TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The new romantic comedy "Crazy Rich Asians" which topped the domestic box office this weekend is adapted from a best-selling novel of the same name by my guest Kevin Kwan. He's also an executive producer of the film. He's also the author of the other novels "China Rich Girlfriend" and "Rich People Problems." Kwan was born into a rich family in Singapore. "Crazy Rich Asians" draws on the extravagant homes, private jets, jewelry and lifestyles he was surrounded by as a child. He moved to Texas with his parents when he was 11. "Crazy Rich Asians" is considered a possible turning point in casting because the characters are all Asian and Asian-American, and all the actors are of Asian descent.
Let's start with a scene from early in the film. The two main characters, played by Henry Golding and Constance Wu, are professors at NYU who started dating a year ago and are getting serious. Nick is from Singapore, and Rachel is Chinese-American. Nick has invited her to his best friend's wedding in Singapore where Nick will be able to introduce Rachel to his family. When they board the jet to Singapore, she is expecting to be in coach but finds herself with Nick in a luxurious ultra-first-class section.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")
CONSTANCE WU: (As Rachel Chu) Nick, we can't afford this. These pajamas are fancier than any of my real clothes.
HENRY GOLDING: (As Nick Young) My family has business with the airline. The tickets - they're a perk.
WU: (As Rachel Chu) What kind of business?
GOLDING: (As Nick Young) Real estate, investment, other things - nothing interesting - dim sum.
WU: (As Rachel Chu) So your family is, like, rich?
GOLDING: (As Nick Young) We're comfortable.
WU: (As Rachel Chu) That is exactly what a superrich person would say. It's not a big deal obviously. I just think it's kind of weird that I had no idea. I mean, you have a Jamba Juice card. You use my Netflix password. You play basketball at that Y that kind of smells.
GOLDING: (As Nick Young) I really like that place, thank you very much. And, yes, my family has money, but I've always thought of it as theirs, not mine.
GROSS: Kevin Kwan, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the movie. The novel and the movie are based on your firsthand knowledge of what it's like to be superrich in Singapore. When you moved to the U.S., first you went to Houston, and then you went to New York for college. Were you uncomfortable revealing your family wealth to your friends like the character Nick is?
KEVIN KWAN: Well, first of all, I should clarify that I did not come from a superrich family at all. You know, I came from a family of extremely old money. And so by the time I was born, you know, there was really just a trickle of money left. So, you know, while we had all the privilege, we didn't have the same spoils that, you know, "Crazy Rich Asians" would have today. So by comparison, I think I led a privileged, lucky life, but it wasn't as extreme as what would be depicted in the movies.
GROSS: OK. So not as extreme (laughter) as depicted in the movies. But give us a sense of, like, what your family's wealth was.
KWAN: We were comfortable.
GROSS: Oh, stop.
KWAN: No, I - you know, I would say we were well off. But, yeah, I think yet again, even in this instance, you know, talking to you, it's something that's extremely hard to articulate...
GROSS: I am sensing that.
KWAN: ...And express.
GROSS: I am definitely sensing that (laughter).
KWAN: And even - yeah. It's just because I think you've been trained, you know, almost from birth to - this is omerta. This is something to never be talked about.
KWAN: And so I just - you know, I relapse into playing that role of kind of, you know, plausible deniability. But, no, truly, I mean, I grew up very lucky, very pampered, but in no way like some of my classmates or even some of my cousins. So it was a world I witnessed and was taken out of, you know, at age 11. And I think moving to the states, being there, you know, for high school, it really clarified a lot of things for me because I realized how different life had been in Singapore than it was in suburban Houston, Texas.
GROSS: That you were wealthier than you thought maybe.
KWAN: No (laughter), that I'd had this very sort of strange, enchanted childhood, but I didn't have it anymore.
GROSS: And what was enchanted about it?
KWAN: It was very idyllic. You know, lovely old house with my grandparents. It was a very multigenerational sort of kind of family compound. It was a world of beauty, you know, that I think I really took for granted as a child...
GROSS: How big was the house?
