“If we don’t get married, engaged or even nail down a boyfriend soon—my god, we might as well as go ahead and book a room at Singapore Casket because our lives would already be over,” says Jazzy, the main character and narrator in Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan‘s debut novel Sarong Party Girls.
Jazzy is a twenty-something Singaporean on an urgent mission: to find a rich, white, ex-pat boyfriend (an ang moh) to marry and have a Chanel baby (half white/half Singaporean) with. As part of the hunt, she and her sarong party girlfriends frequently go to clubs where they are treated like VIPs, down drinks with abandon, and hook up with guys who may have potential. To the casual observer, Jazzy might appear to be a gold digger whose main concern in life is avoiding the fate of her former friend, Sher, a sarong party girl who eventually married an ah beng (a Singaporean man) and settled down. Through her adventures and mishaps with men both white and Singaporean, Jazzy explores the often uncomfortable mix of romance, status, and money in her world.
While Sarong Party Girls (published by HarperCollins) is often hilarious, it’s also a sobering read as it raises questions about misogyny, gender politics at work, class differences, and materialism. In addition, the book also gives the reader a sense of modern Singapore in showcasing the clash between old traditions such as the bustling wet market, where old-timers go buy fresh produce and seafood in outdoor stalls; and new ones, such as the hipster nightclubs that young people frequent. An essential ingredient to the authenticity of the book is Tan’s use of Singlish–a patois spoken by most Singaporeans that’s a mixture of English, Mandarin, Malay and other languages—which Singapore’s government is trying to discourage through its “Speak Good English“campaign. For Jazzy and her friends Singlish is the lingua franca of all informal spaces. It comes in the form of shared wisdom: “This matter of getting an ang moh husband–if we are smart–it’s best to try and fasterly settle.” And is also the language of their own thoughts: “But then I thought about how chio I looked tonight. In my Seven jeans, my backside was super power!”
The vivid details as well as the language can be traced to Tan’s background as journalist and a native Singaporean. She arrived in America at age 18 to study at Northwestern University and later worked as a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and The Baltimore Sun. Prior to Sarong Party Girls, Tan wrote the memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen and edited the fiction anthology Singapore Noir. The former Brooklyn Heights resident spoke to Brooklyn Based about the story behind her first novel.
What inspired you to write the book? (more…)