Kevin Kwan, author of the bestselling novel, Crazy Rich Asian.
The first rule of being filthy rich is you do not talk about being filthy rich. Which is why it’s always strangely exciting to catch a glimpse of how the other half lives. Take last month, for example, when word got out that a Chinese investor had snapped up a $17 million penthouse in Hyde Park for his children who are about to start university in Sydney. According to ‘sources’, the new would-be student pad boasts three bedrooms with marble ensuites and an outdoor entertainment area with 270-degree harbour views.
Stuff like this makes a person think. Is it normal to both want to punch and to be a Chinese stranger’s kids?
Author Kevin Kwan is familiar with such existential dilemmas -- not least because he grew up with children like these. As someone who was born into an ‘old established Singapore family’ and moved to Houston with his parents at 12, Kwan has always been a keen observer of the ‘overseas Asian’ elites. During regular trips to visit childhood friends and family over the years, he’d take mental notes of their exclusive parties, outrageous gossip, and eye-popping indulgences. The result is Crazy Rich Asian -- a sparkling debut novel that offers readers an insider’s look at the secret lives of the absurdly wealthy.
Plot-wise, Kwan’s mock-epic narrative centres on a 30-something New York-based couple Nicolas Young and Rachel Chu and what happens when the unsuspecting Rachel is invited to spend the summer with Nick to meet his (crazy rich) family in Singapore and to attend his best friend’s lavish wedding.
Unsurprisingly, chaos ensues. But along the way we’re treated to a guided tour of real-life inspired ‘wealth porn’. Look out for climate controlled wardrobes (cashmere and leather stored at a constant 15 degrees apart), private jets with Ayurvedic yoga studios and label-obsessed trust fund brats that would make Summer Heights High’s Ja’mie King look like a walk in the park.
“It’s voyeuristic, it’s dynasty, it’s Downton Abbey, and no one’s told it from this Asian perspective,” says Kwan in a recent Vanity Fair interview. The 39-year-old’s vision obviously paid off, since the book has just been optioned by Nina Jacobson (the producer of Hunger Games) and praised by the likes of Jackie Collins and Anna Wintour.
Like Austen, Trollope, Fitzgerald and other chroniclers of the upper crust before him, Kwan relies heavily on satire to highlight the snobberies and unique problems that come with ‘having too much of everything’. “I’ve very much seen the flip side of it where you have these highly dysfunctional people and they feel like they don’t have a mission in life,” says Kwan, “ And then there are the everyday Rich People Problems like, “Oh my god, I’m having issues with all of my drivers. Or, I took my maid to London and she ran away to go and work for a Saudi family.”
It’s conversation nuggets like these that make for the most memorable lines in Crazy Rich Asians. Like the scene where children are told to finish their food because, “Don’t you know there are children starving in America?” or when Nicolas’ mum complains about the gruelling wait outside Louis Vuitton stores: “Those lines are terrible, and then they only allow Asians to buy one item [at a time]. Reminds me of the Japanese occupation, when they forced all the Chinese to wait in line for scraps of rotten food.” Even Ivy League universities aren’t immune: Oh Stanford? “It’s that school in California for people who can’t get into Harvard”.
The point is, this is no Joy Luck Club. As Kwan explains: “Asian literature is evolving with the people. It’s always a reflection on what’s happening to the culture at large. I think at first, it’s very important to tell these immigrant stories that reminded you of what happened during the war, the rebellions, the cultural revolution and so on. Those are still very important stories to tell. But I feel now that there’s room to tell new stories.”
If the popularity of Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire, or Moshin Hamid’s How to get filthy rich in rising Asia are anything to go by, it’s clear that there is a growing hunger from the reading public for mainstream fiction that revolves around a non-white cast.
“Right now there are just so many stereotypes. Living in the west, you see how there’s only two versions of how Asian men are supposed to be. Either they’re very nice, yuppie husbands with children in ads, or they’re IT geeks. For the first time, [we’re telling stories of] sexualised, sophisticated Asians that didn’t have any baggage about being from Asia,” says Kwan.
Granted, this doesn’t make the characters in Crazy Rich Asians any easier to like. But that’s exactly what makes the book so hard to put down. After all, the best way to enjoy other people’s good fortune is with a stiff dose of satire.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan ($29.99, Allen & Unwin) is out now.