The wealthy people who fill the pages of “Crazy Rich Asians” think nothing of draping themselves in jewelry, keeping live sharks in their living room or hiring a helicopter to fly off to a private island.
But author Kevin Kwan said some of the depictions of life among the very, very rich in his debut novel—aspects of which were taken from his own experience as a member of an established Singaporean family—had to be toned down or cut.
Now a New York resident, Kwan spoke to Reuters about his book, the story of how the heir to one of the richest Singapore dynasties takes his Chinese-American girlfriend Rachel home to meet the family, as well as portrayals of Asians in the media.
Question: What got this book going?
Answer: It just really felt to me that there was a gap in terms of the sort of book we were seeing about Asia in America. There really seemed to be only two genres within fiction: historical fiction set in Asia, of the Amy Tan variety for instance, and then the contemporary stories about Asian-American assimilation. It seemed like nobody was really writing about Asia now.
There’s so much emphasis on the economic might of China, of Southeast Asia, Asian “Super Tigers” and things like that. But nobody was really looking from the perspective of a family story, of these individuals. Having a little bit of experience with that, I just thought it would be fun to set a story like that in Asia today.
Q: Are you part of a family like this?
A: I would say the book is very satirical and it’s high parody. There’s a lot of exaggeration and outrageousness. I came from an old and established Singapore family, not unlike the sort Nicholas would have come from, but this is not a book about my family by any means.
Q: I heard you actually had to take some things out?
A: There were storylines and descriptions of houses or places or the way people would travel that I had to tone down because my editor said I was really going to lose people.
Q: Why did you decide to take this particular over-the-top approach or did it choose itself?
A: I think it really chose itself, in a way. This is just the story that came out. It surprised me too because I’m naturally a much more serious person. Writers often say that characters begin to write themselves and I never used to believe that. I always thought that was complete hogwash. But I witnessed it as I fell into writing the book.
I had a set ideas of where I wanted to take a character but it evolved. The characters began to take over at a certain point … With comedy, it allows people to see things but perhaps reflect on things in a different way. You need that comedy to balance out what I think are some dark issues—the vast income disparity between rich and poor, for example, in Asia, in China.
Q: Some readers have said they feel the book may perpetuate stereotypes of Asians. What would you say?
A: I really disagree. I think what I’m showing or hoping to show is that, beyond the stereotypes, there are people that care about things beyond money—those are the main characters. You can see in some cases, even though characters come from a great deal of money, money doesn’t buy happiness.
The feedback I’ve been getting from so many people, especially Asians, is they love the way Asians are portrayed against the stereotype that you see in the West. They’re portrayed as modern, sophisticated cultured people of taste. They’re portrayed as people that actually have some sex appeal. In the West, I think there’s been a tradition of neutering Asian men in a way and all the women have to be bombshells.
There are certain stereotypes that still persist. An Asian writer in Canada told me that he was in tears when the book was over—not because of the story but because he realized this was the first time he was reading a book that portrayed Asian characters like him versus the struggling immigrant or the boy that’s embarrassed that his parents own a Laundromat or the woman that’s having to choose between two babies in Shanghai.
The difference also is these characters happen to be Asians living in Asia, so they don’t have the same baggage that I think Asian-Americans would have, growing up minorities in a majority culture.
Q: Have you felt there haven’t been real Asians in books?
A: Certainly living in the US, as I have for over two decades, you see how Asians are portrayed in the media. … I didn’t see myself represented, you know, when I used to look at ads on TV. I was never the science geek. It used to be on TV you’d see only two types of Asians. You’d see the science geek who’s using his mobile phone or something like that or you’d see a very token Asian family—yuppie mother and father and two little Asian kids. It’s the last barrier for Hollywood.
There was a producer who was very interested in my book as a possibility for a movie but this producer wanted to change the character of Rachel to a white girl. I was, like, you completely, completely missed the point … But from their perspective—which is a very pragmatic, Hollywood perspective—it’s a hard sell to have an all-Asian cast for a major Hollywood movie. You would need a Reese Witherspoon or an Anne Hathaway as the interloper discovering the East to make it marketable.