Kevin Kwan talks Hollywood, the nouveau riche, and plastic surgery for fish

When you read author Kevin Kwan’s books, the first impulse is to ask yourself, “Does anyone actually live like this?” After all, most of what we perceive as markers of wealth and success are based on what we see on our Instagram Explore pages: rows and rows of square-framed shots of Mykonos, of brand-new designer anything, of the freshest sneaker drops in unique colorways.

But the world in Kevin’s books is of an entirely new genre, one where wealth means more than just money. His Crazy Rich Asians trilogy has us introduced to a world where to be rich could also mean to be influential, to be connected, and to be super crazy. The last book in the trilogy, Rich People Problems, explores a story that many of our families are familiar with: siblings, children, and nosey relatives fighting over an inheritance. (We’ve all been there.)

This is why Kevin’s stories resonate with so many of us, because at the very heart of it is something we all know too well. We’ve all had weird family members, strange traditions, and shallow squabbles. Kevin’s book simply adds a little more glitter to the mix and turns it into the most addictive, escapist fare.

It was the perfect opportunity, then, to learn more about the book from the writer himself. During Kevin’s book tour in Cebu, we got to ask the New York Times Bestselling author about Southeast Asian visibility in Hollywood, the difference between old and new money, and why actress Constance Wu — the star of his film — is one kickass homegirl.

Feeling shady: Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend follow the stories of multiple rich families around Asia.

YOUNG STAR: Hi, Kevin. I wanted to know — as you’ve said in many interviews — that your books are largely based on real stories and real people. Given that, do people still tell you stories?

KEVIN KWAN: Yeah, absolutely. More than ever. People wanna share, “Oh my god, I heard the craziest story…” you know. Or, “You should meet this person!” (Laughs) They’re all in on the fun of it. I think people are just flattered that the world has shifted its attention now to Asia, and it’s taken Asia on a whole different level.

You also said before the arowana plastic surgery you mentioned in the book is real.
It actually happens. There’s a whole nonfiction book about this called The Dragon Behind the Glass, and the writer Emily Voigt really explores the fascination with this one breed of fish, and how these collectors — mostly crazy rich Asians — go to such lengths to acquire one and find the perfect specimen. If it’s not perfect enough, they send it to the surgeon. They wanna make sure it’s show-quality. But people do that with dogs or cats. They’re doing it for fish now.

One of the main characters in the story is Rachel, and I think what struck me the most about her is that she never assimilated into Nick’s world. She was always kind of an outsider.
Complete outsider, not kind of.

Right, complete outsider. Do you see her as someone who eventually becomes part of that world?
Well, she doesn’t have to, because she lives in New York. For now, her focus in life is her New York life. She wants to get along with Nick’s family and friends. But she’s actually not interested in assimilating into that culture. She doesn’t want to become a Singaporean crazy rich Asian.

It’s also really interesting that Constance Wu, who’ll be in the movie as Rachel, is quite outspoken when it comes to Asian representation.
Constance is an amazing advocate. She’s a rebel, she speaks her mind, and she’s doing so much to move the cultural needle. It’s incredible. I’m in awe of her.

I agree. So what do you have to say about Southeast Asian visibility in Hollywood and the media? You’re doing that with your books and movie, but in general, what do you think of how things are now?
I think things are better, and I think my books are part of it. People are discovering Singapore, discovering Malaysia, discovering the Philippines in a way that they haven’t been before, because the books have really broken through to pop culture in that way. I think there are still people who think Singapore is in China, unfortunately. (Laughs) But that speaks to the geographic ignorance of most Americans. But things are changing, and I think the movie will be a giant step.

Going back to the book, what would say is the difference between how younger and older Asian generations perceive wealth? Do you think the generation now is still the same when it comes to brand consciousness and keeping up with public appearance?
I think things are changing. I think it also depends on how old the money is and how long they’ve had it. I think kids born into money, I find, tend to be much less showy, unlike these rich kids of Instagram who are first-generation wealth. Of course, they’re having much more fun showing that off. But when you meet kids from very distinguished families who have been wealthy for generations, you’d have no idea until you know who they are. They tend to be much more low-key. The ones snapping away tend to be from very, very new money.

It’s kind of funny to see how flashy they are on social media.
Sometimes. (Laughs) Sometimes it’s just obnoxious.

 

Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend, and Rich People Problems are available at National Book Store branches nationwide.

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