During a college creative writing course, Kevin Kwan wrote a poem entitled “Singapore Bible Study”. The poem was about a study group — but there was more gossiping and showing off new jewelry than studying. A few years later, he began rewriting that poem into a scene. That scene ended up being chapter 2 of Crazy Rich Asians.
It was that chapter that gave Kwan the momentum to write a novel. Yet, it was a story he was brought up to never talk about — at least to avoid sharing with those on the outside. He was unaware of his status. With a wealthy family tree that had roots all the way back to the year 946, Kwan lived a privileged childhood, although not to the extent of those characters in his imagination. And it wasn’t until he moved to America that he understood what luxury he came from.
In 2010, his father passed away — and Kwan felt it was the right time to reconnect with his past. It was perhaps a morbid reason, but Kwan, who was currently working as a creative consultant in New York, didn’t know how much time he (or anyone) would have left.
It was through heartbreak and history that emboldened Kwan to write Crazy Rich Asians — and ignite the flame for Asian American authors and filmmakers for the coming generations. This is how Crazy Rich Asians went from bestseller to blockbuster hit.
Kevin Kwan’s families consisted of three major clans: the Hus, the Ohs, and the Kwans. They had a hand in inventing Tiger Balm, founding Singapore’s oldest bank (the Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation), and establishing the Hinghwa Methodist Church. Among many accolades, his paternal grandfather was even knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his philanthropies. In addition, they lived in some of the grandest homes in Singapore including an estate previously occupied by the sultan of Johor, the ruler of Malaysia.
During this time, wealthy Chinese families were educated in English colleges and universities, and that included Kevin Kwan himself. He studied at the Anglo-Chinese School, and didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, and neither did his parents, who worked as an engineer and a pianist.
Kwan’s family was indeed wealthy, but the old money that had been trickling down for generations had mostly dried up by the time Kevin was born. While he was privileged, he was not on the same level as some of the characters in Crazy Rich Asians. Nevertheless, he remembered his home in Singapore when growing up. It was on a hill with a panoramic view. From his bedroom, he could see for miles. Sadly, that estate that housed multiple generations of Kwan’s family no longer exists. As Singapore’s development expanded in the 90s, Kwan’s family home was demolished and four separate homes now occupy the property.
At the age of 11, his family, along with his two older brothers, immigrated to Clear Water, Texas. Kevin Kwan missed many aspects of his Singaporean lifestyle, but there was one key person that he missed the most: his journalist aunt. It was his aunt that invited interesting characters to the house: painters, sculptors, and writers. She also had regular lunches with fascinating people such as royalty, business people, and art collectors. It was she that brought Kevin into that world and opened his imagination.
This perhaps encouraged Kwan to pursue the arts. After graduating from the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a BA in Media Studies, Kwan moved to Manhattan and earned a BFA in Photography at Parsons School of Design. Afterward, Kwan was employed by Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine and Martha Stewart Living, as well as working at — famous graphic designer, Tibor Kalman’s design firm — M&Co. In 2000, Kwan opened his own creative consulting company which served high-profile clients that included TED, Museum of Modern Arts and The New York Times.
When his father was diagnosed with cancer, Kwan took 18 months off work and returned to Texas to take care of him. He had to drive his father back and forth to daily doctor appointments in Houston. There the two of them spent the time while commuting recounting old family memories and the days back in Singapore. It was during those conversations he realized that there was so much he didn’t know about his family’s history. To contain all his thoughts, explore his ancestry, and mourn his father during that emotional time, Kwan wrote.
In two years, he completed half the manuscript, but it was his literary agent Alexandra Machinist that encouraged him to write the ending with a timeline of 2 months. Kwan was able to accomplish that and the timing could not have been better.
