Rich Pick­ings

Crazy Rich Asians au­thor Kevin Kwan talks to Sa­man­tha Leese about his sec­ond book, his com­ing film and why the lav­ish cul­ture of Asia’s up­per crust has cap­tured ev­ery­body’s imag­i­na­tion

Hong Kong Tatler - - Faces -

was look­ing for some­thing that would de­scribe the kind of rich that only ex­ists in Main­land China: This in­stant, overnight, gar­gan­tuan for­tune of the sort that could only have been made in China.” So says Kevin Kwan of the ti­tle of his new book, China Rich Girl­friend, an out­landish, witty and in­sight­ful satire of Asian high so­ci­ety pub­lished last month by Dou­ble­day. It’s the se­quel to Kwan’s 2013 best­seller, Crazy Rich Asians, which drew such an en­thu­si­as­tic fol­low­ing in his na­tive Sin­ga­pore that the acro­nym CRA has be­come “part of the lingo” for de­scrib­ing a cer­tain kind of per­son.

Kwan, cur­rently work­ing on the film adap­ta­tion of his first novel due on screens next year, says book two of­fers read­ers “the same DNA,” but in writ­ing it he wanted to chal­lenge him­self, to “shake things up a bit.”

Set mainly in Sin­ga­pore and Hong Kong, Crazy Rich Asians tells of the Shang fam­ily and its three com­pet­ing clans. Ni­cholas Young, the hand­some heir to one of Asia’s great for­tunes, en­joys a low-key life as a pro­fes­sor in New York. Un­wit­tingly, he sparks a blaze of gos­sip and back­bit­ing when he brings his Us-born Chi­nese girl­friend, Rachel Chu, home to Sin­ga­pore for his best friend’s wed­ding.

China Rich Girl­friend takes place on the eve of Rachel’s wed­ding to Nick, who has be­come es­tranged from his pow­er­ful yet elu­sive fam­ily. The cou­ple’s search for Rachel’s fa­ther, whom she has never known, pulls them into the au­da­cious world of Shang­hai’s su­per wealthy.

“Be­ing Chi­nese, you think you can sort of re­late, but it’s noth­ing like what I ex­pected,” Kwan says of his re­search trips to Main­land China. “You see the unique dif­fer­ences of what [the coun­try] has be­come and the peo­ple it has pro­duced in the last 50 years. For me, writ­ing this book be­came a method of un­der­stand­ing the place.”

The novel glee­fully par­o­dies the stereo­types as­so­ci­ated with the Chi­nese nouveau riche, stereo­types that Hongkongers de­light in analysing—though, Kwan ob­serves, the re­al­ity is more nu­anced. “China is go­ing into its ado­les­cence of money. We’re see­ing habits, lev­els of so­phis­ti­ca­tion and modes of be­hav­iour shift as a re­sult.” Nonethe­less, “the stuff that hap­pens there is just jaw-drop­ping,” he says of his trips to Shang­hai. “It’s amaz­ing how much peo­ple will dis­play of them­selves.”

That proved to be a prob­lem for Kwan in the edit­ing process; he strug­gled to keep many el­e­ments of the story from be­ing cut for the sake of cred­i­bil­ity. “I’ve al­ways felt that truth is stranger than fic­tion when it comes to de­tails,” he says. “My editor in New York can’t even con­ceive of this level of os­ten­ta­tion and spend­ing. There were sev­eral scenes where she was like, ‘Come on, no one’s go­ing to be­lieve this’.”

Kwan points to the cul­ture of rac­ing ex­otic sports cars on public roads—of­ten to spec­tac­u­lar ruin—as one ex­am­ple of such ex­cess. Another is the ac­qui­si­tion of pri­vate jumbo jets kit­ted out like five-star re­sorts. In re­sponse to his editor’s con­cerns, he would send links to lo­cal news­pa­per ar­ti­cles to prove “you can’t make this stuff up.”

A sec­ond sto­ry­line in China Rich Girl­friend un­folds in Hong Kong, where for­mer soap opera star Kitty Pong is des­per­ately try­ing to climb the ranks of a so­cial or­der in­dif­fer­ent to her de­ploy­ment of di­a­monds, cou­ture and the oc­ca­sional Rus­sian wolfhound. She en­lists the help of old-money heiress Corinna Ko-tung, who prom­ises that with care­ful rein­ven­tion of per­sonal history, “prac­ti­cally any­one can rise up in Hong Kong so­ci­ety.”

