinating world full of this surreal level of luxury in his “Crazy Rich Asians” series. Characters are referred to as being “China Rich,” people’s job titles include “fashion icon,” and they buy surgery for their pet fish. Its hyper-detailed excess is so ridiculous, it has to be real, and it (kind of) is.   

Kwan grew up in a wealthy Singaporean banking family that partly inspired the satirical three-book series. But Singapore, and Asia as a whole, has gotten wealthier since Kwan grew up there. According to “Forbes,” Asia holds the largest concentration of billionaires in the world; some served as muses for the text. Kwan even mentions some prominent, and very real, Singaporean families in his books.


The series’ goal was for American audiences to get an introduction to 21st century Asian culture. Gone are the exploitative orientalist images of geishas. They’re replaced by something highly relatable to American audiences: consumerism and an exploration of family dynamics. We get shopping trips, real estate porn and family drama as seen through the eyes of Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American NYU economics professor. The novels obviously became national bestsellers.


Kwan’s wish to introduce American audiences to new Asian culture, is becoming even more accessible as “Crazy Rich Asians” is adapted into a film, due out in 2018. Jon M. Chu (“Now You See Me 2” and “Step Up: All In”) was in charge of directing the movie. In a year full of Asian whitewashing controversies, Kwan, Chu and distributor Warner Brothers will be making history as “Crazy Rich Asians” becomes the first major studio feature with an all-Asian cast since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club.”


On Oct. 4, the Center for Asia Pacific studies will be hosting “Crazy Rich Asians: An Evening with Kevin Kwan.” Kwan took time to speak to the Foghorn to give USF students a glimpse at his life before he arrives at USF.


Where are you today? What’s on your schedule?

I’m in New York. I just returned from a six-week-long book tour that took me from the Philippines to Hong Kong to Australia, so I’m incredibly jet-lagged. My only goal for today is to keep myself awake long enough to try to get back to normal, so I am catching up on emails, running a few errands and I think I may try to catch a movie at Film Forum later in the afternoon.


For those who haven’t heard of the “Crazy Rich Asians” series, how would you sell your story to them?

It’s “Downton Abbey” set in modern-day Asia.  It’s a love story and comedic satire about a crazy, complicated, extravagant family and all the joy, heartbreak and complications that come from having too much money in a part of the world that is changing at warp speed.  It’s about ancient traditions clashing with 21st century problems, and how the different generations navigate the gulfs between them.


What are the differences you see between billionaire Americans and the billionaire characters of “Crazy Rich Asians”?

They have more money, and they aren’t afraid to use it.


Was it difficult for you to agree to have Warner Brothers adapt your novel?

Actually, I worked with the producer Nina Jacobson to adapt the novel into a film, and then we sold it to Warner Brothers. So I was part of the process from the very beginning and it’s all been smooth sailing watching the book get transformed into a movie.


How much time did you spend contributing to the film? What was your favorite task during the process?

I was an executive producer, so I was involved in all the big creative decisions, but I really stepped back and allowed the experts do their job. I was busy writing two other novels!  My favorite “task,” if you could call it that, was working with the amazingly talented director Jon M. Chu and just being available to him whenever he needed to fine tune something. He was so intensely focused on keeping things authentic, getting every detail perfect, and he would sometimes call in the middle of the night with questions like, “Would Michael really wear this vintage Rolex?” Or, “What should the uniforms of the Thai ladies-in-waiting look like?”


Filming for “Crazy Rich Asians” finished months back, your series has been done for months as well. What’s been taking up your time?

Well, the last novel in the series “Rich People Problems” was published in May, and I have been on a nonstop book tour since then. I’m also working on an original television series that I’m creating with STX Entertainment.


You’ll be visiting USF soon! What do we expect to hear from you at the event? Do you have any favorite things to do in San Francisco?

I’m going to share stories of my adventures and discoveries since “Crazy Rich Asians” was released. I really want this to be a conversation with the audience, and we’ll talk about my books, being on the movie set and what it’s been like to see the book become part of a movement that’s changing Asia and Asian Americans. I love San Francisco, and when I’m here, I always try to have dim sum somewhere good, make a pilgrimage to City Lights Bookstore and visit this tiny park near Coit Tower called Jack Early Park. It’s basically a terrace lookout with a breathtaking view of the bay.


You can RSVP for the event here.


Featured Photo – Writer: Kevin Kwan. Kevin Kwan/TWITTER. Illustration: Ben Wiseman/KNOPF DOUBLEDAY


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