And It All Be­gan Here

Since the first book was pub­lished in 2013, Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians tril­ogy has been mak­ing waves across the globe, un­veil­ing a never- be­fore seen side of con­tem­po­rary Asia. He shares tales of his idyl­lic child­hood with MJ Jose and touches on how t

Philippine Tatler - - CONTENTS - © Fam­ily Photos Copy­right kevin kwan Col­leC­tion

As the Crazy Rich Asians film takes Hol­ly­wood by storm, novelist Kevin Kwan hear­kens back to his own past

In the es­say she penned for TIME Mag­a­zine’s Most In­flu­en­tial Peo­ple of 2018, the ac­tor Con­stance Wu (who por­trays pro­tag­o­nist Rachel Chu in the film adap­ta­tion of Crazy Rich

Asians) says of Kevin Kwan, “[He] doesn’t fo­cus on mak­ing Asians cool; he fo­cuses on mak­ing our sto­ries whole. The bits we’re proud of, the bits we try to hide, the tremen­dous heart that beats un­der­neath it all.” And she is right, for the Crazy Rich

Asians saga is set in a mi­lieu that was never ex­plored in fic­tion un­til the first book was pub­lished in 2013. The au­thor him­self af­firms this; he feels peo­ple were ini­tially drawn in by the sheer nov­elty and as­pi­ra­tional qual­i­ties of the world within his pages. “No one else was writ­ing so­cial satires about the up­per class of con­tem­po­rary Asia,” he adds. “But then the char­ac­ters, their emo­tions, and their sto­ries ended up be­ing so re­lat­able, and that is what kept read­ers hooked. I am of­ten ap­proached by peo­ple say­ing, ‘My fam­ily isn’t Asian or rich, but we are just like the fam­ily in your books. We are just as crazy!’” Tales from The old Coun­Try

Kevin’s own up­bring­ing—“nor­mal” and “idyl­lic” are his choice words to de­scribe it— could not be more dif­fer­ent. Though his writ­ing drew in­spi­ra­tion from his own life, it was not in the way peo­ple might ex­pect. “I w as not brought up in a lav­ish man­ner— quite the op­po­site, ac­tu­ally— as my pa­ter­nal grand­par­ents, whom I lived with, were not os­ten­ta­tious peo­ple,” he shares. “But there was a quiet el­e­gance in the way they car­ried on with their li ves, as well as a beauty to the cus­toms and ri­tu­als we prac­tised that in­spired me as I beg an to con­cep­tu­alise the idea of Ty­er­sall Park.”

In the sev­en­ties and early eight­ies, life in Sin­ga­pore was very dif­fer­ent from how it is today. The shadow of its colo­nial past was still deeply felt by its res­i­dents; hence the vibe was more re­laxed, and there was lit­tle to no pres­sure on the young when it came to their stud­ies. The Kwan fam­ily’s roots are sig­nif­i­cantly en­trenched in that of Sin­ga­pore’s: Kevin’s great-grand­fa­ther, Oh Sian Guan, was one of the found­ing di­rec­tors of Oversea- Chi­nese Bank­ing Cor­po­ra­tion (OCBC), the coun­try’s old­est bank. Rev­erend Paul Hang, his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, founded the Hinghwa Methodist Church. His pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Dr Arthur PC Kwan, was the first west­ern-trained oph­thal­mol­o­gist as well as the Com­mis­sioner of the St John’s Am­bu­lance Brigade. Well-known for treat­ing the poor free of charge at his clinic, he was awarded a knight­hood by Queen El­iz­a­beth II for his hu­man­i­tar­ian ser­vices. “He was a hum­ble, com­pas­sion­ate soul, and the epit­ome of a dream grand­fa­ther,” Kevin fondly re­calls. “I re­mem­ber how he would sneak me and my brothers to the ho­tel at the bot­tom of the hill from our house for ice cream, and we weren’t to tell a soul. He had gone to the Univer­sity of Ed­in­burgh, and was quite the an­glophile—he had the most im­pec­ca­bly tai­lored suits and en­joyed smok­ing the pipe ev­ery evening af­ter din­ner.”

His grand­mother, Egan Oh, was an el­e­gant and im­pe­ri­ous lady who was more tra­di­tional in her

ways. Though she was the dis­ci­plinar­ian of the house­hold, she also had her g en­tle side, which of­ten showed when­ever she would re­count fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries from her youth. “She was the most sought-af­ter debu­tante of her day, ad­mired for her beauty and dis­tinc­tive style,” says Kevin. “Each time she left her house in New­ton, there would be a clus­ter of male ad­mir­ers wait­ing by the gates, who would run af­ter her car, try­ing to throw roses and love let­ters through the win­dow.” It was she who would in­still in her grand­son a sense of self-re­spect and pride in his Chi­nese roots. Be­cause Kevin lived with them from the day he was born to the day he moved to the United States, he re­mained very close to his grand­par­ents.

