Kevin Kwan is first and foremost a storyteller. That much is clear if you were to read his books, critically acclaimed for their vivid imagery, eccentric characters and intimate attention to detail. “It’s like Gossip Girl meets Asian culture,” as sophomore Jackie Blandon described his books. Kwan did not disappoint when he swung by San Francisco for a visit on Oct. 4, captivating the USF community with storytelling that longtime fans and new readers could appreciate.
“So much of what inspires me comes from being a fly on the wall. Almost all the stories in my books are inspired by events that I personally witnessed, stories I was told or gossip I just simply overheard,” said Kwan as he prefaced the poem that sparked the genesis of the Crazy Rich Asians series, “Singapore Bible Study.” Kwan read the poem to the audience, describing his opulent wealth-obsessed aunts with great clarity. He described his Auntie Sally with “one hand on the New Testament, the other wrist-deep in her jewelry chest.” The audience erupted in laughter as the poem grew more and more ridiculous, ending with Kwan’s supposed enlightenment as he mimicked his aunt’s prayerful chanting.
He continued with another story about his mother and his Auntie Emma trying to save money at a Macy’s in Hawaii. The two were rummaging through the clearance section, trying to cut the best deal with Macy’s, maximizing a “buy $75 worth of clothing, get one item free” offer. They then asked Kwan to open a Macy’s account to cash out on the 10 percent discount. “They already had what appeared to be a full basket of clothes for $75, and now they wanted to save an extra 10 percent. That’s $7.50 in savings.” The ordeal of applying for the Macy’s card took about an hour, only to be thwarted by the need to input an annual income. Auntie Emma didn’t have an annual income in the traditional sense, making most of her money from her rental properties. “[Auntie Emma answered] ‘In U.S. dollars, it would be about $480,000,’” Kwan recalled his aunt saying. “And the sales girl’s eyes and her jaw dropped and she said ‘You make $480,000 a year?’ And Auntie Emma said ‘No, I make that in a month.’”
Kwan explained that he aimed to tell intimate stories of the personal lives of the rich people in Asia and the paradoxes that come from being given wealth. In a relatively short amount of time, the concentration of billionaires in Asia skyrocketed — in fact, Asian consumers account for 75 percent of the world’s luxury goods. Kwan further explained that the older generation that had grown up during wars and conflict had lived in much scarcity, spurring cases like Auntie Emma, who still made it a point to save every last cent possible. To really drive the point home, Kwan read a chapter from Crazy Rich Asians, outlining the generational gap between traditional Asia and the youth of today who grew up studying in the west.
For Blandon, the book created familial connections. “It’s a point of conversation between my mom and I,” she said. “She’s an Asian-American from a different generation, so it’s been a great bonding point. I really enjoyed the fact that he was able to bring literature into the homes of Asian-American families.”
With great pride, Kwan announced that the movie adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians will be “the first rom-com from a major Hollywood studio featuring two Asian leads…[and] the first movie from a major Hollywood studio in 26 years to feature an all-Asian cast since Joy Luck Club.” The audience erupted in applause, and I could have sworn, there were tears of joy in some people’s eyes after the announcement.. Kwan described the joy he felt as he stepped into the opulent mansion set in Kuala Lumpar. “I could see that at long last, here they were, all these top Asian actors,” he said. “They were on the set of a big budget Hollywood movie. Nothing of this scale had ever been done in Asia. You could see the excitement in everyone’s eyes. From the film crew, the production people. You could see it in the actors eyes. And when I realized for many of these actors, this was really a life-changing role for them.”
Sophomore Rayna Urbino was elated to hear this news. “I think it’s pretty amazing. My TA was mentioning the Great Wall movie starred Matt Damon, the main star for a Chinese film. It doesn’t make sense,” she said. “You would think that most people would acknowledge that here. I’m excited for it because just having Asians represented in a movie on the big screen is groundbreaking.”
As for his literary plans for the future, Kwan will be taking a break after this last last leg of his book tour. However, his motivation remains strong. “[I want] to continue creating work that continues to tell stories of diversity. I want to do it for the actors, and I want to do it for you readers,” he said.