KWAN: ...And - it was quite large. You know, it was on top of a hill. And it had a beautiful panoramic view of kind of Singapore because it was at the very top of a hill. So we got the breezes. And I remember from my bedroom, from my bed, I would always look out and just see for miles. I would see, you know, first other houses in the neighborhood, and then these - a highway and then a hill on the other side of the highway and this lone tree, this beautiful, gigantic lone tree, which - I don't think you have views like that anymore.
You know, Singapore since then has become so built up. The street where I grew up and most of the large sort of estate-style houses, you know, have since been torn down and many, many more houses built on those plots of land. You know, my own family house was torn down in the early '90s, and four large houses have since been built on that property.
GROSS: So I want to ask you about the first scene in the book and in the movie. And this is a flashback scene where the main character is still a child and has just arrived in London from Singapore after a long flight. And he and his mother and aunt and cousins are checking into a very posh expensive hotel and ask for the suite that they've reserved only to be told that they actually don't have a reservation.
They know they really do have a reservation, but - and they know that it's because they're Asian they're being told that they can't stay there. And then the aunt makes a call to her husband. And then the next thing we know, the owner of the hotel walks in and says basically, I've just sold the hotel, and let me introduce you to the new woman who owns it, and it's the aunt. So the uncle had made a phone call to the owner of the hotel and bought it from him. That's the kind of money they have. Is this based on a true story at all?
KWAN: It's very loosely inspired by a true story, yeah, about a family I - you know, I knew very well in Singapore and that went through almost the exact same circumstance, you know? They had one of these last names that could seem like it was not Asian. And so when they got to London...
GROSS: In the novel, the name is Young, spelled Y-O-U-N-G. Yeah.
KWAN: Exactly. And, you know, when they arrived in London late one night - and they were planning to spend a whole month in England - they found that the reservation wasn't being honored at the hotel. And so you can imagine the shock of, you know, we're here for a whole month, we have this whole family with us, and we have no place to stay. Like, how do you get another hotel at this time of the night to put you up for a month, you know?
And so the - you know, the family patriarch, who was actually there, you know, in the real story, just very kindly told the manager - he said, well, you know, I think you're underestimating me. And you can either give me my rooms, or I can put an ad in every English-speaking newspaper around the world tomorrow morning just explaining what's happened to me. So you choose.
GROSS: Oh, so he didn't actually buy the hotel?
KWAN: He didn't buy the hotel.
KWAN: You know, he...
GROSS: That's a very extravagant gesture in the book.
KWAN: It is. But it's interesting that, you know, now three of the top hotels in London are owned by Singaporeans or Malaysians. So in a way, he could have very easily.
GROSS: So there were a lot of extravagances in the book and in the movie adaptation. There's a stuffed tiger in the family home, a $40 million wedding that the best friend has, armed guards at the family home's gates. Do these come from things you saw in real life?
KWAN: Definitely. Every single instance I think you've mentioned things that I really saw as a child. The stuffed tiger, you know, there - I actually know of two. You know, one was in an uncle's house, and another one was in the neighbor's house down the road. And I remember as a child just being fascinated of course by these gigantic beasts that commanded the living rooms of these houses. And in my neighborhood, many of the houses had sentry stations outside the gates with armed guards. We were actually the only house on our street at the time when I was first growing up that did not have, you know, a big fortress-like gate or guards.
GROSS: Your parents left Singapore when you were 11, and you all moved to Houston where I think your father had business interests. So - and your mother I think was a pianist or is. I'm not sure what tense to put this in.
KWAN: She is a pianist and is now a piano - I mean, has always been a piano teacher.
GROSS: So your father wanted to get away from the pedigree and the pressure and the family tradition and the wealth and all the stuff that went along with that. You, on the other hand, are incredibly fascinated by all of that. So how did you get so fascinated in examining the lives and the extravagances of the superrich in Singapore, some of whom you were related to?
KWAN: I think it began very early. I think I was always, even as a child, just sort of fascinated by the world around me. And I was very much, you know, a fly on the wall observing things. I was always fascinated by the stories that my grandparents had told me. And then through my aunt, who also lived in the house - she introduced me to, you know, her world. You know, and she was sort of part of this Bohemian set of privileged Singaporeans who were artists and sculptors and collectors and writers. She was a journalist who incidentally also wrote for Singapore Tatler. So, you know, she...
