The world was taken by a storm in the summer of 2018 with the release of Crazy Rich Asians—a romantic comedy film adaptation directed by Jon M. Chu boasting an all Asian cast. Although not the first movie of its kind, most notably preceded by The Joy Luck Club in 1993, Crazy Rich Asians was the first to be well-received across America and Asia. Aside from transporting his audience into a fantasy world of Asian tycoons, trust fund babies, and forbidden love, Kevin Kwan tells the quintessential Asian American experience when Rachel Chu, an American-Born-Chinese (ABC) relearns her own culture visiting Asia for the first time. While the setting of Crazy Rich Asians reflects Kwan’s childhood, it is the meaningful contrast and emphasis Kwan draws from his move to the United States that allows him to shed light on aspects of Asian culture which successfully captivates his audiences beyond ostentatious shows of wealth.
The plot of Crazy Rich Asians centers around Rachel Chu and Nicholas Young. Rachel Chu, an Economics professor at NYU has never been to Asia. Unbeknownst to Rachel, her boyfriend Nicholas “Nick” Young is heir to one of the largest fortunes in Singapore. They live a peaceful, romantic life together in New York. However, everything changes when Nick invites Rachel to visit his family in Singapore for his best friend, Collin Khoo’s wedding, where Rachel suddenly discovers the ostentatious world that her boyfriend comes from.
A large reason why Kwan’s book was such a hit is because he portrays Asians as more than what modern media is used to seeing. No longer are Asians confined to being static characters simply worth conveying the stereotype of martial art fighters or timid A+ students . Kwan’s dynamic characters tell the stories of the top 1% in Asian society: the tycoons of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Aptly put by Jimmy O. Yang, the actor playing Bernard Tai in the movie, “it’s more a secret society that we’re showing people.” However, the contrast between the worlds of the two characters prevents the story from becoming just a meaningless showcase of wealth; instead, Kwan’s characters explore real class differences that stratify Asia’s richest cities.
On January 31, Scripps Presents successfully brought in Kevin Kwan and Tan Kheng Hua, the actress who played Kerry Chu, Rachel Chu’s mother in the movie. Tan and Kwan’s dialogue revolved around the “territories” Kwan lived in which inspired his bestselling trilogy. First, Kwan was asked about Singapore. He named one experience with his aunt as the most significant memory he had of his childhood in Singapore which exposed him to the unbelievable world of wealth present in Asia. “I started going to these Sunday brunches when I was about 6… every week it would be a different person, a Thai princess, a hotshot banker, etc…” Kwan recounted. Kwan’s aunt, a journalist, was privy to the lives of the crazy rich, and she took her nephew to brunch with them each week after Sunday church. These brunches had a profound impact on Kwan as a child, and he attributed the abundance of detail in his book to these snippets of memories which inserted themselves into his storytelling 40 years later, “basically from an early age, I got exposed to rich people b*tching about their lives!” Kwan chuckled.
The author’s own childhood is not far from the lifestyles of the rich and famous depicted in Crazy Rich Asians. He narrated how ridiculously dependent his 11-year-old self was on the house help he was accustomed to: “If I was thirsty in the middle of the night, all I had to do was yell across the courtyard into the maids’ quarters, where my 70-year-old nanny would come out, cross the courtyard, come up to the refrigerator outside my room and pour me a glass of ice water… I feel terrible about it now.” Despite leaving Singapore at a tender age of 11, Kwan’s story does not lack realistic elements of daily Singapore life and quite literally overflows with aspects unique to Singapore alone, “I left at the perfect time when I was old enough to recognize my surroundings and remember it, so all my memories were kind of crystallized like amber…” Kwan explained.
Ultimately it was Kwan’s move to a new territory—Houston at 11 which helped him realize that the world of affluence he came from was not reality for the rest of the world. He vividly remembered the moment when his father handed him a lawnmower and said “Go mow the lawn.” Coming from a very pampered childhood— living in a huge house and going to a Singaporean private school— into one that involved chores and a regular three bedroom house and Texas public school, 11-year-old Kwan was thrust into the intersection of two worlds which he fought to reconcile and many years later, explored in this trilogy.
Kwan’s familiarity with the United States allows him to make characters that embody the American spirit. Rachel, who grows up in a very modest household in the United States to a single mother, showcases the American dream; her values closely align with that of an idealistic, individualistic American frontier spirit, unbounded by legacy. She later becomes an economics professor at NYU, where she meets Nick, also a professor at NYU; he grew up within a family whose values emphasized the importance of wealth and legacy associated with the old world. While the two come from very different backgrounds, Rachel and Nick end up in similar profesional circumstances. One can only guess whether Kwan intends for that caveat.
Many fans of Kwan’s work rave at the ethnic breakthrough in Hollywood or fantasize at the displays of wealth in Crazy Rich Asians, but they neglect the contrasts in values that Kwan manages to insert into his storyline. Kwan’s masterful ability to do so from a cultural perspective can be attributed to literary genius, but we forget that Kwan’s own life of contrasts—from Singapore to Houston—gives Crazy Rich Asians the conflict and uniqueness needed to steer away from becoming just another Cinderella remake.
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