He noticed there was a gap in contemporary Asian literature. Most of what he saw on the market involving Asian culture was historical fiction or Asian-American identity. Asia had changed a lot since the 20th century. There has been a lot of financial reports in magazines such as Forbes announcing that there are more billionaires in Asia than anywhere else in the world. While reports may show the numbers, Kwan wanted to show the family aspect, or as he puts it, he wanted to tell the story of the Downton Abbey of Asia
The challenge was to make the story approachable to an American audience. He didn’t think it would be a book people in Asia would be interested in. He said, “They have their own stories, this is old hat for them.” That was how Crazy Rich Asians focused on an Asian American visiting Singapore. Telling the story from the eyes of Rachel Chu, a New York university economics teacher and an Asian outsider allowed him to bridged the gap between worlds. An Asian American may think she knows what she is getting herself into, but she has no idea.
On June 11, 2013, Crazy Rich Asians was published and received overall positive reviews. A New York Times review claims, “Mr. Kwan knows how to deliver guilty pleasures.” Yet, it was not the Asian community that initially embraced the novel, and Kwan somewhat anticipated that. He claimed that Asian Americans were so used to being disappointed by anything portraying their culture that they naturally approached anything as such with suspicion. The title, of course, didn’t help either.
It was the fashion industry and the community in the Upper East Side of Manhattan that became an ambassador for Kwan’s novel. One strategy implemented was to leave copies of Crazy Rich Asians on every seat of the Hampton Jitney, a charter bus service for Manhattanites who don’t have private planes, as Kwan puts it.
Perhaps the most notable promotion for Crazy Rich Asians, was when Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, published an excerpt of the novel in an issue of the magazine. This brought the novel to new heights. Crazy Rich Asians will continue its rise from there. But not without some friction.
As the story was gaining interest in Hollywood, Kwan remembered a movie producer reaching out with a proposal for a movie deal and a request to turn the main character, Rachel into a white girl. Kwan never responded.
That wouldn’t be the only offer for Kwan. The calls began to pour in. One of the first was movie producer and investors of Snapchat, Uber, and Warby Parker, Wendi Deng Murdoch who received an early manuscript from Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter.
Then there was this surreal “beauty contest” day in 2013 that Kwan and his agent remembered well. A creative consultant that worked with Oprah Winfrey and Kate Spade flew them to Los Angeles where they met with executives from major studios such as Fox and Lionsgate.
But in the end, it was producer Nina Jacobson that won over Kwan with her passion and acquired the rights to adapt Crazy Rich Asians into a film.
In 2007, after Jacobson was terminated from her role as president of Disney’s Buena Vista subdivision, she partnered with Brad Simpson to start an independent film studio, Color Force. Up to this point, Color Force’s most notable releases were the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and the Hunger Games series, two other literary adaptations.
At first, Jacobson considered financing the movie outside of the American studio system. This would give them the freedom to have an all-Asian cast, but the risk of doing so may cause the movie to fall out of relevancy and be unseen. Luckily, by 2014, Ivanhoe Pictures have signed on with Color Force to fund the picture. Previous productions for Ivanhoe Pictures include: Kite Runner, United 93, and MoneyBall — as well as other foreign pictures from Asia.
President of Ivanhoe Pictures, John Penotti had little doubts about signing on. It was what Ivanhoe Pictures was all about. While other studios were worried about an all-Asian cast, this was the type of movie that he and his organization were eager to make. Greenlit and ready to go with a budget of $30 million, the two studios set off to make North American cinema history.
Screenwriter Peter Chiarelli, known for The Proposal and Now You See Me 2, was hired to script Crazy Rich Asians. He was brought on before a director was hired. It took until May 2016, until the studios entered negotiation with director Jon M. Chu, who had directed the sequel to Step It Up, Jem and the Hologram, and Now You See Me 2, where he worked with Chiarelli.
Incidentally, Chu was loosely mentioned in Kwan’s novel, as Kwan knew Chu’s cousin Vivian and passingly regarded them in the book as the Chu’s of Silicon Valley. But that wasn’t the reason Jon Chu won the job. Chu gave a presentation to Color Force and Ivanhoe Pictures describing his experience as a first-generation Asian-American. His presentation included a picture of himself as a little boy and his family. His dad owned a renowned Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto and as Jacobson recalled, he and his four siblings were all dressed like the Kennedy’s. Identifying as an American but having the visual knowledge of Asia, Chu got the trust of the studios and for the first time as a director felt as though he would be working on a project that will bring his name to the forefront.
