Kevin Kwan’s career as an observer of class, privilege, and wealth began when he was in first grade. He attended the private Anglo-Chinese School, which catered to Singapore’s ruling class. Kwan’s great-grandfather was one of the founders of the nation’s oldest bank, and his family had been going to ACS for generations. Back in his great-grandfather’s day, the island was a port in the then-sprawling British empire. By the late 1970s, when Kwan was in first grade, Singapore was sovereign, and its banks were flush with capital. Money, serious money, was showing up everywhere.
At Kwan’s school, students were getting dropped off in Benzes and Bentleys, expensive watches on their slender wrists. This was all new to Kwan. Not the wealth, exactly, but its display. His family’s house was old and grand and packed with dusty antiques, in contrast with the glitzy high-rises where his friends lived. He didn’t really consider what the wealth he was seeing at school might mean until it caused a scandal in the community.
Kwan still remembers the article today: “The Little Horrors of ACS,” read the headline. The “school of snobs” had made its way into a national tabloid. Once the story broke, ACS held an emergency assembly. “I remember the principal crying at the podium, saying, ‘This is such a blight on our history and heritage,’ ” Kwan told me. The school forbade students from wearing anything with a logo on it, and insisted that the chauffeured drop-offs happen out of sight. Of course, the restrictions only made the status symbols even more coveted. For Kwan, it was like a switch had been flipped. “I didn’t know about any of these things,” he recalled. “Until, suddenly, I did.”
It was the beginning of Kwan’s lifelong fascination with snobbery—that strange, sometimes tragic, often funny dance people take part in to prove they’re richer or smarter or better-stationed than someone else. Thirty years later, it was this milieu that provided the backdrop for Kwan’s first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, which has sold more than 5 million copies and been translated into 36 languages. The 2018 film adaptation was also a huge hit, grossing $239 million worldwide and featuring one of the first all-Asian principal casts in a major Hollywood film since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club.
Crazy Rich Asians and its sequels—China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems— follow the Youngs, a clan of fantastically wealthy Singaporeans, first as Nick Young falls for Rachel Chu, an NYU professor; then as the pair marry; and later as the matriarch of the clan takes ill and the grand old family estate comes up for grabs.
Kwan’s new novel, Sex and Vanity, which will be released on June 30, is a departure, insofar as he’s left Singapore and the Youngs behind.* Instead, Kwan draws more directly from the 16 years he worked in New York media, his “forays into the WASP world” while there, and the old British and American novels that he grew up reading and still loves. The plot is dishy and delightful, filled with all sorts of bad behavior performed in couture. But as loose and fun and compulsively readable as they are, Kwan’s novels are also very clearly the work of someone who spends much of his social time paying extremely close attention. “I am not a creative person,” Kwan said. “I’m an observer. I just see things, and I soak things up.”
Kwan left Singapore when he was 11, moving with his family to a Houston suburb, where his father had business interests. Kwan has never returned to the island of his youth and has no desire to go back. He likes imagining the place as it once was. But the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy is distinctly, almost relentlessly, modern. So how—and where—was Kwan doing his seeing and soaking?
“Looking back now,” Kwan said, “I was a good shape-shifter from a very early age.” During school hours, he was a preppy ACS kid, but once classes let out he became a “wild little island child.” There were, back then, still kampongs in Singapore—simple village compounds, where Kwan and his gang from the neighborhood would get up to no good, stealing baby chickens and climbing trees to pick fruit. Then he’d hear the dinner gong, and he’d scramble home to clean up and make himself presentable for a wide range of potential guests—his aunt’s artist friends, or visiting dignitaries, or the finance minister.
One aspect of this existence that Kwan finds difficult for others—Westerners in particular—to understand is just how British his Singaporean family could be, how they were outsiders even in their homeland. His parents spoke nothing but English, and the little Mandarin he and his brothers knew, they learned in school. The literature that Kwan latched on to early was by Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald. This was largely thanks to his aunt, who had been a journalist and later helped build the library collection at the National University of Singapore. “At some point she realized I was interested in books and she started assigning me stuff, so I got steeped in the classics early,” Kwan told me.
Later, once his family relocated to the States, Kwan discovered Tom Wolfe and Dominick Dunne—social satirists who would eventually inspire him to spin the same sort of comedies of manners out of the current culture. As a teenager, he wrote—poetry, mostly—but also felt pulled toward more visual mediums, photography in particular.
In 1995, Kwan moved to New York to attend Parsons School of Design. Many of the friends he made came from old-money East Coast families, and these families reminded him of his own. They were WASPs, and whenever he visited their Upper East Side apartments and weekend homes in the Hamptons, he felt pangs of recognition at the old wicker furniture, the Anglophile decor, and the well-worn penny loafers—the understated markers of privilege. He saw the 1985 film adaptation of the Forster classic A Room With a View and found, to his surprise, that Charlotte Bartlett (played by Maggie Smith) sounded exactly like his aunt, the former journalist. “Same tone. Same pitch,” Kwan said. “These Edwardian mores Forster was writing about, they were brought over to Singapore and just never died.”
The setup of his latest novel is an homage to A Room With a View, and much of the rest comes straight from Kwan’s lived experience. He told me a story about showing up at a club in the Hamptons in a designer shirt without a collar, and being sent around the corner to buy some cheap collared shirt, just so he could go inside. I realized, as he was telling it, that his story was nearly identical to one he put in Sex and Vanity. It’s these rules, spoken and unspoken and mostly ridiculous, that Kwan finds so fascinating. He says he loves seeing how they’re deployed. “Really, they serve to keep out the interloper—” He started laughing at some internal realization, then he said it out loud: “But I am the interloper.”