Kwan en­gaged in less ac­tive re­con­nais­sance in Hong Kong than in Shang­hai, though he notes with a laugh that this mag­a­zine’s Faces pages pro­vided a “boun­ti­ful gift of in­spi­ra­tion.” It’s a city he knows well, and he has fam­ily from Hong Kong with con­sid­er­able ca­chet—he’s re­lated to none other than

Nancy Kwan, the star of 1960’s iconic The World of Suzie Wong.

“The scan­dals, the gos­sip, the sto­ries… these are things that have per­me­ated my life since birth,” Kwan says. “I never thought I would ac­tu­ally, some day, find a place to put all this stuff.” Kwan’s at­ten­tion to de­tail and his grasp of who’s who—and how thinly to veil their true iden­ti­ties—is so as­sured it leaves no doubt he grew up in the world he seeks, in the nicest pos­si­ble way, to ridicule.

“[If ] Crazy Rich Asians was very much my valen­tine to Sin­ga­pore, China Rich Girl­friend is my valen­tine to Hong Kong and Shang­hai,” he says. “I wanted to make peo­ple laugh, but I also wanted to make peo­ple think about the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of what’s hap­pen­ing in China, how it af­fects [the rest of Asia] and the world. What does it mean for the next gen­er­a­tion, now that they’ve ex­pe­ri­enced this deca­dence?”

The in­ter­na­tional ap­peal of Crazy Rich Asians was not lost on moviemak­ers. Within weeks of it hit­ting book­stores, Hol­ly­wood came call­ing. “This book caused quite a stir in Los An­ge­les,” says Brad Simp­son, pres­i­dent of the stu­dio that even­tu­ally won the film rights, Color Force, best known for pro­duc­ing The Hunger Games. “It’s rare to read some­thing so fresh. We had to fight mul­ti­ple big-name pro­duc­ers for it.”

Color Force founder Nina Jacobson says she was drawn to the world of Kwan’s de­but book as one she had never ex­pe­ri­enced. “You ask your­self, what movies de­mand com­mu­nal view­ing? What kinds of sto­ries are best seen in the dark with strangers, on a big screen? They’re the kinds of sto­ries that trans­port you.” The ro­mance be­tween Rachel and Nick, and the snob­bery and prej­u­dice they face, were ir­re­sistible to Jacobson, who notes, “Ro­mance is only as great as the ob­sta­cles be­tween the lovers.”

Adds Simp­son, “It’s in­ter­est­ing to see how a sto­ry­line that could have been in a Jane Austen novel is rel­e­vant to mod­ern Asian fam­i­lies in Sin­ga­pore and Hong Kong.”

Along with John Penotti of Ivan­hoe Pic­tures, which is fi­nanc­ing the film, Simp­son led a lo­ca­tion-scout­ing ex­pe­di­tion to Hong Kong last spring. On the itin­er­ary was din­ner at the China Club with some of the city’s lead­ing young so­cialites, which gave Simp­son in­sight into the cur­rent spirit of high so­ci­ety.

Film­ing is yet to be­gin, but the pro­duc­ers aim to re­lease the movie in au­tumn next year. Kwan, who is “very in­volved” in the adap­ta­tion, says it will be shot as much as pos­si­ble on lo­ca­tion. All are keep­ing tightlipped about cast­ing for now. Kwan will only say that if he could wish for any­one to star in the film, it would be Nancy Kwan (pre­sum­ably as Nick’s grand­mother and the fam­ily’s for­mi­da­ble ma­tri­arch, Shang Su Yi). While most of the cast is likely to be made up of es­tab­lished and ris­ing ac­tors of East Asian de­scent, Simp­son says the role of Rachel may go to an un­known ac­tor from Bri­tain, Canada or the US.

Fans of the book have com­piled their own dream casts on blogs and in mag­a­zines, with top choices in­clud­ing Tai­wan’s God­frey Gao (as Nick), South Korea’s Clara Lee (as Kitty Pong), Joan Chen (as Rachel’s mother, Kerry) and Hong Kong’s own Edi­son Chen (as the play­boy Bernard Tai).

The ac­tors will be play­ing char­ac­ters loosely based, by Kwan’s own ad­mis­sion, on real peo­ple. For a cer­tain crowd, Crazy Rich Asians inspired a great guess­ing game, one that has been a source of fas­ci­na­tion for Kwan—and thank­fully a source of no se­ri­ous scan­dal. “I haven’t had a glass of cham­pagne thrown in my di­rec­tion,” he says. “Yet.”


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