One of the first action Chu took once getting the gig as the director was to hire a writer of Asian descent to go over Chiarelli’s script. Adele Lim, Malaysian-American screenwriter, who spent most of her career writing for television, including shows such as Las Vegas, One Tree Hill, and Dynasty, was considered perfect not because of her writing experiences but rather her life experiences: Lim’s parents live in Singapore and her husband is caucasian. Chiarelli was said to have focused the script on the plot while Lim added specific cultural details to the story.
It was this distinction that ended up causing a divide between her and the studio, who were paying Chiarelli significantly more than Lim: at a rate of approximately 8 to 10 times more. The studio claims that the rates are based upon industry standards, which evaluate the experience of the writer. To make an exception for Lim during the negotiation for the Crazy Rich Asians sequels was to set a bad precedent. Lim took it as a slight from the studio, viewing her contribution to be merely “soy sauce” on top of a meal, and declined the partnership with Chiarelli again.
There was indeed something empowering when working on this movie. A Hollywood romantic comedy with an all-Asian cast was the first of its kind, but filling the roles was not easy for Chu. Before casting began, Chu offered up a dream list or what he called “The Avengers of Asian Actors,” included on the list was martial arts legend, Michelle Yeoh most notable for her role in Crutching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; rising star of British television series Humans, Gemma Chan; Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang, Daily Show correspondent, Ronny Chieng; and Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu.
In 2016, Constance Wu auditioned for the role of Rachel. Jon Chu as good as offered the part to her, but due to a scheduling conflict with her television series, Wu was put in a tough position. Contractually, she would have to turn Crazy Rich Asians down. But Wu didn’t give up — how could she? She remembered 10 years of her life waitressing in order to make ends meet. She now played an important role for Asian American actors on television — as Fresh Off the Boat was the first American sitcom with a core Asian cast — and couldn’t simply pass on an opportunity to experience the same impact on cinema.
Wu wrote a letter to Chu expressing her connection to the character of Rachel. “Dates are dates,” she wrote, “and if those are immovable, I understand. But I would put all of my heart, hope, humor, and courage into the role.” Her passion wasn’t ignored by Chu, who would go on and delay production of Crazy Rich Asians by approximately 5 months to April 2017. And with that, the role of Rachel was cast.
Next was to find someone to play the male lead, Nick Young. This was a major challenge for Jon Chu. After looking through all the finalists in a Los Angeles and China audition, he wasn’t able to find someone who could deliver Nick’s British accent as described in the novel. Chu was beginning to feel the pressure, so much so, he decided to launch a social media campaign to not only fill the role of Nick Young but also for all the Asian characters in the story. Candidates from around the world posted a two-minute video audition on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube with #CrazyRichAsiansCasting. Thousand of videos were submitted and once again we see that Crazy Rich Asians was a movie that intended to break away from traditions, in an effort to remove the gatekeepers that were holding many Asian actors back.
Perhaps it was this reason that made it so upsetting to many when Malaysian-English actor, Henry Golding was cast in the lead role of Nick. Golding was brought to Chu’s attention by the production company’s accountant: Lisa-Kim Ling Kuan. With minimal experience in the industry and zero Hollywood credit on his resume, all Golding could do was charm Chu with his personality and accent — which he did.
The criticism was simple: for a movie that was claiming to go all-in with an Asian cast, with a critical role, they decided to pull back and fold. To many, Golding was not Asian enough. And it’s fair: Golding was biracial, there was no hiding that. Many felt that casting Golding was simply to make the movie more digestible for an audience that was used to white actors on the screen.
Japanese-English-Argentine actress, Sonoya Mizuno who earned the role as Araminta Lee, would also face the heat for not being full Asian, meanwhile, Korean-born actress, Jamie Chung, who was declined a role in the movie for not being ethnically Chinese made everyone wonder where the line was being drawn.