After Parsons, Kwan worked for Tibor Kalman, the legendary graphic designer. By 2000, he’d started a creative studio of his own—his clients included MoMA, TED, and The New York Times. All the while, he continued telling his friends stories about his childhood in Singapore. They encouraged him to commit the stories to paper, but he avoided doing so for years, until 2009, when his father was diagnosed with cancer. Kwan flew to Houston to help care for him, and as they were shuttling between appointments and treatments, they’d reminisce about Singapore days.
His dad died—one of the seminal experiences of his life, Kwan said—and he thought, “I’m just going to try this. I’m going to write a novel.” He dusted off an old poem he’d written about his mother’s gossipy Bible group, and began putting together other vignettes, the sorts of true but larger-than-life tales that made the rounds at family dinners and during drives with his dad. “I was writing to amuse a small group of friends,” he said, mostly folks who knew nothing about the Singapore of his youth. He adopted a voice on the page that was fun and name-droppy, nothing like what he thought of as his “real” writing voice, which he describes as more reserved and minimalistic. Before long, Crazy Rich Asians emerged.
The book’s success shocked no one more than Kwan. He hadn’t planned on publishing a sequel, and while he was writing China Rich Girlfriend he started to feel trapped by the voice he’d concocted. “I was like an actor stuck in a soap opera for too long,” he said. He returned to the classics and realized that he could find inspiration in the plotting. He sensed, too, that with this series he could begin to mine a deeper, more universal vein.
When the actor Tan Kheng Hua first read Crazy Rich Asians, she felt “awakened,” as she describes it. “It makes you feel included and seen.” Tan, who is from Singapore, played the role of Rachel’s mother in the movie version of the book, and later became close friends with Kwan while promoting the film.
I asked Tan if what she meant by feeling included was along the lines of what the books and film had helped launch, which was a reckoning within Hollywood of its severe lack of Asian representation. “It started a movement, which is wonderful,” she said. “But ultimately I think that what motivates Kevin is his love and belief in family, and family dynamics, these value systems, the tribal council that is the family.” That was why, Tan explained, she thought the books and movie have been so successful. Yes, they take you into this world you’ve never seen before, and the riches are nice window dressing, but at their root is entry into a specific sort of value system within a particular family unit. And of course, everyone can understand that—because just as everyone has a family, everyone’s family is crazy in its own unique way.
The first time I spoke with Kwan, he was sitting at home, alone, on his couch, being asked to describe himself and his surroundings to someone he’d just met on the phone. This person—me—had proposed that he deploy his skill at scene setting, ideally with some very specific Kwan-esque flourishes, such as brand names and asides that could be rendered into footnotes. “Are we going to go there?” he asked softly. “I feel like the brand-name thing, that’s the height of tacky.” He wanted to be clear that in real life, he lived in shorts and sandals, ever the island boy. Still, I pressed him on details. What about the couch? “It’s, like, a white kind of, um—I’m losing my ability to describe anything.”
Later, after we’d talked for many hours across a few days, we returned to the particular discomfort of turning his gaze on himself. In New York, he’d been happy to go to cool downtown parties and remain unnoticed, “like the invisible Asian tourist that is ubiquitous and everywhere.”
Kwan now lives in Los Angeles, on the Westside. He, like so many of us, is stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic. The Zoom meetings were getting to him because they meant having to be on camera and not in the background, where he is more at ease. He was an executive producer on the Crazy Rich Asians film, and is doing the same for its sequels, which were scheduled to begin shooting but have been delayed, like everything else. Through his production company, he is also developing two TV shows. One he described as “Downton Abbey meets David Lynch set in Asia.” The other is a documentary series about the family dynasties behind luxury businesses.
One morning when I called, he sounded low. “Oh, I’m all right,” he said. “It’s just—” He listed various attacks throughout the country, particularly in Texas, against Asian Americans, thanks to the persistent rebranding of COVID‑19 as the “Chinese virus.” He was worried about his mom, who still lives in Texas. He was worried about the world. He was also grateful for his work: “There’s a really lovely optimism in Hollywood. And some day, when we’re all able to go outside again, everyone wants to have created stuff to be ready.”
When would that day come? It seemed so uncertain, so unknown, and I wondered aloud if it felt strange, or inappropriate, somehow, for Kwan to have a novel called Sex and Vanity, detailing the snobbish lives of the rich and ridiculous, enter the world during a global pandemic. Kwan, by way of an explanation, turned back to his childhood obsession: “What is the root of snobbery?” He told me another story, about a party where he’d watched as the one other outsider in attendance—who was beautiful and successful in her own right, but not part of the in‑group of Upper East Siders—was completely, viciously shut out. “What is the root of this exclusion?” Kwan wondered. The answer he’d come to was, in fact, the secret theme of all his books: that tribal, ancient reaction to the most primitive emotion. An emotion we are all used to living with every day, these days. “It’s fear. Fear of the unknown.”
* After this article went to press, the publication month of Sex and Vanity was changed from July to June. The article has been updated online to reflect the change. It appears in the July/August 2020 print edition with the headline “The Shakespeare of Status Anxiety.”
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