Desert Isle Keeper
Sarong Party Girls
Jazeline Ah Huay ‘Jazzy’ Lim embraces life as one of Singapore’s Sarong Party Girls, young women who stalk the club scene in search of an “ang moh” (wealthy white foreigner) to marry. However, Jazzy is twenty-six now, and she can’t rely on her youth and looks forever. It’s time to lock down an ang moh husband and secure her position with a mixed-race white and Chinese child, “the Chanel of babies”. As Jazzy embarks on her problematic plan in a setting blighted by just about every ‘ism’ you can name (sexism, racism, ageism, classism, post-colonialism, and more), she grows more and more uncomfortable with the norms that she’s internalized. Can Jazzy ‘win’ this rigged game – and what would it cost?
Sarong Party Girls is the book you can point to if you need to illustrate the difference between the important and necessary ‘racist things happen in a book’ and problematic, negative ‘the author is racist’. (If it’s unclear, this book is the former). For instance, after declaring repeatedly that she finds Chinese Singaporean men undateable, Jazzy clucks over Indian men who don’t want to date Indian women. She is blind to the parallels to her own statements, but the author is not, and she expects us not to be, either. Misogynist things happen in the book, including extremely upsetting consent violations, sexual assault, and sex trafficking, but the author does not condone them, nor does she approve of the discrimination against older (over twenty-four!) women by Jazzy’s boss. The list could go on.
Returning to Jazzy, yes, she has terrible flaws. You can’t not notice when the heroine – the heroine! – tells a former classmate that her white husband is probably having an affair because she isn’t taking care of her appearance: “You’ve probably put on a bit of weight since the baby… maybe you need to just look nicer a bit.”
Awful, yes. And yet Jazzy isn’t mean or spiteful, just misguided and human. She sees her looks as her own primary source of worth, and therefore, when another woman feels unvalued, clearly an improved appearance would be the solution. And who can blame her for having skewed sensibilities in a setting where secretaries are expected to wear skirts and flash their bosses, where a man is criticized for beginning public oral sex on a prostitute during a corporate night out not because it’s wildly inappropriate, but because the men don’t think she’s clean enough for it, and where a male investor unashamedly reveals that his dinner companion is a trafficked sex slave? In a lot of ways, Jazzy’s like those cats in the psychology study raised in purely-vertical striped or purely-horizontal striped worlds, who when released actually cannot perceive lines going the other way. (It’s worth pointing out that while some aspects of Jazzy’s world are portrayed as permeating Singapore and Southeast Asia in general, the author hints via other characters at ways to live there that aren’t so toxic).
In addition to being caused by her context, Jazzy’s stereotypes are an attempt to assert control. As long as stereotypes are true, then she can use them to make rules that will guarantee happiness and financial security for herself and her friends. Context – the Chinese Singaporean men Jazzy knows cheat on their wives or kowtow to their mothers. Stereotype – Chinese Singaporean men are bad husbands. Rule: Don’t waste time dating Chinese Singaporean men.
As readers, we know her reasoning is flawed. But Sarong Party Girls, told in the the first person by a deeply flawed I, raises an interesting question for our own Is: do we recognize our own flawed reasoning? Reading a book with a racist character who’s not a flat villain – who is even the heroine! – may make us more open to the reality that racism lurks in ways we excuse and justify in people we like, and even in ourselves. And it may make us ask ourselves if we, like Jazzy, can learn to perceive it and to change.
Jazzy’s first person voice is in Singlish, a vernacular spoken in Singapore. I loved the colorful dialect and the vividness with which it brings her world to life. Some sections can be extremely different from mainstream English and it takes a bit of work to puzzle through them, but I enjoyed it:
“Aiyah – to them, Asian girls all look the same. So long as I don’t give them my phone number – and usually they are so mabuk they sure don’t remember my name – then confirm everything is OK lah.”
Plus, once you get to know Jazzy, you can’t imagine her speaking any other way.
I originally picked up this book because it was compared to Jane Austen’s Emma. Beyond the flawed heroine, I don’t see much similarity, and it doesn’t have a romance HEA. It does, however, have what I’d call a personal HEA for Jazzy, in terms of who she becomes, which is probably more appropriate for a heroine who wanted a man to solve her problems.
For all the darkness in this book, it features a complex heroine on a journey worth following, and was, to me, ultimately uplifting. It’s thought-provoking, upsetting, enlightening, resilient, and honest, and could be the book face of #MeToo in Singapore. I highly recommend it.