IT'S MORNING IN MANHATTAN, late evening in Hong Kong. Over the phone, Kevin Kwan nimbly deflects a comparison to Truman Capote. “I don't really have an axe to grind,” says Kwan, whose debut novel, Crazy Rich Asians, is a hilarious and (often uncomfortably) precise satire of Asian high society.
“There was a maliciousness to what Truman was doing when he wrote ‘La Côte Basque' [a chapter from his unfinished novel Answered Prayers] and exposed the secrets of the New York socialites he went around with. That's not what I'm interested in doing. My agenda is just to make people laugh.”
Set, for the most part, in Singapore and Hong Kong, Crazy Rich Asians is about the dynastic Shang family and its three competing clans. Nicholas Young is the handsome young heir to one of Asia's greatest fortunes, but lives a low-key life as a professor in New York. Unwittingly, he sparks a blaze of gossip and backbiting when he brings his American-born Chinese girlfriend home to Singapore to attend his best friend's wedding. What follows is a bold and funny exposé of the city's elite families, through characters that are at once outrageous and familiar.
“I think every character is loosely based on many people that I know, or whom I've met,” Kwan says, addressing “all the guessing games” his novel has provoked. He admits that his cousin, after reading the book, created a chart in her attempt to link each persona to a real-life counterpart. A handful of well-known society scandals have also made it into the story, thinly veiled. But Kwan insists it really is a work of fiction, albeit one inspired by his childhood in Singapore.
“It's such a small island, the different families and classes really do collide,” says Kwan. “Whether it's very old Straits-Chinese families who've been in the area for generations, newer families [with money] or those with brand-new fortunes...Among my classmates, there were those who lived in public-housing flats, and those who'd be dropped off at school in their families' Rolls-Royces.”
The focus on old money in Crazy Rich Asians has led to more than one comparison with Downton Abbey. Reviewers have also used the novels of Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh to orientate readers who may not know, says Kwan, that this kind of aristocratic society has existed, especially among overseas Chinese, for generations. That it isn't all about “the mainland Chinese making billions overnight”.
Kwan knows that for many Asian readers, his story is “old hat”. In the West, however, where a lot of information about Asia is gleaned from the business sections of newspapers, reviewers have conveyed an “exuberance of discovery” at the world of excess Kwan has painted so vividly: the liberal deployment of private jets, the casual purchase of diamonds and couture, the Vienna Boys' Choir flown in for the wedding of the season, and a high-rolling stag do in Macau that ends with cocktails at Uluru in Australia.
The reality, says Kwan, is even more absurd – much to his American editor's disbelief: “The outrageousness of how people would dress, how they would decorate their houses, these were the things that were inspired most of all by true stories. But my editor said it had to be imaginable for the reader, that I shouldn't lose my audience.”
Naturally, a film is already in the works. Color Force, an LA-based studio best known for producing The Hunger Games series, recognised the international appeal of Kwan's story and scooped up the rights within weeks of Crazy Rich Asians hitting bookshelves in the US. “There's a lot of hope that Hollywood won't whitewash the movie,” says Kwan, vowing to help deliver an authentic adaptation.
On the one hand, the novel's sparkling-gold and hot-pink cover lives up to its lighthearted, riotous promise. On the other, it's a smart, observant questioning of social rules that resonates beyond South-east Asia and Hong Kong, while drawing on ideas of class and cultural identity that are specific to the region. Kwan likes to call it “equalopportunity snobbery”. He says, “There's no one superior type of Chinese person. They all have different rivalries with one another, which to me is highly amusing.”
Amusing, complex and, sometimes, frustrating: “To a certain extent, I find a lot of the snobbery and rivalry a waste of time. I do see them play out in very real ways within different families, and how people are treated who marry into these families. Or when someone new comes to town that isn't from a certain family. It's interesting to see the level of meanness that can come out.”
Kwan laughs at what he's about to say, which still seems only partly a joke: “I personally try very hard not to judge people on their bloodlines. People are people, to me.” He thinks it's too simple to imagine that the next generation will arrive at more enlightened attitudes: “Snobbery is a very interesting phenomenon, because young people will create new prejudices, and so it will persist.”
Twenty years ago, Kwan wrote a poem called “Singapore Bible Study”, satirising the weekly gatherings he must have witnessed growing up, during which wealthy tai-tais would “do everything but study the bible” – trading stock tips, looking at jewellery and gossiping. That poem was the seed of Crazy Rich Asians but, as Kwan says, “life happened after that”.
He moved to New York and gained a second bachelor's degree at Parson's The New School for Design. Since then, Kwan has worked on a variety of creative projects, which include consulting for ted.com and Oprah Winfrey, as well as co-authoring a non-fiction book about luck.
However, he says: “The golden dream has always been to write a novel, and I can't believe I actually did it. I feel very grateful; the response has been overwhelming. I'm thankful that, even in Asia, people are reading the book because, as my mother would say, ‘Who reads? I don't know anyone who reads.'”