‘Crazy Rich Asians’ author Kevin Kwan talks privilege and childhood at Scripps

Tan Kheng Hua (left) and Kevin Kwan photograph the crowd at Scripps College’s Garrison Theater last Thursday. (Chloe Ortiz • The Student Life)

When author Kevin Kwan was a child, his aunt, a journalist, invited him to eat lunch with her friends after church every Sunday. There, he met an exceptional group of influential figures: politicians, prominent Singaporeans and even a Thai princess.

At these lunches, Kwan said the group simply gathered to “bitch about life.” This became one of many inspirations for his wildly successful book-turned-blockbuster-film: “Crazy Rich Asians.”

5C students, faculty and Claremont community members packed Garrison Theater on Jan. 31 to hear Kwan speak. Tan Kheng Hua, who played Rachel Chu’s mom in the movie, interviewed Kwan and contributed her own quips and experiences.

Kheng and Kwan took the audience back in time with a slideshow of Kwan’s Singaporean childhood. Photos of a youthful Kwan, his grandparents’ marriage and his great-grandfather’s house flickered across the screen.

Kwan told stories about his life of privilege, where yelling “I’m thirsty” in the middle of the night brought his 70-year-old nanny running from the servants’ quarters to bring him a glass of water.

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“I thought it was really interesting to hear of his childhood and experiences [that] had influenced his storytelling,” Maia Jones SC ’20 said. “[It] actually led to me having really interesting conversations with friends afterwards about representation of different Asian identities.”

Kheng and Kwan engaged in witty banter the whole evening, and the audience in the sold-out auditorium ate it up. Among the many topics: Kwan’s cameo in the movie, the fact that Gemma Chan (who played Astrid Teo) doesn’t sweat, and how Michelle Yeoh (Eleanor Young in the film) insisted on wearing her own jewelry. A video of Henry Golding (leading man Nick Young), a former hairdresser, cutting Kwan’s hair, was a highlight of the night.

Kwan, who moved to Texas at age 11, said he left Singapore “at the right moment in [his] life” for his mind to preserve childhood memories. Strolling down memory lane with his father before he passed away made Kwan realize “I need to put these [memories] down on paper.”

In college, he wrote a poem titled “Singapore Bible Study” about ladies using lunch meetings as an excuse to gossip. The poem became a short story, and soon after, the beginning of his book, and then of the movie.

Kwan never intended to publish his book, calling it “nonsensical scribbles” and his “crazy side project.” Nevertheless, he published the novel in 2013, and has since written two more books — “China Rich Girlfriend” in 2015 and “Rich People Problems” in 2017.

Kwan also let the audience in on his plans for the future. He’s working on three different TV shows: an one-hour drama series set in Hong Kong, a CBS sitcom called “The Emperor of Malibu” and a documentary series he described as “Anthony Bourdain meets luxury.”

Grace Shao SC ’21 said many of Kwan’s and Kheng’s topics of discussion surprised her, like Kwan’s family having black and white servants back in Singapore. But she doesn’t “believe it is a place for us to judge … because we come from such a different perspective, and we were just there to learn.”

The event lasted approximately an hour, followed by a book signing. The line to meet Kwan stretched outside of the auditorium.

“This [event] was just genuinely a lot of fun,” Sohni Kaur SC ’21 said. “We were all laughing together in the auditorium.”

Before the Scripps Presents public event, Scripps College students had the opportunity to participate in a student session with Kwan, according to an email that Corrina Lesser, director of public events and community programs, sent to Scripps students.

“It felt just more intimate and I felt like it was also a really good way for him to get to know Scripps students better too because he was able to talk to us one-on-one,” said Shao, who attended the session. “We had our own little book signing and photo-taking session.”

Melody Chang SC ’22 said the highlight of her night was getting Kevin Kwan’s picture and autograph, and “him telling me that I looked like his cousin.”

To see a full video of the conversation or find more information on upcoming events in the speaker series, visit the Scripps Presents Facebook page.

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Jaimie Ding

Jaimie Ding SC '21 is from Vancouver, Washington. She currently serves as TSL's news editor ad previously worked as a news writer.

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