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Let’ s talk about the truly rich

In his recent visit to Manila, Kevin Kwan talks about the lifestyles of the very rich and anonymous


Interview Krizette Chu

It’s the age of high income and more and more millionaires getting minted every day. How has the barometer of wealth changed over the years? In the age of dotcoms, you don’t have to be a landed heiress anymore to be rich.

The idea of wealth has completely evolved and so have the rules of how money operates. It’s very different how these people now live their lives from those people 20 years ago who had the same amount of money. The new Chinese rich are as rich as the dotcom people, but they’re living very different lifestyles. What I’ve observed is it’s very culture specific how people spend their money now.

 Kevin Kwan

Kevin Kwan

Let’s talk about the #RichKidsofInstagram.

Social media has really upended society and how we grew up in the world. I grew up in this era where you’re not supposed to talk about your money, where you’re not supposed to show off your money, when people were very, very discreet, when it didn’t even occur to you to take a picture of what you owned and share it with the world. It’s like putting these photos on your photo album. Why would you put a photo of your watch, your jewelry, your car in your family photo album? If you already own it, why would you even photograph it? It’s a very different game nowadays. There are a lot of people who are very privately and immensely wealthy, and you know, there are people who are showing up on Instagram who are I’d say maybe only moderately crazy rich.

Astrid would disapprove.

Astrid would never do such a thing. I mean, even here in the Philippines, the top families, you don’t see them on social media. You don’t see them posing in magazines. They’re invisible. They lead lives of absolute privacy and discretion, because that’s what truly great wealth buys you.

On the other side of the spectrum, the world is seeing a wave of populism, from the US to the Philippines. Why do you think that talks about wealth still fascinate so many people? Why is your book such a big hit when struggle is now glamorized?

I can only speak about my books. I feel my books are honest. My books portray that not only the crazy rich can relate to these characters in the book, and they can even love these characters, I’m not celebrating wealth, I’m just presenting these characters who happen to be rich, who have their own struggles, who have their own problems. And you give people an intimate view of their world. I am not judging wealth but I am also not glorifying wealth. It’s just the way it is.

Kwanderful! Kevin Kwan visits Manila to promote the final book in the Crazy Rich Asians' series, and to meet Kris Aquino, who plays a part in the movie, at the National Book Store talk in SM Seaside City Cebu

Kwanderful! Kevin Kwan visits Manila to promote the final book in the Crazy Rich Asians’ series, and to meet Kris Aquino, who plays a part in the movie, at the National Book Store talk in SM Seaside City Cebu

Which of the three books did you enjoy writing the most?

The third book, because I really liked concluding the story, just wrapping up the book.  It was a very satisfying feeling, it was very cathartic. It was great to finally conclude the characters’ emotional journeys, and physically also, to show how they were transformed from their experience in the last two books.  I think it is also fun to write when you don’t have so much pressure.  After the success of the two books, I could just be comfortable because people have already fallen in love with the characters. Having the success of two books actually helped me. There was a lot of goodwill, so I was just trying to derive joy from the process.

And the hardest one?

The second one was when I was most pressured, I had basically 11 months to write the book, but then that time, I was starting the movie process, touring for Book 1. It was extremely stressful. I’ve never worked so hard and traveled so often. I just became physically ill.

You had an inkling Crazy Rich Asians would blow up?

I still can’t believe it. Even now, I still can’t. I was writing the book for me. I have written non-fiction books for Kate Spade, for Gore Vidal, very commercial stuff. But this is my first non-fiction, where I jumped from writing a 12-page short story to a 400-plus one.  I quit my job when I started writing the second book.

Some of us aren’t emotionally prepared for the ending of the book. Offshoots? Like a book entirely on Astrid?

It’s certainly possible. I’m sure the publishers would love for me to write them.  Right now, I am trying to challenge myself, write outside the Crazy Rich Asians’ world. Tell new stories outside of this. I’m currently working on a one-hour drama series.

What was the extent of your involvement in the film they’re shooting now?

I pitched in where I could.  There was no formal briefing what my requirements were—we just had a team effort. I worked with actors to help them understand who they’re playing. I worked with set designers and costume designers to help them know the look of that world.  I introduced them to people and we shot in Singapore and Malaysia.

The director is the captain of the ship, so he has the last say. But a lot of things was really  a group process. Jon [Chu, director], Nina Jacobson [the producer], Warner Brothers, everyone put a lot of work to do the movie right and to give it justice. We spent so many scenarios and aching over decisions, because really, it was an embarrassment of riches.

As for the release, it’s going to be next year at some point.

Who’s your personal, real life favorite crazy rich Asian?

I’m not sure if she’s a crazy rich Asian, but I know she’s a well-to-do person from an accomplished family. Doris Magsaysay Ho is a visionary. I have an appreciation for what she does for culture, and it’s inspiring to see someone who channels her resources to creating good work.  Two years ago, she became a personal friend to me.

You’ve been to the Philippines three times. Favorites?

I spend a lot of time in Manila, I really do enjoy Manila. I mean I love Palawan, but I love Manila. I was in an old part of town the other night, it was so charming to see real neighborhoods, with shophouses in narrow streets. I was visiting a friend who lived there, and that whole place was just charming and modest. I am used to LA, which has horrible traffic, even worse than Manila, so traffic doesn’t really bother me.

Have you met celebrities in the PH you wished were part of your movie?

Yes, I have met some lovely Filipinos. Hopefully, in the second book or in the drama series

Where I can cast some serious Asian talent, I would. I wish we could just have 800 talents…

How has the book’s popularity changed your life?

It has changed my life tremendously in that I am so much busier. But I am doing work that I love.  You know as opposed in the past, when I had my consulting business, you take on work to pay the bills. And now I have a lot of work but I’m loving every moment of everything I do, as well as the amazing people I collaborate with. It’s really a gift.

Do you still get invited to parties? Are your friends and family wary about the writer who writes about their lifestyles?

They have been very supportive, and they are very nice about this. I come from a family that’s accomplished, who have done so many great things, that I don’t think I have done anything special, you know what I mean, compared to some of my cousins, uncles, and aunties and my grandparents. We’re all doing our things—they’re doing great things on their owns I have a cousin who is an amazing scholar, a cousin who started a company. My books are not about my family. No one feels betrayed.

Who is the real life Astrid?

I can tell you but then I’ll have to… dot dot dot.

Does the real life Astrid recognize herself in the book?

She’s far too polite and classy to say anything, but I know she read it. She told me she read it. She told me she enjoyed it.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen people spend money on, because you know, in the book, arowanas have surgeons to work on their looks. So…

You see, this is the problem, I can’t tell you. Because they would know I’m talking about them. These people have very specific hobbies. Like chess. They really love chess, so they build an underground museum or stadium devoted to chess. I’ve seen some really fantastic things, but it would be giving away too much because they’re really specific. I don’t want a  phone call: ‘You talked about my private chess club.’ You know… a private chess club that’s three stories in Manhattan…

One more thing: The Singaporeans in your book, your real life friends, who are truly rich. Do they eat at hawker centers?

Absolutely. Good food is good food.

Which hawker center would you recommend?

Newton! Better than Chinatown.

Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend, and Rich People Problems are available at National Book Store.

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