Kevin Kwan is staying sane as he encounters fame and acclaim for his books “Crazy Rich Asians” and “China Rich Girlfriend”
With its huge publishing industry and a potential Asian-American readership well in excess of 10 million people, the US sounds like an ideal place for an Asian novelist to live off his laurels. But it’s also a path strewn with difficulties and even best-selling authors find it near impossible to enjoy financial freedom without a second career.
That said, the ride has so far been smooth for Singaporean-born novelist Kevin Kwan whose two novels – “Crazy Rich Asians” and “China Rich Girlfriend” – have become international best-sellers and are now slated for screen adaptations.
“I consider myself lucky as so many of my friends who are choreographers and content creators have a hard time. There’s so much content on the Internet these days that competition is fierce. Content creators are not being valued the way they used to be,” he says.
In Thailand recently to give a talk at the Bangkok Edge Festival, Kwan took time out to give interviews to the local press, conceding that international speaking engagements and chats with the press are just two of the ways his novels have changed his life.
Born and raised in Singapore, where he attended Anglo-Chinese School in the mornings and spent his afternoons chasing after neighbourhood dogs on his bike, Kwan was 11 when the family moved to the US.
“My father had always wanted to live in the West. He loved the lifestyle there, and he had no choice but to emigrate,” he says.
Dad was an engineer and mum a pianist. Neither were bookworms. “My dad didn’t read for pleasure. He read books for reference.”
Instead Kwan credits his aunt, a librarian in Singapore, for instilling a love of reading in him and giving him books to read from age seven. “I can recall the first book I read, cover to cover by myself. It was ‘The Wishing-Chair’ by Enid Blyton. It was like the early Harry Potter books, with a fantasy world, magic, fairies and special people. Looking back, I think my mother thought I was reading too much and would have preferred to see me outside playing football,” he says with a fond smile.
In the US, Kwan attended Clear Lake High School in Houston, Texas, home to Space Centre Houston, NASA Mission Control and International Space Station Mission Control. His school pals were the children of astronauts.
“I had this wonderful English teacher. She was the first to give me creative writing assignments. The first thing I wrote for her was an essay about Marilyn Monroe. She liked it so much that she tried to get it published. That’s when I realised I had a talent for writing.’
Kwan believes he benefitted from the US education which, unlike Singapore where the emphasis is on mathematics and science, encourages students to follow their interests.
“Life was interesting because for the first time, I was learning for the love of learning. The philosophy in the US is that education should be fun, which is very different from Singapore. In Singapore, teachers will say these are the things you have to learn, things to memorise, and these are the tests you have to pass. In the US, if you enjoy writing, you take writing classes,” he explains.
Kwan went to the University of Houston where he opted for a degree in creative writing. His confidence grew and he quickly became a regular contributor to the university’s paper.
“Personally I was much more interested in poetry. So I wrote a lot of experimental poetry. For me, poetry is like a jewel. You have to keep chipping away [at it] to find the perfection. My poetry teacher said a poem is never finished, only abandoned. And he was right.”
Kwan later moved to New York where he pursued a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Parsons School of Design. His early years in the city were spent working for Martha Stewart Living, Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, and M&Co, the design firm founded by Tibor Kalman. In 2000, he set up his own creative studio, where he specialised in producing high profile visual projects for clients such as the New York Times, the Museum of Modern Art and Rockwell Group.
In his free time, he wrote poetry and attempted to complete the manuscript of his first novel, “a hobby,” he says of the tome.
“I wasn’t really doing it for money because I was making a good living as a consultant,” he says.
His debut novel, “Crazy Rich Asians”, published in 2013, tells the story of three super-rich, pedigreed Chinese families and scheming that occurs when Nick, the heir to one of the most massive fortunes in Asia, brings home his ABC (American-born Chinese) girlfriend, Rachel, to the dismay of the whole clan.
“I grew up in a privileged professional family. The characters in my book are the people with whom I came into contact. So I thought I would write about what I knew best. And people are fascinated by the very rich and powerful,” he says.
“But I don’t belong to that world. I’m just a visitor to that world occasionally. I was lucky in the sense that no one was writing about contemporary Asian wealth in fiction form,” Kwan says.
The book looks set to change the usual stereotypical image of Asians in the West, who are often seen as penny-pinching immigrants. The protagonist Nick is an Oxbridge-educated New York University history professor with a family home in Singapore that looks like a palace. Rachel, 29, is a professor of economics at NYU and was educated at two of the top U universities: Stanford and Northwestern. The other characters include cigar-puffing Asian tycoons who get around in private jets, male Hong Kong fashionistas, Chuppies (Chinese yuppies) and Henwees (high-net worth individuals).
“Of course there are Asian stereotypes in the US. There they tend to only see immigrants who came in poor but built business empires. They don’t see the world of old money and the sophistication that exists in Asia as depicted in the book.
“Asian wealth has had a profound effect on the luxury economy, so much so that the international high-end brands are now catering primarily to the Asian market.
While Kwan admits to being “comfortable”, he is quick to explain that he is nothing like the super-rich in his books. Writing is still a financially precarious career, he says, adding that he knows quite a few best-selling authors who need to supplement their incomes by holding down university teaching jobs.
“That’s the sad truth of creative life in the US. That’s the case in Asia too. They can’t make a living as a writer,” he said.
Being an Asian writer in the US is a struggle, too, in the sense that he has to contend with losing a big share of the market by writing a book about something that’s exotic. “It’s a struggle for any writers of
colour to get their work noticed, whether you are Asian, African-American or native American. You’re not going to sell as many books as Danielle Steel. If I wrote about crazy rich blondes, those privileged Park Avenue princesses, I think I would capture a larger audience,” he says.
But there are advantages to being a best-selling writer and Kwan admits that his books have changed his life profoundly. A film adaptation of “Crazy Rich Asians” is being made by Ivanhoe Pictures, and the author is executive producer.
“I also do a lot more travelling that I used to and am much more in the public eye. There’s a general perception that I must have made millions of dollars. That’s far from the truth given the economics of the publishing world,” he says with a grin.
On the shelf
"Crazy Rich Asians" has been translated into Thai by Sasi Pin under the title "Liam Botan" and is published by Gallery Publishing. It's available at Asia Books, Hardcover, Candide, B2S, Kinokuniya, Nai-in and other leading bookshops and costs Bt495. The English versions of Kwan's novels can be found at Asia Books and other leading bookstores.