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‘Crazy Rich Asians’: Author Kevin Kwan Says Hollywood Producers Wanted to Whitewash Lead Role

Some producers wanted to turn leading lady Rachel Chu into a white woman, despite the essential nature of her racial identity to the story at hand.

So much of what potential readers — and now, with a star-studded movie adaptation in production, potential watchers — need to know about Kevin Kwan’s smash hit novel “Crazy Rich Asians” is right there in the title. It’s about crazy, rich Asians, but it seems like some members of Hollywood didn’t quite get that at first. Oh, sure, they were down for the crazy part, the rich part, even the crazy-rich part, but the Asian stuff? Not so fast!

In a revealing new interview with Entertainment Weekly, Kwan shared a strange experience he had in the early days of getting his novel made into a big screen property. The author told the outlet that during an early meeting with a potential producer, “the producer asked him to reimagine his protagonist, Rachel (played by Constance Wu in the film), as Caucasian. ‘That was their strategy,’ he remembers. ‘They wanted to change the heroine into a white girl. I was like, “Well, you’ve missed the point completely.” I said, “No, thank you.”‘”

Kwan was right on the money, because to think that Rachel could so easily be reimagined as a white woman would not only strip away a major part of the character’s identity, it would mostly defeat the purpose of the story itself, which focuses primarily on the Asian immigrant experience. As EW notes, Kwan’s novel is “about a Chinese-American woman’s journey back to Asia, a quintessentially Asian immigrant experience. Rachel goes through reverse culture shock as part of her journey; to remove that aspect of the character by making her a white woman would have made it a completely different story.”

The film follows Rachel as she travels to Singapore with her boyfriend Nick (played in the film by Henry Golding) to meet his family and attend his best friend’s wedding. While Rachel is aware that Nick’s family is well-off, nothing can prepare her for what she finds in Singapore: Nick’s family is tremendously wealthy, the wedding they are attending is the social event of the season, and pretty much everyone she meets does’t like her, as they’re convinced she’s just some random Chinese-American gold digger who is only after Nick’s money.

It’s a splashy, soapy, wild story, and it’s also primarily populated by Asian characters in Asian locales. (And, not to spoil too much, but in subsequent novels, Rachel’s own heritage becomes a major part of the story.)

Kwan also told EW that when he “shared the tale of this early meeting while on his first book tour, he says the reactions he heard wound up convincing him that a film version of the story would — against typical Hollywood thinking — appeal to audiences who weren’t Asian. He recalls one stop in Texas at a book club made up of white women who were just as appalled as he was at the prospect of whitewashing Rachel.”

Eventually, Kwan found producers who understood the story he was trying to tell and the kind of characters that make it so special. The film adaptation of the novel — the first of three Kwan has written about these characters — was produced by Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, who made the film with Warner Bros. (and an appropriately Asian cast).

Kwan added, “I do think the tide is turning, and my personal experience as far as I’m concerned has always been a very positive one, from the very beginning…I had one of the top producers in Hollywood come to me wanting to make this movie and wanting to do it right, so I think the culture is shifting. They’re seeing the importance of this.”

“Crazy Rich Asians” hits theaters on August 17, 2018.

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