KWAN: Yeah, so she had this - you know, she was part of this - you know, she was also like the Virginia Woolf of her set in a way.
GROSS: With a tabloid sensibility.
KWAN: Yeah, totally (laughter). And she pulled me into that world, you know? So every Sunday she hosted a lunch. And after church, I would always follow her to lunch instead of following my parents and my brothers. They would go off in one direction, and I would always be taken in with my aunt. And she always had the most fascinating people with her at her lunches - Thai princesses, businessmen that had been around, you know, since the '30s and '40s and things like that, art collectors. So, you know, that was my exposure into that world. And so when I was taken out of that world and transplanted to Houston, that was the world I missed, and that was the world I craved.
GROSS: Your aunt's world.
KWAN: My aunt's world. And sort of, you know, the world of my father's family, I think, you know, that I was so close to.
GROSS: So is it through your aunt that you learned a dishy, comedic point of view when looking at the super wealthy people you were surrounded by?
KWAN: You know, in a way I think perhaps that was an early influence. You know, I don't think she would have looked at it as comedic. You know, she very much had a biting wit. And she, you know, was kind of vicious in her skewering of people and analyzing people and criticizing people (laughter). And I just - you know, even from an early age I took it all with a grain of salt and said, OK, this is one point of view. I think these people are fascinating.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Kwan. He's the author of the novel "Crazy Rich Asians," which has been adapted into the new film of the same name. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDENBOY SONG, "KITTENS OF LUST")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Kwan. And his novel "Crazy Rich Asians" has been adapted into the new film of the same name.
One of the things the film's getting a lot of attention for is the casting. The story is all about Asians and Asian-Americans, and the cast is entirely people of Asian descent. And so this is seen as, like, a breakthrough for a Hollywood film because it's been - what? - like, 25 years or something.
KWAN: Twenty-five years.
GROSS: Yeah, until there was like, you know, a Hollywood-style motion picture - movie (laughter).
KWAN: I like motion picture.
GROSS: It's so old-fashioned.
KWAN: There's a lovely gravitas to that I think.
GROSS: So - but I'm thinking, like, the first 11 years of your life you were in Singapore. And you probably saw a lot of all-Asian TV and movies because that's where you were living, in a part of the world where of course there'd be an Asian cast.
KWAN: I did. You know, and my grandparents - every afternoon, they would turn on the Asian soap operas. And so I would sit there, you know, and just soak it all in.
GROSS: So you love soap operas - right? - 'cause there's certainly an element of that in your story (laughter).
KWAN: Oh, yeah. I loved the soap operas, but I also loved all the amazing martial arts serials that were happening.
GROSS: So Henry Golding, who plays the romantic lead, Nick - there's a little bit of controversy surrounding his casting because his mother is Malaysian and his father is white and British. So people are questioning, like, well, how hundred-percent Asian is the cast? Is that a lot of noise to you, or is that something, like, you take seriously? Like, identity issues and identity politics in art - this gets to be, like, so kind of complicated, and the subtleties of all of it are often lost in places like Twitter.
KWAN: Yeah. You know, I think the noise is valid. And I think it's because for so long Asians in America have been so underrepresented in media. So whenever there's a chance, whenever there's that rare comment of a chance, you know, people are so invested in every aspect of this being perfect and being right. And, you know, unfortunately, this movie cannot be everything for everyone. And I see and I feel the pain. And I completely understand the arguments that people were trying to make.
But it's ironic that these people are demanding sort of blood purity in a way (laughter) that if he's not 100 percent Chinese, he's not qualified to play the role of Nicholas Young when really Nicholas Young himself as the character isn't 100 percent Chinese.
And then there's the other question of actual fairness in how this industry works because when you look like an actor like Brad Pitt, for example - you know, he can play an Irishman, a Czech, a German, a Native American. He can play really whatever he wants without anyone being up in arms about it. So why can't someone, like Henry Golding, who is half Asian but has grown up, spent most of his life in Asia, is very much an Asian man - why does he have to justify playing an Asian role?