Like the Young, T’sien, and Shang fam­i­lies in the books, the Kwans had their own cus­toms. Kevin dis­tinctly re­calls how each year, their house­hold would be buzzing with ac­tiv­ity when it w as time to make zhong— sticky rice dumplings stuff ed with var­i­ous fill­ings wrapped in bam­boo leaves— for Dragon Boat Fes­ti­val sea­son. The gar­den­ers would hack down leaves from the bam­boo hedg es and soak them in wa­ter. The cooks w ould then pre­pare huge vats of g luti­nous rice and diff er­ent fill­ings— some sweet, some savoury— and the marathon dumpling wrap­ping ses­sions would be­gin. By the end of the w eek, the Kwans would be dis­tribut­ing the tr eats to rel­a­tives and friends.

“It was a very Huck Finn kind of life,” says the au­thor of his child­hood. When not in school (he went to the An­glo- Chi­nese School [ACS] on Barker Road), he could be found whiling his time away out­doors, bik­ing around the neigh­bour­hood with his gang of friends. At that age, he did not have a con­crete idea of what lux­ury was. “I grew up in an old house filled with old fur­ni­ture, and I was afraid

“I was not brought up in a lav­ish man­ner— quite the op­po­site, ac­tu­ally—as my pa­ter­nal grand­par­ents, whom I lived with were not os­ten­ta­tious peo­ple”

of go­ing down­stairs af­ter dark be­cause ev­ery­thing seemed creepy,” he adds. “Of course, be­ing a young kid back then, I had no ap­pre­ci­a­tion for my grand­par­ents’ cus­tom-made Huan Pao Fang pieces. I was en­vi­ous of my friends who lived in high-rise apart­ments, not be­cause they were wealthy but be­cause I found them cool—they had lifts, wall-to-wall car­pet­ing, and garages filled with vin­tage Rolls Royces and ex­otic sports cars. One es­tate even had an air­plane hangar in the gar­den!” He only be­gan to recog­nise his own priv­i­lege af­ter they left for the United States, where his world be­came one of sub­ur­ban neigh­bour­hoods, smaller homes, no house­hold help, and cer­tainly no air­planes in the back­yards.

An Out­sider LOOk­ing in

Though only a few of his rel­a­tives work in cre­ative in­dus­tries, there has al­ways been an artis­tic streak that runs through the Kwan fam­ily’s blood. Kevin’s fa­ther stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture (but ul­ti­mately chose to be­come an en­gi­neer) while his mother is an ac­com­plished pi­anist. His aunt, a fel­low writer, wrote for Sin­ga­pore Tatler in the 1980s. Had he stayed in Sin­ga­pore, he doubts that he would have had the op­por­tu­nity to ex­er­cise his cre­ativ­ity—per­haps he would have been fated to crunch num­bers in a fi­nance post.

Writ­ing a novel had al­ways been on Kevin’s bucket list, orig­i­nally filed un­der ‘ save- it- for- later’ but quickly mi­grated to ‘do-it-now’ af­ter his fa­ther was di­ag­nosed with can­cer in 2009. Kevin would drive him to med­i­cal ap­point­ments, and their daily con­ver­sa­tions would of­ten turn to sto­ries of the not- so- dis­tant past, of a place that was once home, of a col our­ful cast of char­ac­ters he wished to memo­ri­alise on the printed page.

“So many of my child­hood mem­o­ries per­me­ate the books—from the aun­ties’ Bi­ble study lun­cheons, to Mrs Singh’s armed guard-strewn jew­ellery par­ties, to the man­sion that boasted a pond filled with baby sharks,” he shares. “From the very be­gin­ning, writ­ing a novel was some­thing I wanted to do for my­self as a means of pre­serv­ing the mem­o­ries that had

been per­co­lat­ing in my head for so many years. It was also my goal to show the rest of the world an as­pect of Asia that isn’t limited to what we read about in gos­sip mag­a­zines—that isn’t just about peo­ple drop­ping mil­lions on wed­dings or Her­mès bags. I wanted to de­pict the so­ci­ety that I knew well: one of ed­u­cated fam­i­lies with style and taste that have been qui­etly go­ing about their lives for gen­er­a­tions.”

