By Fully Booked Staff Writer
Photo from Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan on Amazon
New York-based journalist Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan has a lot of stories to tell about her homeland Singapore, one of which is told in her first novel, Sarong Party Girls. Written entirely in colourful Singlish (Singaporean English), SPG pulls back the curtain and shows a complexity to Singapore (sub)culture where tradition clashes with modern materialism. We had a chat with Cheryl to find out more about her story, and the story of the modern young Asian woman.
FULLY BOOKED: First off, congratulations on your first novel. What made you want to write something like this, as opposed to going into food or fashion given your background?
CHERYL LU-LIEN TAN: As much as food and fashion have been my expertise in journalism, Singapore, its culture, intimate stories and daily rhythms have always captured my imagination and fascination much more — right now — when it comes to books. And “Sarong Party Girls” is a book I’ve probably had in the back of my mind for years.
I’ve always found SPGs and the culture around SPGs completely fascinating — this little subculture in Singapore, to me, says something significant about the country and the sexual and racial politics of the place. Why is it that there exists a certain type of woman who sees status and material value in having a Caucasian husband or boyfriend? What are the forces of our history — colonial or otherwise — that have shaped this desire and belief in the value of Caucasian-ness?
Seeing SPGs and SPG bars in Singapore always made me ponder these questions, so when it came to writing my first novel, this very Singaporean character that had always fascinated me came to mind.
I’m not ruling out writing about fashion or food in future novels — never say never — but for now, I’ve still got more stories to explore in Singapore.
The level of detail in describing the areas and people in Singapore is so in-depth. What kind of research went into writing SPG?
This all came about very organically, actually. When I was in Singapore researching “A Tiger in the Kitchen,” I reconnected with many childhood friends, some of whom were recently divorced or split up and had started hitting the bars and clubs again. The more time I spent with these women at these clubs, the more interesting characters and vignettes I kept coming across. Also, there are scenes in there of wet markets and kopitiams (old school coffeeshops) that I’ve long loved as part of the authentic canvas of Singapore — I miss those places when I’m away from home and so writing about them very vividly came rather naturally to me. It wasn’t intentional but when I sat down to write SPG, these little backdrops and scenes all formed the tapestry that ended up being Jazzy’s world. Some of the places in there are real — for example, I renamed the bar in the last chapter of the book but it does exist. It’s called The Living Room and it’s in the Marriott right downtown — and it’s really a place that’s filled with hookers and people taking that last stab at getting a hookup for the night. I went there with some girlfriends to take a look at the bar because we’d heard about it and we were appalled, yes, but I was also incredibly fascinated. When I started writing SPG I knew The Living Room would end up in there somehow.
Was it difficult going full-out Singlish writing the novel, versus the conventional way of writing you’re used to back in your staff writing days?
It was certainly a very different experience — even in Singapore, newspaper stories are not written in Singlish! Singlish, for those who may not know it, is the downhome patois of Singapore which combines English with Malay, Mandarin and various Chinese dialects.
I’ve long loved Singlish, however — there’s so much about it to love. I’ve always felt that it’s very quintessentially Singaporean and so closely tied to our national identity — it’s direct, a little bossy, funny, sarcastic, witty and cheekily vulgar. Also, there was really no way to tell this story as vividly without telling it in Singlish, as the protagonish, Jazzy, is very much a woman who would speak a lot of Singlish. Having her narrate this story in Queen’s English or American English would have been just wrong. This patois is so much a part of Jazzy’s character as well as the rich tapestry of Singapore and its culture and the rhythm of its everyday life. I really wanted to share this intimate part of Singapore that I so love. I’m hoping this introduces Singlish in all its glory to the world outside of Southeast Asia.
In your previous interviews, you’ve expressed frustration on the perception of Singapore as a squeaky clean country. It was quite evident that you wanted to go against this perception for both Singapore Noir and SPG — why did you want to write about this?
I’ve always been drawn to the unusual in any situation — the side of the coin that people aren’t really looking at and in this case, with regard to Singapore, I’ve felt that people outside of Southeast Asia (certainly in the U.S., where I’ve lived for more than 20 years now), whenever I mention Singapore people always ask me about caning or chewing gum. Singapore is a complex and fascinating country with people and stories that go far beyond those two things, however — and I wanted to pull back the curtain a little and show a different side of Singapore to the world, one that’s not about the super wealthy or our clean streets and many laws. This story — Jazzy’s story — is something several levels beneath, and too me, it’s one that’s a little more raw and textured.
How prevalent is the subculture of SPG? As well as the mindset of needing to “get out” to be successful or have a good life?
I have to emphasize that not every Singaporean woman is an SPG — just some! When I was growing up, I’d see certain bars be termed “SPG bars” and this was where you’d see a lot of SPGs and then men who wanted to meet them. I think the mindset of wanting to be successful and have a good life is a rather universal one — for Jazzy and her set, they’re hoping to achieve that through marriage, a goal that isn’t really that different from many of the women who populate Jane Austen’s novels!
Did you have to face the identity struggle of what you characterized as the modern Singaporean woman? If so, to what extent?
Not directly — I feel I was shielded from a lot of the same societal pressures because I left Singapore at age 18 for the U.S. Most of my family still lives in Singapore though, and I return at least twice a year to see my parents, aunties etc. So yes, I’ve not been completely shielded from the societal pressures there!
Do you have any similarities with your main protagonist Jazzy?
While Jazzy is not in any way based on me or my life — or anyone’s life that I personally know of anyway! — she and I certainly do share some qualities. She’s a little bossy, but she has a big heart and will do anything for her family and friends and she’s a raging feminist who wants to improve her own life as well as that of her friends.
What’s next for you?
I’m coming to Asia this fall to speak at a few book festivals — the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and the Cooler Lumpur Literary Festival in Kuala Lumpur, as well as some book appearances in Singapore. I’ve also started my next book, which is another novel that’s set in Singapore. It’s set in a very different world than the one Jazzy inhabits, however, and is in no way a sequel. It’s also not written in Singlish. I look forward to sharing it when I can!
Thank you, Cheryl! Before we let you go, we need to prove that you are indeed, a human being. Would you mind taking a photo of yourself right now for your fans?