GROSS: I think a question has been raised about him is that the character he plays, the romantic lead, is supposed to be just, like, so, like, incredibly attractive. And in fact, he is. But I think the criticism is because he is half white, the paragon of attractiveness in the movie is somebody who doesn't totally embody an Asian face.
KWAN: I can hear your argument. But when I look at him, all I see is an Asian face (laughter). So, you know, it's - that's so subjective.
GROSS: I'm not arguing one side or another. I'm just...
KWAN: No. Yeah. No, absolutely.
GROSS: ...Mentioning. Yeah.
KWAN: And that's the other thing. It becomes so subjective. What is an Asian face? You know, because when you when you go to China and you look at people from province to province, I mean, the vast array of facial structures and the size of your eyes or the size of your nose - I mean, we're getting into dangerous territory here just even analyzing it, I think. But I think it's a very limited view to think that, you know, there's only one representation of an Asian face, and it should be, you know, a Han Chinese descendant-type person with, you know, a nose that is this many millimeters broad or whatever it is. You know, I hear the argument. But we were just trying to find the perfect person for the role in all aspects, and we feel like we found him. And I always say that I think that the minute people see him on screen playing this role, they'll forget the argument entirely. At least, I hope they will.
GROSS: If I'm not mistaken, a lot of Asians are getting cosmetic surgery now to look more Western.
KWAN: Yeah. Let's not even go there.
KWAN: I mean, but it's - yeah, I mean, that's the other thing I didn't want to bring up. Like, so many - I mean, it's in China, in Korea. I mean, it's - Korea has become the plastic surgery capital of the world, you know, where all these sort of young men, especially, are sort of transforming their faces into, you know, that very - to me, it's a very plastic-looking, K-pop-singer look.
And I also - you know, I've been through my own journey of acceptance of how I look because even I, as a kid - there was pressure on me. I mean, several people in my family had suggested that I should get the double eyelid surgery, which is the most common surgery in the world, thanks to, you know, how much it's performed in Asia on a daily basis. I think the statistic, it's, like, 3,500 surgeries a day are done. You know, this - it's called blepharoplasty where they create a double eyelid to enlarge your eye. And I remember someone saying that to me as a teenager - you should get this done - you know, someone in my family. And I said, you know, why would I do that? I like my eyes. You know, I don't feel like I need to have more Western-looking eyes or what's perceived as Western.
GROSS: It's easy when somebody's telling you that to develop a sense of self-consciousness or even self-hatred when someone's telling you, the way you look, you need to surgically fix it. Were you affected by that at all? Did you feel so strongly that that was, like, the wrong way to go?
KWAN: I was, infect - I was - infected - a Freudian slip.
GROSS: Well, yeah.
KWAN: I was affected by the sense of the absurdity of the suggestion, quite frankly. You know. And I think - I don't know. From an early age - and maybe it's because of, you know, growing up the way I did and, you know, coming from a family where I was really instilled with a sense of self-confidence from a very early age. I just - it didn't really affect me. I just thought it was absolutely absurd.
GROSS: My guest is Kevin Kwan, author of the novel "Crazy Rich Asians." He's an executive producer of the new film adaptation. We'll talk more after a break. Also, John Powers will review a novel he describes as a pleasurable blend of reality, fiction and philosophizing. And Ken Tucker will review a new album featuring singer and songwriter Robbie Fulks and singer Linda Gail Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis' sister. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MATERIAL GIRL (200 DU)")
SALLY YEH: (Singing in Cantonese).
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Kevin Kwan, author of the best-selling book "Crazy Rich Asians," which has been adapted into a new film. He's one of the film's executive producers. Kwan is also the author of "China Rich Girlfriend" and "Rich People Problems." He was born into a rich family in Singapore. "Crazy Rich Asians" draws on the extravagant homes, private jets, jewelry and lifestyles he was surrounded by as a child. He moved to Texas with his parents when he was 11.
One of the producers who approached you about adapting "Crazy Rich Asians" into a movie - correct me if I'm wrong here, but they suggested that you change the Asian-American leading lady character into a white woman.
