“So, are you a crazy rich Asian?” I ask Kevin Kwan, the author of this summer’s hottest read, the satirical Crazy Rich Asians. He guffaws and then deadpans: “No, but I’m definitely crazy!”

We suspect that Kwan is just being modest. How else then could one be privy to the lives of the supremely rich, as he has clearly shown in his book? A few moments of probing and Kwan lets out: “Yes, it is likely that Prestige has met, chatted or had a laugh with my family members. But I would really like to keep their identities private.”

Kwan’s novel comes at a time when Asia, particularly China’s astounding economic growth, has been thrown into the international spotlight. According to reports by The Economist, China’s economy has grown fivefold since it opened itself to the world in 1978. It now also boasts a list of over 122 billionaires, according to Forbes, 12 more than Russia.

Kwan agrees that such growth has brought about an insatiable curiosity on what it means to be mega rich and Asian. And he is happy to be the one (albeit via a deliciously juicy read) to shed some light on the subject matter.

Born into a moneyed family and raised in Singapore, Kwan and his family migrated to a more modest environment in Texas, US, when he turned 12. From being surrounded by domestic helpers and personal chauffeurs, he was suddenly forced to stand on his own two feet in a brand new environment.

But Kwan bears no grudges. “It was quite a culture shock for me at first but on hindsight, it was really a brilliant move on the part of my father. He had a vision of how he wanted his children to grow up and it involved uprooting ourselves to live in [a foreign land like] America,” he shares.

Kwan says that this was when he became very independent. “I learnt to wake up in the mornings on my own, make my own lunches and figure out a way to get to school,” he chuckles. “You know, things that were not quite the norm before.”

His father, unknowingly, also influenced Kwan’s decision to start penning the book. In 2010, after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, it reminded Kwan how fragile life can be. “Writing a novel was always part of my retirement plan but when that happened, I realised there is no better time than now.”

Crazy Rich Asians is a novel set in Singapore and loosely inspired by the people he knows. Some of the anecdotes (outrageous scandals included) within the pages are inspired by what Kwan has heard growing up. The novel took the author, who now lives in New York, two years to complete. He counts this as a lucky break, considering that some of his writer friends take ten years to complete their books. In the first three months alone, he churned out 300 pages.

But of course, like all great novels, there was a lot of fine-tuning, which included his editor’s request to remove some details. These, the editor opined, were an extreme case of exaggeration. “She was concerned about the believability,” Kwan laughs. “Even when I told her that some of the things really happened, she was convinced it would make me lose readers.”

Among the anecdotes and facts Kwan had to tone down included the number of private jets and the level of spending that his characters indulged in during a weekend shopping spree in Paris.

The novel also features a clever play on names, something of an inside joke for the affluent Asian community. A distinguished property developer is called Sina Land and a celebrity photographer, Russel Wing. “I wanted readers to have fun with that,” he chuckles.

Due to the vivid portrayal of the characters, readers can’t help but also have fun trying to match them to real life personalities. As you go along, it’s impossible to not stop and wonder: Who is Kevin Kwan talking about?

Kevin Kwan at a fundraising party in Los Angeles
Kevin Kwan at a fundraising party in Los Angeles

Another thing that the author — who is also a creative consultant — has done is related to his presentation of consumer culture. Over 403 pages, he shows diversity in the different types of wealth that exist in this part of the world. “I was presenting different ways of how people handle their money. It is up to the readers to decide if it’s a good or bad thing.”

When mulling over whether to embark on this project, Kwan, a Parsons Design School graduate, drew from his working experience with Tibor Kalman, the well-known American graphic designer and current editor-in-chief of Colors magazine. Known for his critique of consumer culture, Kalman was the one who instilled in Kwan that all of his endeavours should be worth his time.

He adds: “It has become part of my personal philosophy to leave a light carbon footprint: Is the project worth it or will it be mere landfill?”

Judging by the rave reviews it has since received, the fact that Crazy Rich Asians is a national US bestseller and that it scored itself a movie deal with Color Force (the same American production company behind the multi-award-winning movie The Hunger Games), the tome is certainly worth every second of Kwan’s time.

When asked what he thought of society magazines, he answers: “Anything that brings fun and entertainment to people is good. People have always been fascinated to read about the rich and famous.”

With his successful debut, he would no doubt soon be rich(er), as well as famous and hopefully, stay just as crazy. And yes, a sequel is already in the works.

This story was first published on 1 Oct 2013