June 13, 2018 | Katherine Adams
It might seem like a dream to come to Texas from Singapore as an 11-year-old boy, find a way to cope successfully with all the social and cultural adjustments that immigrant kids face, finish college and become the best-selling author of a book trilogy who has recently taken his place on the 2018 Time 100 List. With the first book of the trilogy, “Crazy Rich Asians,” to be released in movie theaters this summer, Kevin Kwan has been living what might be described as a dream. But the University of Houston-Clear Lake 1994 alumnus said for him, his years working toward his bachelor’s degree in media studies were the “dream experience.”
“From start to finish, I never missed a class the entire time I was a student at UHCL,” Kwan said. “It’s the first time I was really engaged in learning. I wasn’t very academic in high school. I spent the first few years just adjusting to being in America. When I came to UHCL, I came into my own.”
With a great learning community that activated him, Kwan said he began looking forward to classes and got very involved in student life at UHCL, becoming the Student Forum representative for the Literature Club, and the vice president of the Media Association, among many other organizations. “I just got really active and one organization pulled me into other things and I had a blast,” he said. “It’s the first time I made real friends. High school was fun, but it was superficial. At UHCL, it was different because the average student was a little older and I felt like I was in more of an adult world of learning. My professors and my peer group encouraged me to play my ‘A’ game. It was great for me.”
Without the support of teachers dedicated to their students’ success, stories that evolve as well as Kwan’s could not be possible. “I had several professors who were incredibly important to me,” Kwan said. “Gloria Morris, who taught humanities and fine arts, was a profound influence on my life. She championed my writing talent. I didn’t even know I could write until I came to UHCL.”
Kwan said Morris insisted he join the UHCLIDIAN, UHCL’s student newspaper at the time. “I became a writer and photographer and I wrote film reviews. She pushed me and really raised my journalistic standards.”
He remembered Morris telling him that if he wanted to write like (New York Times film and literary critic) Janet Maslin, then write like Janet Maslin. “Now she’s reviewed me twice! She’s been fantastic to me,” Kwan said. “That’s a full-circle moment. I really flourished in the Media Studies program at UHCL.”
As a media studies student, Kwan said that he’d spent hours in Professor of Media Studies Jib Fowles’ class, paying rapt attention to every word. “I felt like I was just downloading his intelligence,” Kwan said. “We discussed theories about TV violence and how it affected people. He was an amazing philosophical genius on the topic of mass media in society.”
At the time, Kwan said, the internet was still just an experiment that he’d heard about for the first time in Fowles’ class. “Jib Fowles was at the forefront of high-definition television. He actually brought one in for the class to look at,” Kwan said. “We huddled around it and saw HDTV for the first time. There was so much about technological advances in media that was theorized and predicted that I actually learned about at UHCL.”
Since he was also minoring in literature, Kwan encountered Professor of Literature John Gorman in a class and described him as another profound influence at UHCL. “I ran with the Lit Club crowd, and I took creative writing and poetry classes,” he said. “John Gorman was the poet laureate of UHCL. I was so inspired by him before I met him, then I took his classes. I worked those muscles to learn to write creatively and he really helped me build my confidence as a creative writer.”
It was in Gorman’s class that Kwan wrote a poem called “Singapore Bible Study.” In the poem, Kwan described a world in which wealthy women in Singapore gathered for Bible study, pretending to be Christian while gossiping, showing off their jewelry and talking about their designer clothes and their big houses. “The reaction was so intense,” he said. “I described a world no one knew anything about. The poem was published and won a juried award at the Houston Poetry Fest and it’s how I became involved in the Houston poetry circuit.”
What followed was another full-circle moment: 20 years later when Kwan sat down to write “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first chapter of which was inspired by that poem. “It’s the first thing I wrote for that book,’” he said.
Considering his untapped visual side – the side that loved photography, video-making and all he’d learned about the internet and websites from Fowles – Kwan thought that he’d like to try combining his written and visual talents. “I thought if I could conquer this new world I had learned about in my classes, the center of this new world would be in New York. So I enrolled at Parsons School of Design in New York.”
Kwan said he began going to school and working full-time for national magazines like Martha Stewart Living and Andy Warhol’s Interview, and started to get into the mix of the media world. “Fast forward after my graduation from Parsons, I was pulled into the design industry as a creative consultant using my design skills,” he said. “But the real asset was that I was a good writer. I could synthesize words and pictures. It made me very sought-after in the publishing world.”
His next projects focused on producing coffee-table books for the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Oprah Winfrey. “Elizabeth Taylor’s book, ‘My Love Affair with Jewelry’ was the most fun project I ever did, handling her incredible jewelry collection that rivals the Queen of England’s,” he said. “That book sold out in one day.”
Other clients came quickly, including best-selling writers Michael Korda, Gore Vidal and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry. “These brilliant, legendary authors inspired me to write again,” Kwan said. “So that’s what I did. Having that 20-year gap between UHCL and this other world of experience in design was part of the download, I put it all in ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’”
Each year, Time magazine assembles a list of what its editors deem to be the 100 most influential people in the world. Its release is a yearly event and to be named is an honor.
“I found out a couple days before it published that my name was on the list,” Kwan said. “My publisher at Doubleday called and said to get ready because my phone would start ringing. My reaction was really shock and disbelief. I thought it was a mistake.”
But upon checking Time’s website the next day, Kwan saw his friend Constance Wu’s essay about him. Wu has been cast as Rachel Chu, the main character in the film adaptation of Kwan’s novel, “Crazy Rich Asians.”
“To see she’d written that beautiful essay was really incredible,” he said. “I had just spoken with her three days before and she didn’t let on. It was a lovely surprise.”
These days, Kwan said, he wished he could spend more time pursuing his passion for photography projects, but there’s just not enough time. “I have to take a hiatus at the moment, because those projects are all-consuming,” he said. “Those photography projects used to be my after-work job, but it takes me a year to complete one project. Now I’ve got the movie coming out and I am concentrating on that.”
So much has happened in Kwan’s professional life since the “dream experience” at UHCL began. Although he hasn’t been back to campus in over a decade, Kwan still looks back on his undergraduate days with great fondness. “I have such happy memories about my years at UHCL,” he said. “We used to love to hang out at the café on campus, and we actually loved the food! A bunch of us would always gather for lunch and move all the tables. Those were great times. They were the best years of my youth.”
UHCL offers a bachelor of communication and a master of digital media studies. For more information, visit www.uhcl.edu/human-sciences-humanities/departments/communication-studio-arts.