KWAN: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It wasn't even a suggestion. It was an offer, basically, that came from a producer who said...
GROSS: Like, let's do it if you're willing to do this.
KWAN: Yeah. I will option this movie if you're willing to, you know, change Rachel to a white girl, you know?
GROSS: Did you consider that for a second?
KWAN: Not for even a second. We didn't even bother responding.
GROSS: Were you astonished that somebody would even suggest it?
KWAN: (Laughter) I actually wasn't. You know, I think - if you remember, this was back in 2013. So this was way before the whole Hollywood whitewashing movement began, before all the waves of outrage that happened, justifiably so, you know, with the casting of Scarlett Johansson in "Ghost In The Shell" - you know, things like that. And so it was early days yet. And I knew that this movie would be a challenge, you know, because I knew it needed an all-Asian cast. And so I knew that a lot of traditional Hollywood would find it to be not a viable project. And so that's why I chose to go with the team that I did. We thought we would really produce this outside of the studio system. It would be an independent film.
GROSS: Do you consider it an independent film now? I can't - I'm not sure exactly...
KWAN: Oh, no. It's definitely not an...
GROSS: Yeah, it looks like...
KWAN: You know it's...
GROSS: ...There's a lot of money behind it (laughter). I mean, yeah.
KWAN: Yeah. No, it's officially - you know, it's a studio - Warner Brothers studio film, which is, you know, the complete opposite of an indie.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
KWAN: So it's taken on a whole other life that I never dreamed was possible.
GROSS: So, the movie is coming out at a time when there's so much political awareness of the growing economic gap between the rich and everyone else. And we have a president who became famous for being rich and extravagant and also for going bankrupt. But, you know, President Trump has a very, like, showy form of wealth. It's not the, like, let's-not-talk-about-it old money, it's the kind of opposite of that. And I'm wondering what it's like for you, having studied Asian wealth so carefully and written about it in such comedic detail - what it's like for you to watch, like, how President Trump, and before that, reality show Donald Trump, deal with wealth, or with the appearance of wealth.
KWAN: It's sort of been fascinating to observe. And actually, Donald Trump is someone I've sort of followed - or used to follow. I actually actively try not to read about him anymore. But I used to really follow him in the '80s, you know, as he and Ivana were coming up in sort of the New York social swim.
GROSS: That's Ivana, his former wife, not Ivanka.
KWAN: Ivanka, I think, was a toddler at that point. But, you know, if you remember back in the mid-'80s, you know, they were part of that social set that was very much followed around and always in gossip columns and, you know, with Cindy Adams and Liz Smith always talking about them and, of course, their spectacular divorce. So it's something I grew up sort of just seeing unfold.
GROSS: Mmm hmm.
KWAN: And I think even then, I remember - I think 1986, '87 - at some point, I - if I remember clearly, he was featured on "Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous."
GROSS: I always wondering if you used to watch that (laughter).
KWAN: I sure did (laughter).
KWAN: And, you know, I remember, it was there or somewhere I saw, you know, the penthouse at Trump Tower. And even then, you know, just seeing this very claustrophobic, huge penthouse dripping in gold leaf, it brought me right back to some of the houses I had seen and experienced back in Singapore in the '70s and '80s. So there is a kinship between his style and a certain style that you see or used to see in Asia. But I think, you know, in Asia, you have all these other showmen of their own stripes, you know, that are also displaying different levels of ostentation and trying to be their own mini Trumps, in a way. It's...
GROSS: Did you ever meet him?
KWAN: No, I have never met him. Ivanka, actually, - you know, she was a model for a few years and so she modeled in several shows that I attended. And I had a friend who was a designer who used her in her show, I think, for two seasons. And, you know - so I saw her around the scene but never really ran into Donald.
