Much of the novel is inspired by Kwan's personal experiences and its characters are loosely based on real people he knows.
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. 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'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. 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.
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.
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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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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 we can just be part of this effort and part of the groundswell, that's all we're asking to do. Is 'Crazy Rich Asians' historic? Photo: Gary Fountain, Houston Chronicle.
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