As hurt as Golding was about all the comments concerning his legitimacy as an Asian, he acknowledge the validity of the criticisms and encourage more conversations around the topic. Whether you agree with the casting or not… whether you think Henry Golding is Asian enough to play the role of Nick Young or not, all Asian actors can agree that it was one small step for Asians; and one giant step for Asian-American cinema. Because of Crazy Rich Asians, many Asian actors are working that wouldn’t have been otherwise.
Much like casting, one of the most pivotal decisions Chu and the studio had to make was regarding the distribution rights. In late 2016, Netflix began aggressively bidding for the worldwide rights to the project, including the sequels. They offered full “creative freedom,” and an upfront seven-figure-minimum payout for all the stakeholders. Such an offer was hard to ignore — because everyone involved would be instant millionaires. But a Netflix exclusive release, would ultimately diminish the impact of the all-Asian movie.
Sure some Netflix movies do get theatrical releases, but since it’s streaming at the same time, few theatres would put it up on screen. In the end, in order to make any cultural impact, Crazy Rich Asians went with Warner Bros. to bring the movie to the theaters.
On August 15, 2018, Crazy Rich Asians was released and grossed $174.5 million in the US and Canada, and $64 million internationally. This ended up being an incredibly profitable gamble for the studios. However, the reception from the Chinese audience was lackluster, much to the disappointment of Warner Bros. The Chinese didn’t find novelty in seeing Asians on screen, they watch Chinese dominated entertainment all the time. Additionally, the plot surrounding those with excess was off-putting to many movie-goers in China.
Then there were the critics, who were not all on the same page. While many celebrated the film for making history, for being visually appealing with its glitz and glamour, and for stand-out performances from Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong; and rapper-turned-actress, Awkwafina — others had problems with the movie.
Some said it was a cliche North American rom-com with all the same tropes and archetypal characters. It wasn’t bad per se, but it’s about as revolutionary as 2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Then there were those that felt the movie didn’t help the Asian reputation, stating that the movie, right from the title, reinforces the stereotype that “Asians are rich, vulgar and clueless.”
Lastly, others deemed Crazy Rich Asians to have committed the ultimate sin. Hypocrisy. With a story that was meant to bridge racial divides, the movie might have done otherwise simply for some laughs. Singapore is an ethnically diverse country with not only those of Chinese descent, but also those from Malaysia, India, and many more regions of the world. In the scene where Rachel and Peik Lin arrive at the mansion, they get frightened by some Sikh security guards. This scene has no explanation and was a clear glossing over of a troubled racial political climate in the country, where Indians are marginalized. In the novel, the guards are described as some of the finest warriors in the world, but in the movie, they were relegated to comic relief at best.
It might not have been a grand slam, but it was at least a triple with two runs batted in. Crazy Rich Asians did a lot right. For one, it increased tourism to Singapore, particularly to a few on-screen locations including the Marina Bay Sands and Raffles Hotel. Next, it increased book sales for Kwan’s novel by over 300% in 2018 after the release of the movie. And lastly, since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club based on the novel by Amy Tan, there hasn’t been a modern movie with an ensemble Asian cast that captured the attention of the North American public.
The adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians happened at the perfect time during a cultural shift. What the world needs now are more Asian artists in all fields to feed off the spark that had been ignited. Unlike The Joy Luck Club, Asian creators cannot wait another 25 years for another at-bat. As race continues to be a hot button in Hollywood and the rest of the world is eager and watching, Asian artists need to bring everything they have to the table, because whether others agree or not, they are now in the game thanks to Crazy Rich Asians. However, the question remains: Is Crazy Rich Asians a trial blazing movie? Or is it an outlier?
What are your thoughts on the cultural merits of Crazy Rich Asians? Do you think it helped the public perception of an all-Asian cast? Or was it just another cookie-cutter movie, albeit a fortune cookie? Let me know in the comments below.
For more in the series of adaptations, please check out this YouTube playlist here.
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