Kevin Kwan is not where one might expect to find a best-selling, New York City-dwelling author. “I’m taking a little break before the craziness of three solid months of touring,” Kwan says from an undisclosed southwestern location far, far away from Manhattan. “I thought I’d look at rabbits frolicking in a field for a while first.”
The tour is to support China Rich Girlfriend, the raucous sequel to his acclaimed debut, Crazy Rich Asians. In it, we catch up with several familiar faces, as down-to-earth Rachel Chu gets married to professor Nicholas Young, who has given up his inheritance to be with her. Rachel grew up not knowing who her father was, and when she discovers his identity she eagerly hops a plane to China to meet him. Nothing can prepare her for the unbelievable “China rich” culture that awaits her, where an exploding economy allows multibillionaires to look down on regular billionaires.
Kwan, who was raised in a wealthy family in Singapore before moving to the United States at age 11, drew upon his own experiences to color both his novels.
“I grew up with that sort of old world money,” he says. “I was not really conscious of that till I stepped out of it and thought, oh my gosh, that was kind of freaky. You go to houses with sunken pools filled with sharks. It is a world with its own dysfunctions.”
Kwan insists that the over-the-top wealth he describes in China Rich Girlfriend—socialites hopping on their private 747s complete with koi ponds, spending nearly $200 million on a single piece of artwork—is based in reality.
"In many ways, it’s toned down. The truth is so much more fascinating than anything I could fictionalize."
“In many ways, it’s toned down,” he says. “My editor had to step in and say, ‘Kevin, this is bordering on fantasy. It’s like you’re writing Game of Thrones.’ But it was real. The truth is so much more fascinating than anything I could fictionalize. For example, the China rich are importing expensive racecars and killing themselves in these horrible accidents.”
That truth served as the inspiration for Carlton, son of Bao Gaoliang, a prominent politician and heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. When Carlton crashes his car in London, his mother, Bao Shaoyen, rushes in to cover up the death of a girl in the passenger’s seat and—seemingly higher on her priority list—to set her son up with the best plastic surgeons. This is the family Rachel comes into when she discovers Bao Gaoliang is her father. Despite their radically different upbringings, Rachel and Carlton form an unlikely friendship, but Bao Shaoyen refuses to acknowledge her husband’s illegitimate daughter, whom she fears will irreparably harm her family’s reputation.
China Rich Girlfriend is the most fun I’ve had reading a book in quite some time. The vibrantly drawn characters and equally vivid settings in and around Beijing make for a jam-packed, lively story. And it was just as fun to write, Kwan says.
“I found myself laughing out loud at so many sections as I wrote,” he says. “You become like a demon possessed—I had so much fun traveling and doing the research to saturate this world. I did want an element of gravitas but you have to balance that with lightness. This is not an episode of ‘Oprah.’”
Kwan traveled to China to prepare for writing the sequel, and even after several trips overseas, he was surprised by what he found.
“Every time I go there, it’s almost utterly a different place,” he says. “It never ceases to amaze me. Mainland Chinese are so utterly different from Asian Americans. Here, cultures and traditions are completely intact, things like foods and festivals, whereas in China, the Cultural Revolution erased the Chinese culture completely in many ways. So I would meet these young Chinese, and they don’t know where the root of their belief system comes from—it’s erased from their memory, which is liberating in a way.”
The result is a cast of characters who are wholly believable and human. But even with meticulous research, Kwan said writing a sequel to a book that did as well as Crazy Rich Asians was daunting.
“I was very conscious about whether there should even be a book two,” he says. “To me, there was something kind of perfect about the way I ended the [first] book. Some agreed—and of course I also heard the screams from those who didn’t.”
Among those who claim to have no opinion about either of his books are several members of his family.
“There are a lot of people in my family who claim not to have read my books,” he says wryly. “They genuinely may not have read it. They’re too busy nurturing their fortune. I have many cousins who loved it—they get it—they know this world.”
Kwan is still getting used to the idea that his books could be hotly anticipated. Entertainment Weekly recently named China Rich Girlfriend one of six books to look forward to this summer, along with offerings by the likes of Stephen King and—wait for it—Harper Lee.
“I was kind of flabbergasted,” he says. “Harper Lee is really one of my favorite authors. To Kill a Mockingbird was such a seminal book for me. I read it in college—it’s a disservice to read it when you’re too young. You need to have already come of age. It was an unbelievable kind of thrill to be even mentioned in the same breath as her.”
For now, though, Kwan is focused on his own calm before the storm of what is sure to be another bestseller. The promotion plans include his hosting an interactive guide of New York City’s craziest, richest Asian hotspots. What is yet to be decided is whether this will become a trilogy.
“It really depends on how well this book does,” Kwan says cheerfully, “and whether people want a third.”