When Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan's hilarious debut novel exploded globally, he soon found himself being invited behind closely guarded doors by the extremely rich and glamorous.
"I've seen so many jaw-dropping things," he chuckles. "Some of them I have to keep private, but I can tell you I was once taken to a very exclusive club in Asia that only has seven members."
All billionaires, their extravagant bolthole, with its private restaurant, gaming rooms and expansive grounds, was situated right in the heart of an unspecified city. "It was almost like having your own private speakeasy with an army of staff to serve you," Kwan gasps down the phone from his home in New York's West Village. "It's ridiculous."
First hand experience
About to jet off on a book tour of Asia before touching down in Australia for , Kwan has just released the third and final instalment of his sprawling satirical dynasty, Rich People Problems. With matriarch Shang Su Yi on her deathbed, it's not long before the lovably bonkers and bitchy clan descend on her stately Singaporean pile Tyersall Park to secure their share of her mammoth fortune.
A stickler for detail, as Kwan has expanded the reach of his novels' OTT world, it's meant more and more groundwork. "I always want it to be 100 per cent accurate, so I only write about places I have actually been to," he says. "If there's food, I want to have tried it. If there's wine, I want to have sipped it. I make sure I have it fact-checked to the minute detail, right down to road directions, because I hate the way people change cities in movies or books. I feel a responsibility to get it right."
From Hobart to Houston
Growing up in a more restrained though still advantaged version of this world, in a grand old house full of antiques, Kwan says he wasn't chauffeured by Rolls Royces, but mucking about on his bike with mates. "It was all very quiet and discreet. It really wasn't unit I left Singapore at 11 and a half that I realised how privileged I was."
Kwan's grandparents had sent his father to Quaker-run The Friends' School in Hobart as a teen, with his dad going on to study at the University of Sydney. "His formative years were spent in Australia and in many ways he was very Westernised, so that's what he wanted for his children."
Rather than head south again, Kwan senior instead settled on suburban Houston. "It was a complete culture shock," Kwan laughs. "I had to learn taking out the trash and mowing the lawn, things I never conceived of having to do growing up as I did in a house that had a lot of staff, but that was part of his intention. He didn't want his kids spoiled and decadent, which he was seeing happen to a lot of his friends' children."
A crash course in culture
Crazy Rich Asians began as a hobby. While Kwan never imagined it would prove this popular, he wanted to rewrite stereotypes of Asian characters, both in fiction and in the New York financial press. "All the stories tended to be negative, about corruption or the waste and vulgarity. I wanted to show the other side. It's not just tacky. These are real people."
While chick lit-loving white women were early adopters, Kwan says his audience rapidly diversified, surprising even him. "Wall Street men are reading my books now. They've become a crash course in learning more about that world of China, Hong Kong and Singapore. Somebody told me they were using my book in a class at Yale Business School."
It took a while for Asian readers to join in. "At first I think they were suspicious… people have gotten it wrong so many times before with the whitewashing and Hollywood stereotypes and bad TV and this and that, so they still have this very hard armour and it speaks to where we we're at culturally and how things are changing very rapidly."
The vast, untapped potential
Kwan's a big part of that change. Crazy Rich Asians has been adapted for the big screen by Warner Bros., starring Michelle Yeoh and Constance Wu as well as Aussies Ronnie Cheng, Remy Hii and Chris Pang, with the latter two appearing in Netflix series Marco Polo. Kwan's also developing a top secret TV series.
'There's been a massive sea change over the last couple of years, but we still have a long way to go in terms of fairly representing the diverse populations in the US, in Australia and around the world," he notes. "Hopefully between the movie, my new show and all the other projects I'm hearing about, I think people are finally paying attention to this vast untapped potential, because I can't speak for Australia, but in the US, Asians see more movies than any other ethnic minority group."
Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan is out now, published by Doubleday. To book tickets to see the author at the (August 25 - Sep 3), click