Kevin Kwan - Crazy Rich Asians author

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 16 July 2020

Seven years ago Kevin Kwan's first novel Crazy Rich Asians became an instant New York Times number one best seller, translated into thirty languages, and then made into a hugely successful movie.

The novel and its subsequent two sequels, chronicled absurdly wealthy Asian families in Singapore and was largely based on Kevin Kwan's own childhood growing up there.

Kwan has a new novel, Sex and Vanity, which pays homage to E. M. Forster's A Room With A View.

He puts the success of Crazy Rich Asians down to its universal appeal.

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Photo: supplied

“It’s ultimately a family story, it’s the story of a multi-generational family and I think everyone comes from a family, and everyone comes from a crazy family.

“We all have snobby cousins. We all have meddling aunts or uncles and we all eventually just want to be loved and appreciated by our families,” he told Kathryn Ryan.

Kwan grew up in a well-to-do family in Singapore.

“I grew up in an old house …. it wasn’t showy, but then I would go to friends’ houses and I would go into living rooms where there were literally shark ponds. Ponds in the middle of living rooms filled with baby sharks.

“Or I would go to another friend’s house and there would be an aeroplane hangar on the grounds with a private plane just parked there.

“It was unusual to say the least and I was really part of this world only for a brief time until I was 11 and then I left and had a very normal all-American teenage years.”

His world changed entirely when the family moved to the US, he says.

 “I was torn away from my beloved nanny, I was torn away from my aunt and my grandparents and brought to this strange little neighbourhood in the middle of nowhere.

“Suburban America in those days, in the mid-80s was so completely different from the cosmopolitan city I grew up in. Singapore was a bustling thriving town.”

It was not a happy time, he says.

“You’d go out into the streets and they would be empty, streets of little houses all in a row and quiet. And that, at first, really sent me into a depression and so my mother took me to New York a few months later.

From the minute I went to New York and set foot on the island I said ‘OK, how do I get here now? How do I leave suburbia and get to Manhattan because this is the next best thing to being in Singapore.”

He eventually enrolled in school there and soon found himself running with a new set of friends.

“I moved there as a student knowing no one and within a month I’d made all these new friends, quite a few of them were native New Yorkers and they really took me in they adopted me.”

Many of his new friends were from the exclusive upper East Side of Manhattan.

“I think I got along so well with these families because of my original upbringing in Singapore, there was this simpatico. it sort of reminded me in a way of my childhood all over again.”

At the same time, he was being exposed to the wealthy of New York, he was still travelling back to Asia for family events and saw first-hand the fortunes being made as the Tiger economies roared.

“This new gilded world of the overnight fortunes people who had made hundreds of millions in very, very short times because of the gigantic economic boom that was happening in Asia in the 90s.

“I really got a chance to peek into this world and I thought, no one’s writing about this, no one is telling the stories behind these curtains of what it’s like to be in these families, what is it like to part of this massive change.”

Crazy Rich Asians was initially conceived as a collection of short stories, he says.

“It had a 20-year gestation period. It began back in college I did have all these ideas and I remember I actually wrote a poem called Singapore Bible Study, which eventually became chapter 3 in my novel.”

Kwan’s new book also takes a look at the ultra-wealthy, people whose lives comes with their own curses, he says.

“I know so many people with trust funds who are quite unhappy because they don’t have that drive and there’s not the same sense of satisfaction when you achieve something, because why even bother achieving anything?”