Kevin Kwan on globalism, whitewashing and his upcoming film with Michelle Yeoh and Constance Wu
Build all the walls you want, but the 0.1% will always find a bridge.
So says Kevin Kwan, the chronicler of wealthy Asians who’ve prospered from globalism. “Things are shifting rapidly, but unfortunately money talks and the 0.1% will always find a way to live the way they want,” the 43-year-old author tells Moneyish. “The rules are made by the ruling class and I don’t think that’s going to change.”
Kwan would know. He grew up in Singapore to a family he describes as privileged, before moving to Houston, Texas as a teenager. His father was an engineer and his mom taught piano. Kwan then worked as a creative consultant for Oprah Winfrey and Gloria Vanderbilt before his 2013 literary debut, “Crazy Rich Asians.” A buzzy satire about a fabulously wealthy overseas Chinese clan that gathers in Singapore to celebrate a wedding, it became an instant bestseller. The book is known for wanderlust-worthy scenes in jetset locations, as well as scarcely believable props like private planes with yoga studios and outlandish couture garments that Kwan details down to the stitch of a button.
“The majority of extravagance described in the book, I’ve personally witnessed,” he says. “I actually know someone who buys everything in triplicate– even outrageously expensive designer clothes– so that she has the same wardrobe for her three residences around the globe. She also never has to pack.”
Soon to be a Hollywood movie starring Constance Wu and Michelle Yeoh, “Crazy Rich Asians” was followed by 2015’s “China Rich Girlfriend,” also a bestseller. The story, which centers on a billionaire Singapore scion in New York trying to escape the constraints of his wealth, concludes Tuesday with the release of “Rich People Problems.” In the final part of the trilogy, the matriarch of the family passes away and all parts of the lineage squabble for the inheritance.
While Kwan is a master of extravagant detail, his primary interest is exploring how modernization and wealth have affected generational change in Asia. “The second generations of wealthy families expand the fortune while the third goes to liberal arts colleges to study philosophy,” he says. “The main struggle is between personal fulfillment and duty to family, society and country. It’s a modern problem. A rich people problem.”
He’s also not afraid to deal with touchy issues like Asian racism. In “Rich People Problems” for instance, older Singaporeans sometimes refer to westerners with a salty phrase in local patois that translates as “red-haired sh-t.” “A lot of people in the West don’t realize that there is quite a bit of contempt leftover from the colonial days,” says Kwan, who deliberately included such themes. “There are people who are xenophobic and racist who happen to be Asian.”
Kwan’s vividly imagined world—inspired by relatives and friends he’s rubbed shoulders with—has made him a bona fide celebrity in Asia. He’s frequently been spotted dining out in Hong Kong or curbside at Manila’s airport. (On a more shadowy note, Kwan’s been told of someone raising money for a business by telling would-be funders that he’s the inspiration for one Crazy Rich Asian.) That may the reason for the fierce fan backlash when it was revealed that the Chinese male lead would be played in the movie by actor Henry Golding, who is half-white.
“It’s understandable because it speaks to whitewashing and the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood,” Kwan says. Nevertheless, Kwan, who is also executive producing a new TV series that won’t necessarily feature Asian characters, defends Golding as “perfect for the role. He grew up in Southeast Asia, was schooled in England and came back. That just aligned,” he says.
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