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The Man Behind 'Crazy Rich Asians'
Claudia McNeilly meets authour Kevin Kwan at the swanky Toronto launch of his much-hyped book

image: CBC.ca

“Jealousy is the ugliest emotion,” she said through penciled-in lips. It slipped past my ears as I stepped inside the Shangri-La’s revolving doors. I was not spat out on the other end so much as I was, instead, gently deposited onto the marble floor. Slack-jawed and starry-eyed, I would normally stumble past the concierge and into the party like a cleverly disguised rat– my face feeling like it was pressed up against a brick-thick steal fence, looking in from the outside. Although the fence was never visible like the ones kids smoosh up against at the MMVAs in hopes of catching a glimpse of Cody Simpson–cold and heavy, it was always there. I looked up in search of the fence and only saw stars.

They were the flickering lights that dance in your line of sight from exhaustion, not awe. I was inside the launch party for Kevin Kwan’s debut novel Crazy Rich Asians. Kwan was in a corner holding a cocktail in a gold-detailed blazer; thick-rimmed glasses perched on his nose, nodding slowly to something. Waiters filtered through the swelling crowd with trays of coconut lamb, cocktails in shades of sunset pink, and chilled wine. I slumped over a corner table, letting the guilt of my eviscerated excitement creep over me at an exponential pace. The old mentality of knowing that someone would gladly take my spot should I surrender it ran up and down my spine as I shifted to crack it, deciding the lady downstairs was wrong: Guilt is the ugliest emotion.

As Kwan stepped onto the podium, a sense of proud ownership seeped through his pores and onto the floral carpeted floor where it was left to linger and slink its way into the soles of the gathered audience. Perhaps it was the gold detailing of his blazer, which bared a stark resemblance to the novel’s gold dust jacket, but as Kwan spoke he became a walking symbol of the book we gathered to celebrate. The rare air of confidence in knowing one has nothing to prove was something he possessed in heaps of golden pictures. It imbued him with the paradox of humble confidence and Febreezed an unapologetic air in the room.

In the novel, this unapologetic nature binds best to the outfits featured, discussed and dissected ruthlessly as readers watch the characters spiral in a spellbinding dance of Valentino and vintage Chanel, cracking the book’s binding for more. Kwan grew up in the thick of this dance in Singapore before moving to New York as an adult. As a result he holds knowledge of both North American and Asian fashion spheres. Yet, when asked about the main difference between North American and Asian style, he laments the lack of any real distinction that we have recently found staring us down from a mountain of monotony. “Style is becoming so global today. There used to be a disconnect between the way people dressed in Paris versus New York City. Now the lines have been blurred to the point where there is no real difference anymore– everyone has started to look the same. I’d like to see a transition back to a time where there was a real distinction and difference. I’m lamenting individuality in design. I’d like to see someone come along and shake things up.”

Yet before we fall into a discussion on the pitfalls of what is possibly the biggest culprit of this crime (hi, Internet), Kwan tells me that Asian woman do have a leg up on us when it comes to one particular secret. “Stay away from the sun!” he says with fervor. “Asian women avoid the sun and, as a result, you see so many Asian women aging beautifully. Yes, everyone wants to be tanned and look like Giselle today but…”

“It’s not going to happen for the rest of us,” I cut in to rudely finish the thought Kwan’s politeness made him hesitate to conclude. 

Kwan’s ability to talk about money while neither singing its praises nor cursing its inhabitants makes his dissection of wealth potent. He is brutally aware of the double-edged sword that is our fascination with the subject, but contends it’s the vicarious nature of portals that offer up a fragment of this exclusive world and makes them particularly appealing today. “It’s always been fascinating to people,” he says. “In the depression era you had people going to movies that satirized our lens onto the more fortunate. Today, with all of our new media, the audience has only grown. Now you have things like Rich Kids of Instagram popping up because there is a huge audience for it. People want to be a part of it,” he concludes.

Today we so often see people who are a part of it, people who knocked down barricades to be let in, paralyzed with entitled excess and a silent creeping fear of what awaits outside. The depression era tacked the fascination of wealth in thick plaques on our screens. Although today we can afford to put food on our tables, we still can’t seem to afford to own up to our success. Our depression comes from watching the lights flicker in front of our eyes out of exhaustion, running towards a set of flickering images of effervescent goals. Our descent growing closer, we watch their bubbling movements simmer to a fizz as we approach.


Claudia McNeilly writes for Toronto Standard. You can follow her on twitter at @claudiamcneilly.

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