By Ananya Devarajan
The Irvine Barclay Theatre presented a discussion with internationally acclaimed author Kevin Kwan on Feb. 6. Kwan discussed aspects of his upbringing, his journey to literary fame and his views on Asian American representation in the media. Framed as a fulfilling conversation rather than a strict interview, audience members had the opportunity to understand Kwan and his characters on a much deeper level.
Kwan spoke about the first 11 years of his life, which he spent in Singapore, before his family decided to move to Houston, Texas in 1985. He was one of the three non-white kids in his entire school. Throughout his time in high school, Kwan honed his talent for writing, hoping to pursue a career in journalism. After years of unpaid internships and published articles that went relatively nowhere, Kwan’s Asian parents pushed him to work in a field that offered some level of monetary benefits: creative consulting. It was during Kwan’s long-haul commutes to work, often by flight, that “Crazy Rich Asians” was born.
The novel was spun in secret on discarded napkins in airport lounges and random notes scribbled during meetings. Loosely based on his own family-tree and created with absolutely no external research, “Crazy Rich Asians” was nothing more than Kwan’s personal passion project. He never intended for his story to be published, let alone transformed into a blockbuster major motion picture. In fact, the claim that his novel inspired a sudden uptick in Asian American representation still comes as a surprise to him.
When directly asked about the cultural impact of his debut novel and film, Kwan was honest and sincere. Due to spending most of his childhood in Singapore, Kwan was always surrounded by Asian American representation. As a result, “Crazy Rich Asians” was not created with the motive to inspire societal change. Kwan had never felt alienated from the media, he had movies of his own culture to watch when Hollywood failed him.
However, Kwan stands by a singular motto when it comes to creating his novels: “write for yourself.” Everything from the name brands embellishing his characters’ clothes to the over-the-top descriptions of Singaporean street foods to the dramatic extravagance of his novel’s most basic plotline make Kwan who he is. “Crazy Rich Asians” is simply a diary showcasing Kwan’s humanity and imagination, which may be why the novel and the movie were such big hits. Behind the shimmering jewels and flashing city lights is a genuine story about what it means to be an Asian American in love.
Still, Kwan is certain that the struggle for diverse representation does not end with him. He can see the effect of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast in 26 years, rippling through the industry. The actresses who starred in the film, such as Constance Wu and Awkwafina, have gone on to acquire even larger roles. Diverse romantic comedies like “To All The Boys I Loved Before” are finally finding their way to the spotlight, becoming less of a token . However, Kwan believes that while the effect of “Crazy Rich Asians” is undeniable, there are still “a wide range of possibilities” for artistic Asian Americans to pursue. There are countless creators of color with potential that has yet to be tapped and although the tides are slowly turning in their favor, it hasn’t come close to solving the inequality plaguing Hollywood.
As the lights of the Barclay dimmed and the curtains shifted to a close, Kwan offered his audience a final reminder: “the fight [for Asian American representation in the media] continues” and it always will, but if Hollywood could take notice of Kwan — a failed journalist who wrote a romance novel simply to entertain himself and three close friends — then any diverse creative can break the glass ceiling, one crack at a time.