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Best-selling Singaporean-American author Kevin Kwan discusses his book's appeal with the Nikkei Asian Review.
Cover Story

'Crazy Rich Asians' behind the scenes

Q&A with author Kevin Kwan and director Jon Chu

KEVIN KWAN

Kwan is a Singaporean-American author whose 2013 critically acclaimed debut novel "Crazy Rich Asians" has spawned two sequels and a major Hollywood motion picture. Inspired by his childhood in Singapore before immigrating to Texas with his family at the age of 11, Kwan's story has captivated audiences hungry for authentic stories about Asia. The series' groundbreaking success landed him a spot on Time's list of the 100 most influential people in 2018.

Q: Did you have an audience in mind when you were writing "Crazy Rich Asians?"

A: I really wrote it for a Western audience. Living in America, I saw a gap in the marketplace. No one was writing stories about contemporary Asians even though Asia was on the rise, even though so many cool things were happening in Asia. There were no stories representing modern, young Asians, either living in America or living in Asia. I really wanted to tell that story, and I felt that the only people that would be interested were non-Asians.

Q: Do you think the film will attract a big audience among non-Asians?

A: I hope so. When a white filmmaker writes a script, or creates a movie, he doesn't think, "I just want to make this for white people." He wants a global audience, or he wants an American audience which encompasses Asians, Latinos, blacks, Native Americans. [White directors] don't have to think in the way that we're forced to think or stratify people. So I hope that changes. We're just writing stories of amazing people that just happen to be Asians.

Q: How do you think Asian-Americans view "Crazy Rich Asians?"

A: Asian-Americans have really embraced the books because they see a truer portrayal of themselves in them than they've ever seen before. And we're seeing the same thing with the movie. I've been to a lot of pre-screenings with Asian American audiences, and it's very very emotional for them. For a lot of the younger people especially. They've never seen this before. They've never seen an all-Asian cast behaving normally -- not behaving like some weird stereotype of what Asians are supposed to be, but just cool people with real problems.

Q: Do you think this film could have been made 10 years or 20 years ago?

A: It could it have been made. Would it have been made? Probably not. Twenty years ago the narrative still was about assimilation... Only now can a movie like this be made. There's also an awareness now. Everywhere you go -- whether in New York or LA or London or Paris, the only people in Chanel shopping are Asian. You're seeing so many more of them, you're seeing them speed down the highway in their Lamborghinis or their tricked-out Range Rovers, and so there's a curiosity there that never existed before -- and basic visibility.

Q: You once said that Asians in America used to want to be the quiet ones. What's changed?

A: I think the world has changed. The forces in the world have come to a point where they really try to isolate and create differences. And I think a lot of activists feel like it's more important to stand up and be noticed. There's a whole new generation of Asians who are not going to be meek and who don't mind speaking their minds. And social media has changed all that also -- everyone is much more engaged in expressing themselves, whether they're Asian or not. So that's changed. The culture has changed.

Q: There are cases where a white actor is chosen to play an Asian character. The reasons being, a movie with an Asian lead will not make as much money or that there aren't enough good Asian actors to pick from. What do you say to that?

A: If there's anyone still saying that I feel sorry for them because they need to wake up and see what's apparent in the world. There is this new awareness that's happened in the world.

Also, in Asia you have this vast marketplace where the box office is going to be eclipsing the U.S. box office. If you're going to keep recycling the same stuff with the same faces and if Asians are going to be stereotyped into certain roles, I think [executives] will start to see the downside of that. There were grand experiments where they, very tokenistically, put one or two Asians in a show hoping that that would get them the Chinese box office. And they saw that that didn't work. You have to have stories that are organic and real and authentic to the people, not just shove one Asian in a show. That's not representation.

"Crazy Rich Asians" director Jon Chu speaks about the story's appeal and his experience as an Asian-American.

JON CHU

The son of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants, California-born director Jon Chu has carved out a directorial career with blockbusters such as the "Step Up" series of dance films and "Now You See Me 2." Following "Crazy Rich Asians," Chu is set to direct the adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning musical "In the Heights."

Q: When you received the pitch, who were you thinking of as the audience?

A: In my mind it was for people like me, who have gone back to their "homeland" and felt warmth and open arms, but at the same time not feeling part of it, and then coming home and feeling like you need to choose. And struggling with that idea of self-worth and identity for most of your life until you realize both can coexist.

Q: Did you feel any pressure to cater to a mainstream American audiencewhen making the film?

A: I never felt pressure for that. I think if we had developed it at a studio first, maybe that would have come up. But what we had set up when we first got into this was, we were going to make the movie that we wanted to make, the way we needed to make it. I have been in other projects that got swayed in ways that I think tainted the project in the end. [For "Crazy Rich Asians"] when we were ready with the script that we wanted to make, we went out to the studios, then we said: You guys can be a part of this, and you can't tell us what to do. And Warner Bros. was great in fulfilling their part of the deal by betting on the movie and doing this great marketing campaign and putting in money to tell people that it's worth their time.

Q: Apparently in 2013 Kevin Kwan had been asked by a studio executive to change the main character from Chinese-American to white. So there was still pressure to whitewash the film as recently as 2013. Do you think the climate politically has changed between that time and your film's release?

A: Absolutely. What was interesting was the audience talking back with technology that has never been available before, demanding a movie like this... [through social media campaigns such as] #WhitewashedOUT, #StarringJohnCho, #StarringConstanceWu.

Originally I was like, let's take John Cho and Constance Wu. Ultimately he wasn't right for the part, but I love the concept of it. When you ask for it, we will build it. I just loved that idea. When I saw [these campaigns] bubbling about Asian-Americans, about Asians in cinemas and the stories being told about us -- or not being told about us -- I could see the opportunity, that we had to do it right. And in my life, I knew I was one of the few people who could actually connect the right dots to get it done.

Q: Technology aside, do you think there was change within the Asian American community?

A: I do feel like there was. My perception of the Asian American community here was -- there's a lot of great, supportive groups... but do they all communicate? It didn't feel like [they did.] What I have witnessed in the last six months [with this film] is the complete opposite. People have come out of the woodwork, and communities are joining forces and there is no infighting of this or that. Maybe online or somewhere in the world, but not with the people who are on the ground here who are fighting, who've been trailblazing for way longer than I even knew there was an issue. They have all been more than true in their support for us.

Even Ken Jeong [who plays Goh Wye Mun in this film and is one of the cast's most famous faces] called me the first day he saw the announcement and invited me to his set, and he sat me down and he said: "Jon I want to be here for whatever you need." He supports so many Asian filmmakers and doesn't tell anybody. He gives them money, helps them connect the dots, whatever it is. And he said: "Just tell me how you want to use me. If you don't want me to talk about it, you just want me to tweet about it when the movie comes out, if you want me to be a role in it, you just tell me." I had this little role for him and I said: "It's three days in Singapore, but I think you can do a lot with it." And he said: "Jon, I'm there."

I said, "we don't have a lot of money," and he said "Jon, I'm there." And he's been amazing to promote it as well.

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