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Cheryl Tan on her novel Sarong Party Girls, Singlish and young women in Asia

Growing up in Singapore, author and journalist Cheryl Lu-lien Tan would walk down the street and peer into bars that served as watering holes for the city’s “sarong party girls”. In short skirts, high heels and fierce make-up, these attractive Asian women in their 20s had one purpose: to bag a white husband with a fat bank account and produce a Eurasian “Chanel baby”.

It wasn’t until Tan returned to Singapore in her 30s that she found herself in one of those very bars, immersed in the vibrant world of the SPGs. Her fascination with this culture inspired her first novel, Sarong Party Girls, a comic tale that explores the contradictions of modern Singapore’s materialistic yet highly traditional society through the eyes of one such woman.

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Published in the United States in July, the novel is written entirely in Singlish, a punchy mix of English, Malay, Mandarin and other languages.

In Hong Kong to promote her novel at the city’s International Literary Festival over the weekend, Tan reflected on writing, modern Singapore, Asian culture and more.

It was reported that you were not featured at the Singapore Writer’s Festival this year. The National Arts Council told the Post it was due to “conflicting schedules”. What are your thoughts on this?

The National Arts Council of Singapore has been very supportive of this book, both with an arts creation grant, and also sending me to book festivals. When I was writing the book, I did worry because I wasn’t sure how it would be received in Singapore. I had gotten a grant from the National Arts Council in support of the book. I remember, at the end, I had to turn in the draft to show them what I had done. I remember thinking that I was fully prepared to have them say, “no, you have to return all of the money”.

It is very different from a lot of novels out there, and it’s also very, very Singlish. I wasn’t quite sure what their stance would be on that. But The National Arts Council has been very supportive of this book. So I guess they’re not entirely against it.

What made you interested in Singapore’s “sarong party girls” and how has this subculture changed since your childhood?

When I was growing up, SPGs was a derogatory term. But my friends, in their 30s, had decided to jokingly refer to themselves as SPGs. All of a sudden they were owning it in a different way. They were not so much the classic SPG (being a gold digger … trying to marry a man purely for money). They were trying to get away from this traditional patriarchal structure, and the traditional Singaporean husband who might want them to fit into that structure. To them, that was what being an SPG was about. I thought that was fascinating – the modern SPG.

Cheryl Lu-lien Tan’s comic novel barhops through Singapore with the sarong party girls

I think it’s a very different kind of culture now. Since the time I was growing up in Singapore, the expat population has really boomed. It’s a lot less uncommon for Singaporean women to be dating expat men than it used to be. Not every Singaporean woman is an SPG. This is just a world that fascinates me, and this is a character that came out of that world.

The novel explores sexism in Singapore’s party culture as well as workplaces – an issue that also plagues Hong Kong and other Asian cultures. What are your thoughts on the treatment of women in Asia today?

I’ve wondered how it is in other Asian cultures and societies as well. This book is not as fluffy as the cover would lead you to believe. I wanted to take a really hard look at what it can be like, in some places, to be a young Asian woman in an Asian country. It’s a satirical novel and it’s fiction. I didn’t live this life. But I wanted to have her go through a lot of the things that I see, or I hear women telling me about. I wanted it to be an exploration of how difficult that can be, and how society can shape you in a way that you might not want to be shaped.

I feel [the protagonist] is a very complex character, and at the heart of it she’s really torn between two worlds. She’s sort of in that traditional patriarchal society that she’s trying to get away from, but then also this modern society – and both of them are very flawed worlds. At times, when I was writing the book, it felt like she was caught up in the swirl of this modern city and she’s trying to navigate her way out of it the best way she can.

Why did you choose to write the novel in Singlish? What do you think about the Singaporean government’s efforts to suppress the language over the years?

There wasn’t actually any moment that I thought I wouldn’t be writing this in Singlish because it’s so tied to the energy of her character and the vibrancy of her personality. If I had written this in American English or the queen’s English, this book would be 50 per cent of what it is because her energy wouldn’t be in those pages. Also, in all the years that I’ve lived overseas in the States, I’ve always really loved Singlish. When I meet Singaporeans, and we lapse into Singlish right away, I feel like I’m sort of slipping into my organic skin.

How do Hong Kong and Singapore’s arts festivals compare?

Over the years, I’ve seen the “Speak Good English Movement” try to discourage people from speaking Singlish all the time, and I’ve been a little dismayed about that because it’s one of the things that I love so much about Singapore. I really want this book to preserve that in a way. I want this book to show people what it’s like to be in that world, to let them hear the energy of the speech pattern, and just how cheeky and funny and witty and vulgar the language is.

The complexities of the modern Singaporean family and its traditional values are also heavily featured in your book. Tell us about the juxtaposition between Singapore’s patriarchal society and this modern, sexualised culture that you portray?

Not everybody is trapped between those two worlds. But I think it’s true for many cultures in which there is a very modern city, but also a very traditional social structure still within it. You certainly see that in certain pockets of New York, even. The traditional Chinese Americans or even the Jewish Americans, they want their kids to have a certain kind of life and then that sort of clashes a little bit with them. It’s sort of a classic story. I feel like my mother’s generation kind of experienced that in her own way, rebelling against her mum. And then her mum was sort of rebelling against her mum.

Not every Singaporean family goes through this, and not every Singaporean young woman goes through this, but I just chose to set it in this world because it felt like a very rich playground to explore various socio-economic issues and how they can impact the choices that a young Singaporean woman might make in her life.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading the book?

I hope it makes them see Singapore in a different light. That it is a very colourful place, a very fascinating place, with dark corners and fascinating characters and people who break the rules. I think people very often, especially in the West, have a very one-dimensional view of Singapore. That we’re all law-abiding, boring people. And that’s really not true. If you speak to any Singaporean at length, you’ll know that that’s not true at all. I hope it makes them look at Singapore in a different light and perhaps think about the issues explored [in the novel], what it can be like to be a modern Asian woman. And often, that’s not very easy.

How did you get to where you are today, and what advice do you have for aspiring young writers?

When I was about 15 or 16, I knew I wanted to be a writer. But that’s not the traditional route. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer. I figured out that the way I would make them let me pursue writing was to show them I could make money doing it. So I said, “I’m going to be a journalist”. I was a journalist for many years, full time. A few years after covering news, I moved into features and was assigned to follow fashion shows.

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One day before fashion week one year, I was feeling very burned out. I was really missing my grandmother’s food, and all of a sudden I just felt this huge sense of loss. I didn’t know how to make these dishes that I missed and I had grown up eating. I took a week off and went home to Singapore and learned how to make my late grandmother’s pineapple tarts, with my family. I wrote an essay about what it meant to go back to Singapore and finally learn to make my grandmother’s tarts. An editor at a publisher called me and said, “I saw your story, let’s talk about turning this into a book”. So my book career just sort of [took off].

I realised looking back that it was because I was following my gut. My advice would be to listen to your gut and to pursue your passion. Trust that just doing that alone is going to land you where you want to be.

Moving forward what’s next for you?

I’ve started work on my next book, which is a novel that is also set in Singapore. It’s a very different world from SPG. I’m having a lot of fun with it. It’s a satirical novel as well, so it’s been a lot of fun. I can’t wait to get back to it.