Arts & Culture

Meet the Real Family That Inspired Crazy Rich Asians

Kevin Kwan, whose novel has become the summer's biggest movie, opens his photo album for us.

Crazy Rich Asians may be fiction, but given the situation I grew up in, I've had an unparalleled view into the very real world it depicts. I come from an old establishment family from Singapore. Our family tree goes back to the year 946. Three families intermarried: mine, the Kwans; my grandmother’s, the Ohs; and my grandfather’s, the Hus, which made for a sprawling clan that helps inspire the stories in my novels and what you see onscreen in Crazy Rich Asians.

In these photos you can see my grandparents on their wedding day in 1931, which was the second time they had met. My grandmother Egan Oh was an independent flapper type who didn’t want to get married. When she was 26 her neighbor Margaret Kwan Fu Shing introduced Egan to her dashing younger brother Dr. Arthur P.C. Kwan, and she changed her mind. Margaret and her husband Dr. Hu Tsai Kuen, who helped invent Tiger Balm, lived in an estate that had previously belonged to the sultan of Johor and was one of the grandest homes in Singapore. You see Margaret inside with her Art Deco furniture. There’s this idea that Asian people lived in these houses with lots of antiques and brocade, but when this house was built, in the 1920s, its furnishings reflected the height of fashion.

And there’s my grandfather driving his car—a luxurious thing at the time. This is the first time we’re opening the family album to give a sense of the lives they led. During that era the elite Chinese families tended to be English-educated and took after the British—something that doesn’t happen much anymore. There was tea at 5 p.m. every day, and after dinner my grandfather would sit on the veranda and smoke his pipe. As a child I didn’t even realize I was Chinese. I was Singaporean, but my identity was wrapped up in the culture I was experiencing every day. For example, I didn’t know a word of Mandarin, and my parents didn’t either. I grew up with a posh English accent, and all my aunts sounded as if they came out of a Merchant Ivory movie. It’s a world that has all but disappeared.


My Great Aunt Margaret Kwan with her husband Dr. Hu Tsai Kuen.

My Great Aunt Margaret was the neighbor that introduced my grandmother to her brother Arthur. Here they are at Buitenzorg, their estate that used to belong to the Sultan of Johore. Uncle Tsai Kuen helped to invent a little ointment called Tiger Balm.

Buitenzorg was one of the grandest and most beautiful houses in Singapore.

The property is now home to the Marq, the most expensive residential tower in Singapore that’s distinctive for having a private infinity pool on every floor. Here’s Great Aunt Margaret in her bedroom, which was done in art deco style.

And her dressing room...

My grandparents on their wedding day, 1931, posing in the garden of my grandmother’s house in Singapore.

I'm told this was the second time the couple had met. My grandmother, Egan Oh, was an independent girl who didn’t see the need to get married. At the ripe old age of 26, her father forced her to marry, matchmaking her to the brother of his neighbor. The groom, Dr. Arthur Kwan, was a dashing young medical graduate from Hong Kong and scion of the Kwan clan.

My grandfather about to go for a spin.

My grandfather poses for a portrait during his university days in Edinburgh.

This story originally appeared on
* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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