The names of fashion designers are strewn through the pages of Kevin Kwan’s novels like drops of paint on an artist’s floor. But when I meet the author of “Crazy Rich Asians” for a morning of gallery-hopping in Los Angeles, he is wearing an unassuming brown linen shirt, beige jeans and tan leather sandals, without a logo in sight. Unlike most of the flashy characters in his blockbuster beach-reads, Kwan virtually blends in with the brick walls of the artist’s studio we are visiting and attracts little attention from the denizens of LA’s Arts District. We have come to see a new set of paintings by Liz Markus: “Art is my vice,” says Kwan. “A couple weeks ago, I started following Liz’s baby dinosaurs on Instagram. I was like, ‘I have to come and see the baby dinosaurs.’”
Kwan, 46, is looking for art to decorate the walls of his new home in LA, where he now spends more time than New York. And he has money to spend: “Crazy Rich Asians” and its sequels, “China Rich Girlfriend” and “Rich People Problems”, have sold more than 4m copies worldwide and been translated into 30 languages. The books do for modern, monied Asians what Jane Austen did for the English landed gentry two centuries ago – only without the literary subtlety. They depict a world of high teas, elaborate dinners and stuffy social rituals in which Kwan grew up in Singapore. His own Hokkien-Cantonese family, he admits bashfully, was “the elite of the elite” – his great-grandfather founded Singapore’s first bank and his uncle was minister of finance.
The film of the first book, which came out last year, is an even more caricatured depiction of social advancement, full of jealous spouses, mean girls, manipulative mothers-in-law, cigar-chomping tycoons, Chuppies (Chinese yuppies) and Henwees (high-net-worth individuals). Notably, it was also one of the first Hollywood films in which not a single character is white. The extravaganza was a hit. It made over $235m at the box office, and was nominated for two Golden Globes. All of which explains Kwan’s new enthusiasm for LA: he is working on the film sequels to “Crazy Rich Asians”, as well as working on two TV shows.
The super-rich in Kwan’s books are prone to fly off the handle if they don’t get what they want immediately, whether that’s a 15-carat diamond brooch, a $10m apartment or a cup of some terribly rare strain of Darjeeling tea. Kwan, by contrast, is calm, controlled and thoughtful, more likely to keep to the shadows than show off the spoils of his success. In this he is not unlike the protagonist of his books, Nick Young, the heir apparent to one of Singapore’s wealthiest families (and possessed of “chiselled Cantonese pop-idol features, and impossibly thick eyelashes”). Nick conceals his background from his American girlfriend so completely that she has no idea of the social calamity that awaits when she finally meets his family in Singapore. Kwan’s book follows the dastardly attempts of Asia’s aristocracy to scare her off. “I actually had to tone down some of my descriptions of the wealthy because my editor said ‘No one is going to believe that’,” says Kwan.
His own spending habits are less flamboyant: “I’m not an impulsive buyer,” says Kwan, as we climb a set of corrugated iron stairs up to Markus’s studio. “When it comes to art, I like to really track people’s careers for a while and see how they develop.” Markus and Kwan greet each other with a brief hug before she leads us inside to see half a dozen cartoonish portraits of a mini Tyrannosaurus rex hanging on a wall by a floor-to-ceiling window. But Kwan stops short before he gets to them, to admire an expressionist painting of an ancient Liberian mask rendered in broad strokes of blue against a pulsating yellow background. “You really see the tension,” Kwan marvels at the canvas as he steps back and forth a few times with his chin in his hand. Markus pulls out a more abstract rendition, with long drips of blue and pink paint. It looks like a fever dream rendered in highlighter pens. “I’ve had a relationship with this mask for 25 years,” says Markus. “I started painting it in grad school.”
After 20 minutes of earnest appreciation, Kwan excuses himself, thanking Markus for letting him invade. When an Uber arrives he opens the door for me before getting in from the other side – perhaps a vestige of his high-society upbringing. Kwan’s family moved from Singapore to Texas when he was 11. “My father always felt the urge to live in the West,” he says, “to drive a big pickup truck and have 300 channels of cable. He had no interest in the glittering social life.” His family don’t seem to recognise themselves in his books, he says: “They ask me things like ‘How did you come up with these characters, Kevin. Where did you meet these crazy sorts of people?’”Despite their vision of a freer, more open life in America, the transition from their pampered home in Singapore to a more independent existence was a shock to Kwan and his family. “My mom learned to cook for the first time in her life at 48,” he says. Even today, her friends in Singapore are shocked to see her enter the kitchen.
For a long time writing was a hobby for Kwan. In New York he ran a branding and advertising company with clients such as the New York Times and the TED conference series. In 2008 he co-authored a book that life had prepared him well to write: “Luck: The Essential Guide”. Soon after, he consulted on a book about “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, for which he commuted between New York and Chicago, where Winfrey’s daytime talk show was based. “I had a lot of time waiting at airports and hotels, so I started writing what I thought would be a series of short stories based on the world I grew up in,” he says. After tapping out more than 300 pages, in 2012 he sent his “fun little passion project” to a friend – Michael Korda, novelist and formerly editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, a publisher. Korda read it in one night. “Crazy Rich Asians” came out the following year.
Given the air kisses and professional schmoozers that he writes about, Kwan’s quietness is a surprise. He generally avoids gallery openings, he says, loth to dodge elbows and trays of champagne. The publicity that came with the success of his books and film has not sat easily with him. He shudders as he recalls his appearances around Asia after his novels became popular. “It got pretty crazy, like, Justin Bieber-style crazy,” he says. “I can’t deal with that. It’s fun once, but when there’s massive security involved, it’s weird. It’s not the life I wanted as a writer.”
We hop out of the Uber at Over the Influence, a gallery showing an exhibition of an Icelandic artist called Erró. By now I’m discovering that Kwan’s taste in art mirrors his fiction: Erró’s paintings and collages are technicolour, bombastic takes on the modern world that mix comic strips, advertising images, current events and canonical works of art. Figures from Van Gogh jostle with comic-book cowboys; the Little Mermaid appears alongside a bounty of nuclear weapons. “Here you have Marvel meets Picasso,” says Kwan, gesturing at a painting of a heroine who looks a bit like Wonder Woman bursting out of “Guernica”. He enjoys the way Erró blends pop culture with capitalism, warfare and the atom bomb. “I’d love to know when these were painted,” he says. “They could be 50 years old, but they’re still so relevant.”
Back on the pavement outside, Kwan says that of everything he’s seen so far he’s most interested in Markus’s blue-and-yellow mask painting (price tag $21,500). But he’s not ready to buy it yet. “I’m not acquiring the way I was in the early 2000s,” he says, when he amassed many dozens of original artworks, “from Old Masters to contemporary works”. He balks at naming names, “you know, for security reasons”.
Could that change at our third stop? We walk over to the Los Angeles outpost of Hauser & Wirth, a sprawling complex of buildings housed in a former flour mill whose scale reflects the gallery’s international renown. The north wing houses paintings and improbable sculptures by David Hammons, a 76-year-old whose political, provocative urban art has long been highly sought after. This is his first LA exhibition in 45 years. In one room an object that looks like a mirrored wooden armoire lies on its back, as if marooned. It looks like the type of thing you’d find in a thrift store but in this ritzy institution it costs tens of thousands of dollars. “Now this I’m going to get,” Kwan says, deadpan. “I need something for my living room, this would be perfect. You can also eat on it.” It seems like a justified splurge for a crazy rich author. But not this one. Kwan strides away, laughing. He’s not that crazy.•