GROSS: And I want to talk a little bit about what Singapore is like because, you know, in the movie, the part of Singapore we see is the - the super wealthy part and the glittering buildings and skyscrapers and private jets and all of that. But, like, Human Rights Watch last year in their report about Singapore - I'll just read some of it. It says its political environment is stifling. There are severe restrictions on its citizens' basic rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. You need a police permit for any cause or related assembly in a public place or if members of the general public are invited. And permits are routinely denied for events addressing political topics. Sexual relations between two male persons is a criminal offence. And one more thing - in June of 2016 a production of "Les Mis" was forced to delete a scene containing a same-sex kiss. So I just wonder how all of that figures into, like, your view of what Singapore is.
KWAN: (Laughter) Well, you see it reflected, I think, in the characters and their individual stories, I think. They're existing in this world that doesn't really participate in these issues.
GROSS: Because they're in a bubble.
KWAN: They're in a bubble. They're very much in a bubble. And those that do want to participate or who are unsatisfied with, you know, the rules of Singapore, they leave or they spend half the year in London or Paris. Or they go and party, you know, on yachts in international waters.
GROSS: Right. That actually happens in the story. So I'm thinking of what a contrast it must have been to go from the restrictions which you might not have been aware of when you were a child in Singapore and then eventually move to New York, where you worked at Interview magazine, which is an offshoot of the Andy Warhol world - and in the design world. I mean, it's a very artistic world. And parts of the art world are very class-oriented, but in parts of it, it's a kind of bohemian society where those kinds of boundaries can come down. So...
GROSS: Yeah. So what was it like for you entering New York into a part of bohemian culture where a lot of the restrictions that you may have had to deal with in the past, or that parts of your family still have to deal with in Singapore, didn't matter anymore?
KWAN: Well, I mean, there's a reason I've been here for 23 years.
KWAN: You know, I think my moving to New York was actually a reaction against Houston and, well, you know, my upbringing there in a way, because if you remember, I left when I was 11 years old. So, you know, my memories are embedded in this amber history that - you know, of a place that really no longer exists. And so, you know, for me, escaping to New York was escaping, at that time, the boredom of suburban Houston. You know, I wanted - you know, there was always a part of me that was just so fascinated by New York.
And, you know, I remember subscribing to Vanity Fair starting in 1986 - and, you know, really being fascinated by the world of New York and wanting to move there as soon as I could. And I did. I moved there as soon as I could - when I turned 21, you know. So for me, it's always been - this has always been be the haven, you know, where I can explore my creativity and, you know, live life however I want to.
GROSS: So I have a mahjong question for you because mahjong figures into the movie. And mahjong is kind of like a card game in a way, but it's played with beautiful tiles instead of cards. And, you know, you bet and everything - kind of like you would in poker with chips. When I was growing up, mahjong was really big in my neighborhood. It was all like the Jewish women playing mahjong. I used to play along with my friend Paula (ph) when I was a child. We took our parents' mahjong sets. I really thought, like, this is part of Jewish culture (laughter). So was mahjong part of your life when you were growing up?
KWAN: It was in the sense that it was always being played around me. My grandmother was known to be the most lethal mahjong player. Amongst all the women in her set, in her generation. And no one - it got to a point, I think, where no one wanted to play with her anymore because she would just win every game. So you know, I always remember it fondly.
And, you know, many a Friday night when there were family gatherings in our home, you know, there would be her - I would remember my grandmother in the corner at the mahjong table, you know, holding court with a few friends and relatives, you know, playing a game. And I, of course, don't know how to play mahjong. But what I would do, after they were done of the tiles, was I would arrange them into like beautiful sculptures - buildings.
KWAN: And I knew how to make the turtle. Do you know how to make the turtle?
GROSS: No, no. I don't know what you're talking about.
KWAN: There's a very specific turtle that you can lay out and create with mahjong tiles. So that was me with mahjong. But, you know, it's actually one of these games I would love to learn. It looks like great fun.
GROSS: Kevin Kwan, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much, and congratulations.
KWAN: It's been such a pleasure and such an honor.
GROSS: Kevin Kwan is the author of the novel "Crazy Rich Asians" and is an executive producer of the new film adaptation. After a break, Ken Tucker will review a new album featuring songwriter and singer Robbie Fulks and singer Linda Gail Lewis, who is Jerry Lee Lewis' sister. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RHIANNON GIDDENS' "THAT LONESOME ROAD")
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