In Kirstin Chen’s new novel, “Counterfeit,” two former Stanford roommates reconnect after 20 years to run a counterfeit luxury handbag enterprise. Ava, a rule-abiding Chinese American lawyer from Newton, looks like she has her life together but is secretly miserable. This made her the perfect accomplice and business manager for her former college roommate Winnie, a Chinese international student who mysteriously dropped out during their first year.
The pair work together on a nearly foolproof scheme, but when their success threatens to unravel, Winnie disappears again, leaving Ava to pick up the pieces.
Chen, 41, grew up in Singapore, went to Stanford, and did her MFA at Emerson. “Counterfeit” is her third novel, and she’ll be appearing at Harvard Book Store on Tuesday, June 21, at 7 p.m.
In a recent phone interview, Chen discussed the book, the model minority myth, and writing about China.
Q. What inspired this book? How did you come up with the premise?
A. The premise for this book actually started as a joke. My last book, “Bury What We Cannot Take,” required an incredible amount of research, and after a particularly grueling day of research, I turned to my spouse and said, “The next book that I write is gonna have to be about something that I’m already an expert in.”
I’m an armchair expert on handbags, but I said it as a joke and thought nothing of it. But a couple months later, I came across an article in The Washington Post that described a real life con-artist who had perfected a seemingly perfect counterfeit handbag scheme. That planted the seed, but it ended up requiring a lot of research because I didn’t know that much about counterfeit handbags, even though I knew a lot about designer handbags.
Q. What was your research process like?
A. I was at a writer’s residency in Singapore when I was working on this first draft. And that residency came with a research grant, which I used to travel to Hong Kong and Guangzhou. I wanted to visit the fake handbag market and talk to the people who work there and observe shoppers who shop there. I used a personal connection to visit a handbag factory in Dongguan and managed to talk to an IP lawyer who specializes in copyright infringement in China.
You never know what is going to be the detail that really captures your attention. So I try to go in and just be really open.
One of the most striking details was showing up at this giant shopping center filled with counterfeits and then noticing that there was a police kiosk right outside. That kind of captures the paradox and complexity of this industry. It’s illegal, illicit, and it’s completely out in the open. The government cracks down from time to time, but at the same time, it is a huge part of the economy in Guangzhou and tons of hardworking people make their living off of this industry.
Q. There are a lot of stereotypes people have about Chinese factories. What do you think people should know about them?
A. Westerners have a kind of knee-jerk reaction when they hear “Made in China.” This factory that I visited was one of the better known factories in this region. They do a lot of work for international and American designers, and it was really clean and welcoming. It’s a state-of-the-art factory, and I think that’s something that would probably surprise Westerners because of the stigma.
Sweatshops exist in Los Angeles and in Manhattan and in Italy, and state-of-the-art factories exist in China. There is no blanket statement that you can make about working conditions.
Q. Your last book was set in 1950s Maoist China, and “Counterfeit” takes place partially in modern China. What made you want to write about China?
A. My previous novel was an effort to understand my own family history. With “Counterfeit,” I was more interested in exploring the different shades of Asian Americans.
You know, on the surface, people might see Winnie and Ava as very similar, because they’re both of Asian descent, live in America, and went to Stanford. But they are so different. Ava grew up in a mainly white suburb of Boston and spent her whole life trying to fit in, versus Winnie who came from the largest country in the world that is an economic powerhouse. There’s this incredible confidence, brashness, and sense of security that she has that Ava doesn’t.
Q. That nuance seems particularly relevant in light of recent anti-Asian hate and tensions with China due to COVID.
A. It was an interesting time to be revising the book through all of these events. The heart of this book was always about questioning the model minority myth. During the pandemic, we all saw how quickly Asian Americans could morph from model minority to ‘responsible’ for the ‘Asian flu.’ That is the model minority myth encapsulated, right?
When it is useful to society to hold Asian Americans up as a model, they will do so, and then the instant that image isn’t useful anymore, Asians can morph very quickly into contaminated, sly people. It just made my story feel more important and more urgent.
Q. Ava has a really practical job, which she hates, and then the illegal handbag side hustle. In another world, what would your practical, #AsianMomApproved job be, and what would be your illegal side hustle?
A. Firstly, I am a very rule-abiding person. In that way, I fit into the model minority but it’s also a very Singaporean thing.
In terms of practical jobs, I mean, I had a practical job. I was a merchandise planner at Banana Republic, and I think my parents were very proud of that. But I will say that my mother is a professional musician. In that way, I’m an anomaly. I always knew that there was this other thing I could do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.