'Crazy Rich Asians' Author Kevin Kwan: "Why Does Hollywood Think We'd Want to See This Movie With White People?"

The novelist dishes on the challenges of turning his 2013 best-seller into a movie and the sequel's "new level of outrageousness."
Stephen Gutierrez

A version of this story first appeared in the July 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Kevin Kwan's debut novel, Crazy Rich Asians, was one of 2013's most delicious summer reads, a soapy send-up of modern Asian high society that was quickly optioned by Nina Jacobson's Color Force (The Hunger Games) with Ivanhoe Pictures financing. Now Kwan is back with sequel China Rich Girlfriend (Doubleday, June 16), whose focus on mainland fortunes reveals "a new level of outrageousness" in both narrative twists and the lavish wealth depicted. The author, who is an executive producer on the film, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about what the Western world needs to understand about contemporary Asia, as well as his hopes for boosting Asian representation in Hollywood.

Your new book takes the action to mainland China for the first time, where one of your wealthy Singaporean characters says to another, "These people aren't just everyday rich with a few hundred million. They are China rich!" So, what is "China rich"?

"China rich" is the new "crazy rich." It's a new level of outrageousness. It comes from this world where overnight fortunes have been made, but the fortunes are so ginormous compared to anything we've ever seen in the history of the world. It's all based on the scale of the population, of course. If you're the water boiler king of China, you're selling a billion water boilers.

There are very brand-new nouveau riche who have literally been handed money. I know people who work in the Macao luxury industry who see people that come in to gamble with hard currency – we're talking ten million U.S. dollars in brown paper bags. You can tell there was some payoff or something. Then there's the fuerdai, the second generation of those that started getting rich in the late '70s, when Deng Xiaoping said, "Let's embrace capitalistic principles with our regime." That's China's form of old money, and you see all the snobberies. So all these different dynamics come into play in this society where the money's really only 30 years old, at the most.

When did you begin plotting the sequel?

It's always been envisioned as a trilogy. The entire story arc was in my mind even before I began writing book one, and it was always my idea to take you to different parts of Asia with each book and the different forms of wealth. As you can see, Singaporean wealth is very different from Hong Kongese wealth, which is very different from Taiwanese wealth, which is even more different from Chinese wealth. Western media reports are always so based on numbers and statistics, and I really wanted to get to the root of what it's like for these people. Not just the rich, but what is it like for people to be living in Asia today when there's such extreme contrasts between the rich and the poor, and this new rising middle class?

Crazy Rich Asians became a best-seller and landed on a lot of people's lists of fave reads after it came out. Why do you think it was such a hit with readers?

I think there was a universality to the story that people could relate to. The first people who really embraced it were the chick lit audience, and I'm so grateful they did, but it's been amazing to see how the book has trickled down to all these other audiences. Wall Street brokers come up to me and go, "Oh my God, I loved your book." No matter our background, we all have crazy families. People also have been always fascinated by the foibles of the very rich, from the Bible to Machiavelli to Jane Austen and [Anthony] Trollope. So I think it's that combination of a universal story with this time when there's so much fascination with Asia. Especially in the West, people want to understand Asia on a deeper level because it's become the engine of the world economy, like it or not.

How's the Crazy Rich Asians movie coming along?

Pete Chiarelli (The Proposal) is doing his final polish on the script. My producers have already been out to Asia several times to lay the groundwork for all the shooting. Nina Jacobson has such an amazing vision of bringing books to life. She's not going to do this until the script is perfect, until the casting is perfect and until we have the right director, because this is a movie that's gonna be so scrutinized, especially by Asians and Asian Americans. We really want to do it right for the readers.

What's the intended audience for the film?

The intention from the very beginning is a movie that would be released internationally and hopefully play well in Asia, in the U.S. and in the rest of the world. But we very much had the Asian audience in mind to begin with.

Who's in your dream cast?

Personally I'd like Emma Stone to play every single role in the movie. (Laughs.) We'll just CGI her.

If she's unavailable, how will you tackle populating a Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast?

It's so perplexing to see how casting in Hollywood is so defensive. I think audiences are much more accepting of casting choices. When Crazy Rich Asians came out, there was initial interest from a producer who wanted to change [the heroine] Rachel Chu into a white girl. I tell that story to book clubs in suburban middle America and they go crazy: "Why does Hollywood think we would want to see this movie with white people?" They don't need every film to be chock-full of the latest stars.

There are so many missed casting opportunities in Hollywood. It's still very much a challenge, but I have faith in the talent pool not just of existing actors, but also of actors coming out of film schools in England, in Australia, who are Asian. My hope is that there will be equal representation in terms of Singapore stars, Hong Kong stars, Asian American stars, mainland Chinese stars — I would love for it to be like a dream team cast.

As you mentioned, the world is now fascinated with capturing the Asian market, and China's in particular. What is Hollywood getting right and wrong about its approach?

Hollywood is fascinated by China but it doesn't really have a true understanding of it yet. Asia of course loves Hollywood, and they would love it even more if they saw their stars in it. It's such a no-brainer. We see that in a very token way, with Iron Man and big blockbusters like Transformers giving five seconds to an alternate storyline just for the Asian audiences. But what if an Asian character was integral to the telling of an amazing story that had nothing to do with being Asian? I think there'd be such an appreciation for it from the massive Asian audience. So why is that not being done more? I don't know, but I'm gonna try to crack that.