When Kevin Kwan wrote his first novel Crazy Rich Asians, he wasn’t setting out to write an ‘Asian’ book -- he was merely telling his own story.
At first glance, his story could read like any other -- here is a man who had a relatively normal childhood: riding around his neighbourhood on his bike, climbing trees, and attending tutoring classes after school.
It wasn’t until the Singapore native moved to America that the penny dropped on his unique upbringing.
‘I think I was just a classic, oblivious child in some ways. It wasn’t until I moved to the US that I began to realise there were other aspects of my childhood that were kind of strange and exotic, and interesting perhaps to readers.’
‘My parents were very old-fashioned Singapore parents of a certain generation and social class. I had a nanny. I saw my parents at meal times. My most vivid memories of childhood are standing by my mother’s dressing table (she had this beautiful, art deco dressing table) and watching her get ready to go out at night. They went to all the functions, so we were pretty much left to our own devices as kids.’
‘I was an island boy, running around in shorts and flip flops. Then being moved to suburban America was very jarring for me. As a kid I had this very natural environment, and I was put into this very artificial, cookie-cutter, ‘little boxes on the hillside’ type of suburban neighbourhood. The first year, I was almost constantly in tears, because it was such a shocking change.’
‘I had such a personal, deep internal life that I wasn’t really sharing with anyone, because they couldn’t relate to this world I’d come from: there was the tropical nature boy part of it, but then there was the other side where we’d come from home for dinner, and there’d be a parliament minister over, or a Thai princess. It was both natural and also very rarefied at times. It was a normal childhood, punctuated by moments of extreme weirdness.’
Like anyone who finds themselves in a strange new world, Kwan craved the comfort of familiarity -- and strangely enough, he found it in New York.
‘I remember going to New York when I was 12-years-old, and just thinking, “Wow, this feels like Singapore.” This was an international city. There’s these bustling people, everyone’s well dressed, and I connected to that. There is a sense of decorum and display to the Asian culture that you sort of inherently embody -- and I craved the cosmopolitan atmosphere that I lived in Singapore. It became my mission to get out of Houston, and be in New York. There was this gut instinct that I needed to be in that different world. I very carefully plotted my exit.’
Kwan went on to get his first degree at the University of Houston in Journalism and Creative Writing, graduating magna cum laude before moving to New York and attending art school.
‘I knew that I had to prove myself to my parents before they would let me leave, because Asian parents are also very protective. And I proved to them, like, “Look, I went to school, I did really, really, well and I distinguished myself, and I know you want me to get a job and launch into life, but I have a different plan.”’
‘Life just evolved. New York is about survival, and you get in where you can. I very quickly started internships, worked for Interview Magazine, worked for Martha Stewart, then I joined a design company where I could work on more publishing projects. It was a very interesting, meandering path to get to where I am today, but I feel like every step was a stepping stone that actually brought me to where I am.’
Kwan’s passion for the creative eventually led to him establishing his own studio, where he produced high profile visual projects. Some of his clients included The New York Times, Oprah Winfrey, and Elizabeth Taylor, which he cites as one of the highlights of his creative career. His journey then saw him returning to his love of writing, and publishing his debut book Crazy Rich Asians in 2013, which became a best-seller.
‘I want to create projects that are full of diversity, not for the sake of diversity, but for the fact that this is the world we live in. When you go to Singapore or Hong Kong today, you see an international city of people: Singaporean, Chinese, Indians, Europeans, British -- mixing, socialising, doing business, falling in love. I’m just trying to portray this world that I know, where Asians exist on an equal playing field with every other colour.’
‘Things are changing. Even in Asia things are changing. On my first book tour to Hong Kong, at all my events you would see a sea of wealthy, white expatriates. They were the ones reading the book and loving it. You did not see a single Chinese, or Hong Kong-Chinese person with my book. This time, three years later, I’m back. I did a signing in Kowloon, and I thought to myself, “Who’s gonna come to Kowloon on a Friday at 6pm?” The bookstore was packed, standing room only, with Hong Kong-Chinese people, young people, college students, high school kids, and it’s like, “Oh my god, they found this book.”’
Since his debut novel Crazy Rich Asians, Kwan has released two sequels: China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems.
‘When it comes to being creative, you have to stop self-censoring. I think Asians tend to overthink things and be overly cautious, because historically we’ve had to be, so it took me having to say, “You know what, I’m just going to balls-out write this crazy-ass book. I’m going to put in all these brand names and obnoxious characters and just go for it, and I’m not going to think about the consequences.” I think we really need to take off that self-censorship and really take that dive.’
And with the film adaptation in the final stages of post-production, what’s next for the best-selling author?
‘I think you can’t plan for a damn thing, quite frankly, because that will always, always bite you in the arse. I’ve stopped planning and trying to set goals. My goal is just to live every single day to the fullest. Life is fragile and delicate and unexpected, so you just have to be in your bliss every day, doing what you love, and hopefully you’re able to keep doing it. But if it ends tomorrow, at least you’ll die with a smile on your face.’
Read part two of our interview with Kevin as we speak to him about the film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians here!