The film is just a few days away from being released in theaters across the United States and Kwan, 44, is in high demand.
“I literally have half an hour,” he tells me when I ask how much time we have. There’s not a trace of annoyance in his voice, he’s simply stating a fact. “My next call is going to come in at 4.”
The “Crazy Rich Asians” movie has generated excitement worldwide, some lauding it as “historic,” “a watershed moment for Asian representation” and the “dawn of a new era.” But for Kwan, the high expectations surrounding his work is a lot of pressure — “too much pressure,” he said with a laugh.
In conceiving the story, Kwan did not set out to revolutionize Hollywood with a film that would bring about a sudden change in an industry rooted in tradition. When asked if he ever anticipated his work could have such an impact, he responded instantly and emphatically: “Not at all.”
Just nine years ago, Kwan was at a different place in his life. He wasn’t on a movie set in Malaysia. He wasn’t being mobbed by reporters outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. He wasn’t posing for photos alongside famous actors such as Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), Constance Wu (“Fresh Off the Boat”) and Ken Jeong (“The Hangover”).
He was in Houston, driving his father, who had been diagnosed with cancer, to daily chemotherapy appointments.
On these drives, with miles of highway stretching in front of them, Kwan said he and his father, who died in 2010, passed the time by reminiscing.
“I just felt it was so important at the time to reconnect with our past, our shared history,” said Kwan, who was working as a creative consultant in New York at the time. “There was so much I didn’t know that I wanted to know, that I tried to get to know without seeming morbid, without trying to say, ‘I don’t know how much time you have left, but I want to know all this stuff.’”
One of the things they talked about was life in Singapore, where Kwan was born and lived before his family moved to Houston when he was 11 years old.
This is an origin story Kwan has retold numerous times since 2013 when his debut novel, a glittery gold book about Singapore’s 1 percent called “Crazy Rich Asians,” first hit shelves. The book, and now the movie, tell the story of a Chinese-American economics professor named Rachel Chu who accompanies her boyfriend, Nick Young, back to Singapore to meet his family for the first time. What Rachel doesn’t know is that Nick is the “Prince Harry of Asia,” the heir to one of Singapore’s largest family fortunes.
The fictional book is full of vivid descriptions of sprawling mansions, exotic getaways (on private jets, of course), high fashion and gluttonous feasts. While some of the details, such as a living room with a sunken pond full of baby sharks, seem almost too fantastical to be real, they are. Much of the novel is inspired by Kwan’s personal experiences and its characters are loosely based on real people he knows.
“I come from an old establishment family from Singapore,” he wrote in a feature for Town & Country, noting that his family tree dates back from the year 946. Kwan’s paternal grandmother was the daughter of a founding director of one of Singapore’s oldest banks. One of his great-uncles was a doctor who helped invent Tiger Balm.
Even decades later, Kwan can still picture the opulent world of which he had been a part.
“I remember I had an aunt that lived in a house that had this beautiful ceramic wall that was entirely a painting of a peacock,” he said. “There were all these beautiful scenes from my childhood that really are coated in amber.”
The novel, which has since become part of a widely popular trilogy, does not intend to glorify wealth, Kwan is adamant about this. He said he aimed to give readers a glimpse into an otherwise exclusive way of life that many, especially those in Western cultures, aren’t even aware actually exists.
“I really did see this as an ethnography of a culture and a species of people,” he said. “It is meant to be deeply satirical of this world. . . . I’m putting a lens on it and allowing people to make their own decisions about how they feel about this.”
Writing with a Western audience in mind, Kwan said he framed the narrative around an Asian American who visits Asia for the first time. He didn’t think people living in Asia would be interested in reading about crazy rich Asians because “they have their own stories, this is old hat for them.”
“I felt like the perfect vehicle was to the tell the story through eyes of an Asian American because that’s the perfect entry point into this world,” he said. “You think you’re Asian. You think you know what you’re experiencing and then you realize it’s nothing like what you thought.”
Despite focusing the novel on an Asian American experience, Kwan noticed that the demographic was not among his novel’s original fan base.
“I felt there was a reticence toward my book from Asian Americans and justifiably so, I never took offense to it,” he said. “It is kind of a provocative title, and I think Asian Americans are so used to the disappointment of anything portraying their culture that’s not done right, not accurate. Naturally, there was a deep suspicion at first when this book first came out.”
Instead, his early adopters were members of the New York media, people in the fashion industry and “the upper east side crowd,” he said. Kwan recalled one “brilliant” promotional strategy in which copies of the book were placed on every seat of the Hampton Jitney — “the bus service that every Manhattanite who doesn’t have his own private plane takes,” he calls it.
“It was this captive audience of the right people,” he said.
Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour was also one of the first people to champion the book, excerpting and publishing part of it in an issue of the magazine. “That was monumental,” Kwan said.
Perhaps even more monumental, however, is that Kwan’s book has since garnered widespread support from the Asian American community and is now at the center of a movement to advance diversity in Hollywood, an industry known for not casting Asians in lead roles and casting white actors as nonwhite characters. With its all-Asian cast and Asian American leads, the “Crazy Rich Asians” movie aims to prove that Asian actors and narratives centered on Asian or Asian American experiences are bankable.
Beneath the depictions of glitz and glam is a story that rings true for many Asian Americans, Nancy Wang Yuen, chair of Biola University’s sociology department, told The Washington Post. The book and film capture the experience of an Asian American who feels like a “fish out of water in Asia,” Yuen said.
“The Hollywood trope is to cast a white person as an ‘outsider’ in Asia, but I think that they don’t understand Asian Americans also feel like an outsider in Asia,” she said. “We are every bit as American as a white person, especially if we were born and raised in the United States.”
Kwan never expected his book would be at the forefront of the fight for Asian and Asian American representation in mainstream media. The process of adapting the novel for the screen began roughly five years ago, long before the movement really started taking shape, he said, adding that the excitement the film has generated is largely because of “the luck of timing.”
“It’s deeply touching and I feel very lucky,” he said. “This is something you couldn’t have engineered. When cultural movements happen, it’s so beyond your control.”
There’s a lot riding on this two-hour “Meet the Parents”-esque romantic comedy — namely the hopes of more than 17 million Asian Americans who have been repeatedly let down by movies and TV shows — and Kwan knows it. When asked how he felt about the possibility that “Crazy Rich Asians” could be the turning point for representation in Hollywood, Kwan was at a loss for words.
Laughing, he responded, “I don’t even know how to answer that question, that’s just way too much pressure.”
“This movie cannot be everything for everyone,” he continued after a brief pause, acknowledging that the film has faced criticism, including its failure to represent a broader Asian experience.
But, Kwan said he never meant for his book or the movie to depict the “entire entirety of the Asian experience, rather it is a “very specific movie about a very specific world.”
“If anything, it only represents the 1 percent,” he said. “And there’s another 99 percent that really deserve so much more. If we can just be part of this effort and part of the groundswell, that’s all we’re asking to do.”
“If we are part of that icebreaker that breaks through the iceberg in front of us and allows so many other stories to come through and so much more talent to be showcased, I would feel extraordinarily privileged to be part of that.”