Persona

My surprise chat with Kevin Kwan—on his ‘longest sleep,’ traveling again

Why the author of Crazy Rich Asians wrote a Love Letter to the Philippines during the pandemic

Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat and Kevin Kwan during a sun-sand respite, done the famous Philippine island style

Kevin Kwan, Lawrence Bender (far left), Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat, Tatler editor in chief Anton San Diego in Amanpulo (From Anton San Diego IG)

When I got a sudden call from Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat one morning last week and she told me she’d put me on speaker phone, I thought I’d just say “Hi!” to Tatler’s Anton San Diego. Honestly, I wasn’t prepared to hear Kevin Kwan’s “Hi!” and have a brief chat with the celebrated Singapore-born American novelist whose Crazy Rich Asians we enjoyed as a movie, but even more as a novel. (My favorite was the succeeding novel China Rich Girlfriend. Kevin Kwan followed that up with Rich People Problems, then in 2020, Sex and Vanity.)

Kevin sounded relaxed and even in the mood to chat, saying that he’d had “the longest sleep” in a long time now, in his “me time” in Amanpulo with Anton and Secretary Berna whose dogged determination to promote sustainable tourism, even during the pandemic, has become incontestable by now. With the Tourism secretary at the helm, the Philippines hosted the 21st World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit in Manila last April 20-22, its guests including Kwan and noted American film producer Lawrence Bender (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Good Will Hunting, An Inconvenient Truth).

Kevin’s Philippine visit was his first outside of his home in the US in two years, and his fourth visit to the Philippines. He sounded truly fond of the Philippines and the Filipinos.

“They’re a most multi-dimensional people,” he told us.

During the pandemic, he wrote the script of A Love Letter to the Philippines. And contrary to the stereotypical notion that Kevin moved only in glorified circles, he added that he’s met Filipinos from all walks of life. “The service staff asking what else you needed, even the book store staff when I first came here for an author’s meet—I felt such generosity of spirit.”

And apart from such warmth and hospitality, he has noted another trait of the Filipino that surfaced during the pandemic: “The resilience…how they braved the times.”

Since his last visit here, this lover of the sun and the sea noted some changes. “I’m an island boy,” he reminded lest we forgot, and simply “love the sun and the beaches.” But also, he has noted the proliferation of new restaurants—a boon to someone who loves Filipino cuisine. He told us about the sopa de ajo and paella he just had at Casa Buenas.

Though Kevin is at work on a manuscript, he didn’t pass up the chance to travel to the Philippines to be able to see and talk about the country.

Kwan has noted another trait of the Filipino that surfaced during the pandemic.: ‘The resilience…how they braved the times’

He took note particularly of the Filipino contemporary ensemble Secretary Berna wore to the WTTC, by Len Cabili. He said that another element he enjoyed on his Philippine trips is his exposure to Filipino arts and design. He admires the Filipino artists and designers, citing, for instance, Kenneth Cobonpue and his Yoda Chair.

In an interview on “Redefining Impactful Destinations” before the delegates of the WTTC Global Summit,  Kevin explained why his trips to the Philippines remain among his best experiences. “It’s a country with so many amazing locations, flavors, cultures, and of course, the people….it’s always a grand adventure.”

Born in Singapore, he moved with his family to Houston when he was 11. In adulthood he realized the paucity of contemporary books on Asia. “The Asia I saw was not being written about,” he told the WTTC body. “ I wanted to show the world the Asia I knew.” And this was in the context of the economic boom, on the cusp of the Asian Century.

After the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians became a watershed moment in Hollywood and the rest of the world, Kevin relished the response it drew from the people themselves, particularly Asian immigrants. In the WTTC interview, he recalled how, at one book signing, a man walked up to him and, in sobs, told him how he brought his pre-teen daughters to the cinema for Crazy Rich Asians—the “first movie I could take my daughters to and be proud” (of his roots).

Storytelling has evolved in this decade. “It’s to show the unburnished truth about the place, the more we demystify the place, the more we can connect….”

In the WTTC interview, he and Bender underscored the fact that today, Hollywood aspires for authenticity. “No one’s looking for stereotypes anymore.” Movies are now very specific to local culture.

At the opening of the WTTC Global Summit, Julia Simpson, the WTTC president and CEO, said, “Here in Asia-Pacific the reopening is just beginning. I congratulate the Philippines, a nation that has shown determination and courage to reignite travel…”

Simpson noted how “The pandemic rewrote the rule book on how we live and how we travel. It showed how totally inter-reliant we are. Businesses and governments need each other to make travel happen…”

It is a credit to the Tourism sector of the Philippines, with Secretary Berna’s against-all-odds approach, that the country has led Southeast Asia in “reopening borders.” The country began to turn the corner as early as 2021.

Kevin Kwan spelled out the future so well when he said, we must continue to seek out “new places to inspire,” and how we’re “getting used to new ways of travel” and finding out “what will take to make us really feel safe.”

Yes, that was a pleasant surprise call we got.

Philippine sun setting on what should be an unforgettable dinner is just one of the experiences that draw Kevin Kwan to the country. (From Anton San Diego IG)

About author

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After devoting more than 30 years to daily newspaper editing (as Lifestyle editor) and a decade to magazine publishing (as editorial director and general manager), she now wants to focus on writing—she hopes.

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