Kevin Kwan: ‘I’ve always been fascinated by Filipino society’

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KEVIN KWAN —Stephen Gutierrez/Contributed photo

How did an up-and-coming Cebu brand wind up in “Rich People Problems”?

Was there a formula to picking labels and designers mentioned in the “Rich” book trilogy?

What is Kris Aquino’s role in the movie?

Singapore-born American author Kevin Kwan, who is in the thick of filming “Crazy Rich Asians,” the big-screen adaptation of his novel of the same title (he’s an executive producer), is candid in parts, but also somewhat prudent in his reply to these queries when reached him via e-mail to discuss his new novel.

Manila subplot

Kwan recently released “Rich People Problems,” the third novel in the deliciously colorful and gossipy, and unapologetically camp best-selling “Rich” series, in which a subplot is set in Manila and Palawan—with Filipino characters.

“Rich People Problems” is the final chapter in Kwan’s debut book series, which began with the wealthy but famously discreet Young-Shang-Leong-T’sien fictitious clan of Singapore.

The series has spawned some of the most scandalously ludicrous characters in contemporary fiction, set in the gilded world of old- and new-wealth Asians.

In 2015, Kwan visited the Philippines to promote his second novel, “China Rich Girlfriend,” and has made good friends here. He also spent a few days of rest in Palawan, where he discovered the magic that was garlic rice, as he liked to say in interviews.

“When I began writing the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ series, it was always my intention for the books to be a showcase of Asia—to feature many countries and cultures throughout the region,” Kwan said.

“I’ve always been fascinated by Filipino society, ever since my first visit back in 1997, and I had such a fantastic time during my trip in 2015. I became friends with so many wonderful people, and being in Palawan was so inspiring that I knew I had found that special place that I needed for an essential plotline in ‘Rich People Problems.’”

That Manila book tour “was one of the first times I truly realized how many people were actually reading my books,” he added.

“In the US these days, bookstores so rarely organize book signings and it’s so rare to actually get a chance to meet one’s readers. But coming to the Philippines, seeing how passionate the readers were—how they would stand in line for hours to attend my events and how some would bring me gifts or create drawings of my characters—it really moved me.”

“Rich People Problems” is the third and final chapter of the “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy

Lavish lifestyles

It wasn’t just one of the country’s picturesque locales that earns a place in Kwan’s latest work. A young Filipino accessories brand, Neil Felipp, is also named in the mix of niche and known global labels. (In illustrating the lavish lifestyles of the super-rich, Kwan used designer- and brand-name-dropping as a narrative device throughout the series.)

Given the series’ global success—the books have been translated to several languages—it’s a boost for an upstart brand to get that kind of shout-out. In naming the brand designed by Neil Felipp San Pedro of Cebu, 2013 Inquirer LOOK of Style winner for Accessories, Kwan said: “There’s no formula at all. I am just an admirer of great design, and when I see something that catches my eye, it may end up in my books being used by one of my characters.”

In 2015, Kwan attended a party hosted by the Asia Society at The Peninsula Manila. He noticed “a dramatically beautiful evening purse”—a black lacquered minaudiere called Suzy Wong that’s adorned with a sculpted gold dragon—carried by “a very chic lady,” the fashion entrepreneur and blogger Christine Dychiao.

“I asked her who designed it, and she told me. It was that simple,” said the author.

The lead cast of “Crazy Rich Asians” the movie on location in Langkawi, Malaysia: Chris Pang, Carmen Soo, Constance Lau, Jing Lusi, Henry Golding, author Kevin Kwan, Gemma Chan and Constance Wu —PHOTO COURTESY OF FULLY BOOKED

Casting process

On social media, Kwan updates his followers about the upcoming movie, including when Nico Santos, a Filipino-American comic, was signed for the film. Which is likely the reason Filipino kibitzers have been wondering why Kris Aquino, who hinted in reports that she has been cast, has never been mentioned in Kwan’s posts or the official press statements.

“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to discuss any of the casting for the movie,” Kwan said. “That being said, I was extremely involved in the casting process. I can’t begin to tell you how surreal and amazing it is to help cast a film based on characters you’ve created. It’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever been part of!”

Closing this chapter in his writing career is bittersweet, as he begins work on his next book—“something completely different, that’s a bit out of my comfort zone.”

Never malicious

Kwan said he didn’t make enemies in the course of writing his novels. Instead of being guarded around him, for fear of becoming a laughable anecdote in his books, “People seem to want to tell me all their secrets, or share gossip about others. Then there are those that demand (italics his) I feature them in my books!” he said.

“My books are never malicious. I have no interest in exposing people or creating scandal. And let’s not forget—it’s comedic fiction. My only interest is in making sure readers laugh and have a good time.”

Kwan doesn’t have grand ideas about his readers’ takeaway from his work. “I think everyone has a totally different experience. I just hope that the books, at the end of the day, bring my readers joy and promote a greater understanding between people of all cultures and backgrounds.”

Old-rich family

The New York-based Kwan, who migrated to the US when he was young, comes from an old-rich Singaporean family. Though they have been “tremendously supportive,” he said, “they are not the sort of people who are really impressed by much. I think they are a bit mystified by my writing career and wonder what all the fuss is about.”

While he will miss the characters he created, “there’s also a part of me that’s ready for them to leave for a while,” he said. “They’ve consumed my life for the last seven years, and I’m ready for a break and to hear different voices in my head.”

“Rich People Problems” is available at Fully Booked.

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