Kevin Kwan’s home in New York’s Greenwich Village is, by his own admission, a modest one. ‘It’s a very simple apartment filled mostly with far too many books and art I’ve collected over the years, and I have a view of the Empire State Building out my living room window,’ says the bestselling author.
‘For many years before I moved to New York, my dream was to live in the Village and be in the midst of all that history—the amazing artists and writers who made their home here.’
Kevin says with pride that ‘Bob Dylan played his first concert at a café a block away from my apartment; writers like Jack Kerouac and Joan Didion hung out at the café around the corner. I still pinch myself sometimes that I get to live here.’
His apartment, however, is a far cry from the homes he features in his bestselling fictional work such as Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend.
Wallowing in wealth and luxurious ostentation, his characters live in mansions that could make Mukesh Ambani’s $1billion pad that boasts three helipads and a 50-seater home theatre appear like a well-furnished basement.
Peik Lin Goh’s house in Crazy Rich Asians, for instance, boasts an entrance reminiscent of The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, a sunken pond in the living room with baby sharks, while just about every tchotchke in the house is gold-plated.
Another character has private hangars in his garden for his three airplanes. Yet another thinks nothing of demanding that a high-end hospital cardiac unit be relocated into her mansion.
Kevin, known for portraying lives, albeit fictional, of the East’s uber rich, admits that the inspiration for Peik’s living room was a Singaporean friend’s house he once visited as a child. Does he still see such houses in Singapore?
‘Absolutely,’ says the author, who will be a speaker at the Emirates Airline festival of Literature. ‘And I think they have become even more extreme in their luxury.’
‘I really shouldn’t go into too much detail out of respect to the privacy of the home owners,’ says the writer, extremely guarded in his response. ‘But let’s just say that I’ve seen homes with art collections that belong in the Louvre, and some spaces that are so fantastical, they would make a James Bond villain envious.’
Kevin, who grew up in Singapore before emigrating to Texas in the US with his two older brothers, engineer father and piano teacher mother, had the opportunity to view of some of the most luxurious homes in the island nation up close, and meet some extremely HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals or ‘henweeis,’ as one of his characters says) thanks to his well-connected family that included politicians and respected doctors.
Passionate about writing even when he was young, he pursued it seriously majoring in creative writing at university.
‘But I reached a point in my early twenties where I felt like I had nothing left to write about and I needed to LIVE for a while before I could write again.’
Living, in Kevin’s frame of reference, meant moving to New York where he enrolled at the Parsons School of Design to pursue a course in photography. ‘[There] I had a whole other life as a photographer and a creative director,’ says the writer.
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In the Big Apple, Kevin worked as a creative consultant for media houses including Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine and Ted.com. But in 2009, he took a year and half off work to care for his father who was battling lung cancer. ‘When he passed in 2010, I began writing my first novel as a way to cope with the grief and to make myself laugh again,’ says Kevin.
He would end up laughing all the way to the bank.
A phenomenal bestseller, his debut novel Crazy Rich Asians, a fictional if outrageous romp through the world of the rich and famous, told the story of three immensely rich Chinese families and their machinations when the heir to one of the families brings his girlfriend home to attend a glitzy wedding.
Kevin says he was lucky to see his debut book published in 2013. ‘I have to admit I was miraculously lucky,’ he exults. ‘My good friend Michael Korda, the author and legendary editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, was one of my early champions and handed my manuscript to his literary agency Janklow & Nesbit. From there it found its way to Alexandra Machinist, the amazing woman who became my agent. She sold it to Jenny Jackson at Knopf Doubleday, who remains my wonderful editor to this day. It all happened in three weeks.’
The success of the novel also spurred him to make his debut work part one of a trilogy. China Rich Girlfriend followed two years later in 2015 and Rich People Problems hit the stands last year. These two novels, too, zoomed to the top of bestseller charts firmly cementing Kevin’s position on the international bestselling authors’ list.
Kevin believes that a reason for his books’ popularity is the universal appeal of the stories. ‘I think while I revealed a world of hidden wealth and privilege in Asia that no one had ever written about before, the story itself was funny, entertaining, and universal. Readers from so many different countries have told me the same thing: “We’re not rich, and we’re not Asian, but my crazy family is just like the one in your books!”’
Some people have even written in to him insisting that their life mirrors closely the lives of some characters in his novels, wondering how Kevin had come to know them so intimately. In fact, for a long time, a popular pastime among his readers was to guess which real-life person was being caricatured in his novels.
And Kevin was savouring the experience. ‘Writing the book became an escape for me,’ says Kevin. ‘At no point did I ever feel like giving up. I truly enjoyed every moment of writing it. It was a passion project that I never expected to get published in the first place.’
Although some scenes in his novels border on the unreal and hperbole - for instance, in Crazy Rich Asians, Kwan details an incident where the hero’s father buys an entire London hotel on a whim because he feels slighted – the author says he himself is not really overawed by displays of ostentation.
‘I’m not really impressed by ostentation or spending in and of themselves,’ says Kevin. ‘So, in order to leave me gobsmacked, there needs to be an element of the unexpected or human comedy: a family of toothless people who look like they just climbed out of a coal mine spending a million dollars at Giorgio Armani comes to mind; the Parisian [diva] who grabbed my cell phone from my hand and made a lunch reservation for me at Paris’ most exclusive restaurant when she overheard me struggling through my jetlag to speak French; the family that built an incredible modern masterpiece of a house just for their dogs and staffed it with an army of dog nannies twenty-four hours a day.’
As part of the groundwork for his second novel China Rich Girlfriend, Kevin reportedly spent a lot of time rubbing shoulders with China’s nouveau riche leaving him with some memorable experiences. ‘I’ll share one story,’ he says.
‘I was invited to visit a private club that was so incredibly exclusive, it only has eight members. But these eight members were eight of the wealthiest and influential individuals in the country. ‘The club was situated in the most exquisite historical mansion that had been painstakingly restored. I was treated to an [elaborate] tea ceremony and felt like I had stepped back into the Ming dynasty as I strolled through the grounds. The member who invited me pointed out exceedingly rare trees in the gardens that were hundreds of years old and each worth millions.’
Having seen so much of wealth and luxury up close, has his definition of riches changed?
‘To me, the definition of a rich life is getting to spend time with the people I love. These days, time is the ultimate luxury,’ says Kevin.
These days, he is also busy working on a television show. ‘It’s something I’ve created for STX Entertainment,’ he says. ‘It’s a one-hour dramatic scripted series, and I hope that this year will be all about writing the first season of the show and going into production.’