Moving to the United States had a pro­found ef­fect on how Kevin saw and un­der­stood the world he had been privy to. Char­ac­ters such as Nicholas Young, who had been sent off to board­ing school in the United King­dom (this was a com­mon prac­tice, even in the real world), have an in­evitably west­ern­ised world­view de­spite be­ing Asian, some­thing that the au­thor him­self can re­late to. “My own per­spec­tive is that of an out­sider look­ing in,” he af­firms.

Re­ac­tions to Crazy Rich Asians have run the gamut. A num­ber of his cousins love the books and have been sup­port­ive of Kevin since day one. Some aunts and un­cles don’t quite un­der­stand what the fuss is all about. His num­ber one fan is his mum, who does a won­drous job of con­vinc­ing even to­tal strangers to get copies of their own (“She re­ally should be put on my pub­lisher’s pay­roll,” he quips fondly). Among read­ers, it has reached cult favourite sta­tus. He has heard anec­dotes of peo­ple us­ing the books as shop­ping or eat­ing guides, or as ref­er­ence points to some ca­pac­ity when de­sign­ing homes or plan­ning wed­dings. “A chef at a fa­mous Miche­lin-starred restau­rant in a rather re­mote lo­ca­tion told me that so many peo­ple have come in, say­ing they found out

“I am of­ten ap­proached by peo­ple say­ing, ‘ My fam­ily isn’t Asian or rich, but we are just like the fam­ily in your books. We are just as crazy!’”

about the place through my books,” he shares. “My friend, An­to­nio Ruocco—the san­dal-maker who runs the leg­endary Da Costanzo on Capri said that many women come into his bou­tique to com­mis­sion the same sandals that Astrid wore.”

Chang­ing the World

“I was in ab­solute shock,” he says of the hon­our he has been ac­corded by TIME

Mag­a­zine, which he had learnt of via email just a few days be­fore the an­nounce­ment was made pub­lic. “I was sure they had made a mis­take. Or per­haps some­one was play­ing a prank on me. But a cou­ple of days later, it was on news­stands, with a beau­ti­ful es­say by Con­stance Wu—who had man­aged not to give away any­thing de­spite our cor­re­spon­dence just a few days be­fore.” Kevin is hum­bled by the experience, happy to be shar­ing the hon­our with many of his own long­time he­roes, as well as grate­ful for the in­cred­i­ble lev­els of sup­port he has re­ceived from read­ers all over the world.

And there is even more rea­son to cel­e­brate, for his work has made a suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion from the printed page to the sil­ver screen. In­volved in all cre­ative as­pects of the film, he worked closely with di­rec­tor Jon Chu as well as the rest of the cast and crew, scout­ing for the per­fect lo­ca­tions, choos­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate cos­tumes, and even help­ing train the ac­tors to speak with the right ac­cents. He per­son­ally reached out to peo­ple he knew to bor­row one-of-a-kind jew­ellery and time­pieces—a dis­tin­guished col­lec­tor per­mit­ted them the use of an in­cred­i­bly rare Rolex Paul New­man Panda Day­tona worth over half a mil­lion dol­lars—to es­tab­lish a truly au­then­tic feel.

“This film—which is the first Hol­ly­wood stu­dio ro­man­tic com­edy to fea­ture an Asian cou­ple—is im­por­tant in that it’s part of a larger move­ment to cre­ate greater rep­re­sen­ta­tion in main­stream en­ter­tai­ment,” he adds. “There are now over 20 mil­lion Asians in the U nited States, and the pop­u­la­tion has grown 72 per cent since the year 2000. When I speak to book clubs abroad and share the story of how a pro­ducer who was ini­tially in­ter­ested in the film rights sug­gested that Rachel be cast as a Cau­casian girl, women get out­raged at the thought of Hol­ly­wood pa­tro­n­is­ing them, think­ing they only want to see films star­ring white peo­ple. The tide has re­ally turned, and peo­ple ev­ery­where are crav­ing for new faces and new sto­ries.”

“I wanted to de­pict the so­ci­ety that I knew well: one of ed­u­cated fam­i­lies with style and taste that have been qui­etly go­ing about their lives for gen­er­a­tions”

Egan Oh (far right) with her older brother Oh Hoon Kuay (far left) and friends; The au­thor’s mother, El­iz­a­beth Kwan; (op­po­site) Egan Oh (left, in white tuxedo) with a rel­a­tive at the New­ton Es­tate fam­ily ties

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