Welcome back to the Tropical Romance Book Club, where I’ve been trying to expand my reading horizons (well, more my reading latitudes) by seeking out romances set in tropical countries, written by local authors and starring local characters. I started this project when it was summer where I live, but now that northern hemisphere January has rolled around, I need this more than ever. I swear I feel warmer just reading about sunshine.
Previously on the Tropical Romance Book Club:
For this installment, I read the Singapore-set novel Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan.
A Sarong Party Girl, or SPG, is a young Singaporean woman who stalks the club scene in pursuit of a white husband, and Jazeline “Jazzy” Lim is an SPG par excellence. In Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s Sarong Party Girls, Jazzy launches into the club world armed with her best battle plan, but in doing so, confronts uncomfortable realities about the toxic racist and misogynist culture that has caused her to think that the best she can aspire to is being a white man’s wife, and the mother of his mixed-race child (the “Chanel of babies”). This book inspired me and wrecked me as it took me through a dark side of Singapore that’s still waiting for its first wave feminism, let alone its #MeToo. Reading it meant so much to me that I chose to feature it despite it not being a pure romance.
I’m so grateful to Cheryl for joining me here for an interview to talk about her book and about the literary world of tropical Singapore!
Caroline: Although a lot of the cover copy compares Sarong Party Girls to Emma, it’s not a romance. How would you categorize Sarong Party Girls?
Cheryl: True — it’s not a traditional romance, though it is about a young woman trying to find love, or something like it. I don’t like to put fiction in boxes — whether it’s literary, mystery, romance etc. Good fiction is good fiction. I’d say Sarong Party Girls is a literary, satirical novel that takes an unflinching look at what it can be like to be a woman in modern Singapore. It’s satire — so it says something about society and the tough and sometimes unbearable nature of it, but, I hope, in a darkly funny way. I read rather broadly — both fiction and non-fiction and lately have been gravitating toward narratives with an international setting or story.
Caroline: This story feels so truthful and detailed. In what ways is Jazzy’s Singapore – working-class, ethnically Chinese, speaking in dialect, in the VIP club scene, working in journalism, etc. – your Singapore, and in what ways is it not your experience?
Cheryl: While Jazzy is 100% fictional, the way she speaks — her cadence, spirit and strident Singlish [a dialect of English spoken in Singapore] — however, is in part inspired by some people I know. These are people I’ve known for years whom I love speaking with because we often lapse into a coarse, colorful Singlish that I find myself missing when I’m away from Singapore. When I started writing SPG, Jazzy’s voice in my head came through loud and clear from the very first page. As I was writing the book, I just tried to listen to her story — and type as fast as I could!
That said, I’ve always found SPGs and the culture around SPGs completely fascinating — this little world in Singapore, to me, says something significant about the country and the sexual and racial politics of the place. Why is it that there has existed 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 character that had always fascinated me came to mind.
Caroline: How did you research Jazzy’s world?
Cheryl: The research for the book 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 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. 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 — I renamed the bar in the last chapter of the book but it did exist for some years. It was called The Living Room and it’s in the Marriott right downtown — and it’s a place that was 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.
Caroline: Jazzy is promiscuous, drinks to excess, commits adultery, holds racist stereotypes – and yet I liked her, and wanted her to succeed! Can you talk about how you developed this character and how you feel about her?
Cheryl: I find Jazzy endlessly fascinating because she’s such a product of society — you can really see how the forces of Singapore’s often patriarchal society have shaped her and continue to shape her and her ambitions in the book. She’s also a complex combination — smart, brassy, ambitious, vulgar, direct but also sweet, genuine and loyal to a fault. She’s very Singaporean in one fundamental way — she cannot lose! Singaporeans always say that our biggest defining trait as a people is that we are “kiasu” — a Hokkien/Singlish term that means “afraid to lose.” And Jazzy is definitely kiasu — she is so determined not to lose that she will do all she can to win.
That said, as I was writing her — it’s hard for me to think about “developing” her because I feel that she arrived in my head (barged in, in fact) fully formed — I knew that she was not going to be your usual likable female heroine. But I strongly felt that I couldn’t dilute her — so many male protagonists in classics and lauded novels are allowed to be absolute monsters and yet readers attempt to understand them and in the end love those books and their stories. Why shouldn’t female characters be seen the same way?
Caroline: I can’t even find a gif adequate to express my love of this statement.
Cheryl: Besides, Jazzy does grow up and learn in the book — it’s a voyage of discovery that she’s on and what journey could there possibly have been if she had started out a saint and ended up a saint?
Caroline: What is the reading scene like in Singapore?
Cheryl: I love reading culture in Singapore – the bookstores (Kinokuniya, Littered With Books etc) are such wonderful advocates for books and reading and the literary scene there has just been flowering in recent years. It’s true that when I was growing up there, I tended to read more British authors than American (Enid Blyton, whom I read voraciously since I was tiny, made me want to become a writer) but these days, Singaporeans read across the globe. Most of the books are in English but Singapore’s National Arts Council has been a big proponent of local Indian, Malay and Chinese writers writing in their native tongues as well so it’s been really heartening to see poetry, plays and novels come out in those languages as well.
Caroline: Can you recommend other books about Singapore by Singaporean authors for our readers? What else have you been reading?
Cheryl: I recently read Ponti by Sharlene Teo and truly loved it – such a vivid world in that book. Also, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, Cyril Wong’s “The Dictator’s Eyebrow” and just about anything by Ovidia Yu, who writes a delicious food-focused mystery series called Auntie Lee’s Delights. And A Luxury We Cannot Afford is a marvelous anthology of Singaporean poetry.
Recent books I loved have included just about everything by Muriel Spark (I am a massive fan and was given several of her novels that were re-issued last year for what would have been her 100th birthday), Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, which was recently picked by the New Yorker as one of the best books of the year, I believe. The protagonist is so honest and raw — I just loved getting drawn into that world and the heroine’s rather unusual and rebellious mind in modern Japan. Also, Masks by Fumiko Enchi – what a masterpiece and a look at the quiet ways in which female power could have been manifested in 1950s Japan. Non-fiction wise, I very much recommend Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy and Peter Godwin’s When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, which I found profoundly moving. The first few pages alone made me tear up.
Caroline: Can you let us know what’s next for you?
Thank you for such thoughtful questions on the book – I’m just always thrilled to share Jazzy’s story of her quest for a “Chanel baby” (the ultimate status symbol!) with anyone. I’m currently working on my next novel, which is also set in Singapore, though definitely a very different world than the one Jazzy is in. I will share all when it’s done!
Caroline: Thank you so much, Cheryl!
Readers, what fiction books have you read that captured gender discrimination or other forms of bias? (Another one for me is The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which is basically all of my fears about being female). What unlikeable heroines have you found yourself rooting for? Have you read about or been to Singapore, and will you give Sarong Party Girls a try?