Concubines and Expat Husbands: Catching Up with Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

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Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s latest novel, Sarong Party Girls, is written entirely in Singlish, a patois any English speaker can understand no matter how drunk she is. This comes in handy, because reading SPG is like drinking a fourth cocktail: a delicious ticket to sobbing on the bathroom floor.

Rendering the sick aftertaste of the Singaporean club scene in some seriously high-def technicolor, Tan chases all the hard stuff her “aging” twenty-six-year-old narrator Jazzy has to swallow from the men in her life—their stares, their jokes, their drinks and lies and betrayals—with the Teflon fun of her delightfully vulgar lingo, popping bottle caps across every page like so many tongue-tickling bubbles.

Jazzy has a mouth on her, and as soon as she opens it, she’s ten women all at once: a comedian, a gold digger, a musketeer, a daughter, a racist, a leader, a threat, a backstabber, a drunk, and a feminist. In a patriarchal society that can only cast women as objects or relics, Jazzy is a fierce and fascinating subject all her own, hell-bent on fashioning her story into kissing swan boats as the credits fade out on a wedding that was meant to be.

I caught up with Tan over email just after the election. It shows.

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The Rumpus: Is Sarong Party Girls packaged as chick lit? Flap copy is a wacky animal, but so much of the book’s marketing emphasizes this Breakfast at Tiffany‘s whimsy crossed with Sex and the City glamour, even though SPG seemed at most like a distant cousin of either to me. I think SPG is more serious, and more wide-ranging in its scope.

Jazzy’s no Holly; Jazzy has a job. Jazzy’s no Carrie; Jazzy lives with her mom. She has to think twice about washing used sheets too often so as not to arouse suspicion by disrupting her mom’s laundry routine. This said, I doubt foursomes of female friends are ever an accident. What was that choice, for you?

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan: Thank you for this observation. The book has been likened to Emma, and although I am a big Jane Austen fan and do think that at the heart of it, this story—of a young woman trying to better her life through making a good marriage—is a universal one, I was also thinking of another Emma when I was writing Sarong Party Girls: Emma Bovary. Of all the comparisons lobbed about, Jazzy may be the most like Holly Golightly in her brazen ambitions for herself, in her clear-eyed view of her station in society and how she is to achieve this life that she craves.

Regarding packaging, the hardcover version was a frothy one, but it’s been heartening to hear from readers who have discovered the serious book beneath the pop cover. The paperback comes out April 25 and I hope many more do the same.​

As for the foursome, this was unintentional, though I may have been subconsciously thinking a little of my own high school besties in Singapore, and that’s a foursome, too. Four felt right to me as I was writing it for various reasons, though for a big chunk of the book, it’s really just the three women since there’s been that fight that kicks off the story.

Rumpus: What was your negotiation like between entertaining the Clueless demographic and capturing Singapore’s dark side? Did you imagine anyone who might’ve been expecting a beach read being in for a rude awakening?

Tan: When I was writing this, I wasn’t writing for any audience at all. In fact, I was consciously trying to do the opposite. I spent three years with blinders firmly on, willing myself to not think about the audience for the book because I wanted the story to unfold as I heard it in my head—with no compromises. Also, had I paused to think about it too much, I would probably have talked myself out of narrating the story first-person in Singlish because I would have thought it a difficult sell for most readers. Thankfully, that hasn’t been the case.

I originally began this story thinking I would write it as nonfiction—an exploration of what it can be like to be female in modern Asia and, specifically, Singapore. As I was trying to write up the proposal, it wasn’t coming out right. Everything felt dead on the page. With my agent expecting something from me, I sat down and thought, “Well, what if I try this as fiction?” I thought that perhaps that exercise would clear my writer’s block. What essentially is the first chapter of the book now emerged in just a few days, in Singlish. Jazzy’s voice came through loud and clear immediately. It was like that moment on the old wirelesses where you’re turning the knob right and left and there’s static, static, and then suddenly there it is, a voice! Once Jazzy’s voice started streaming through, there was no stopping her.

As for people expecting a beach read, the book does have its funny and entertaining moments, though in a satirical vein. I think readers have seen that, in addition to its darker, more serious message.

Rumpus: Coming from journalism, how did fiction provide the gift wrap for a story that could just as easily have veered into an investigative exposé on Singaporean nightlife?

Tan: It was refreshing to tackle this topic in fiction—I’d spent most of my career actively not making things up and now suddenly I was having to make everything up. It’s exhilarating to take a small kernel of truth or an observation and blow it up fictitiously and see where it goes. The satirical aspect of this novel made it a joy to write. It was liberating.

Rumpus: Singlish is this inventive, spunky language, one that feels especially native to young Singaporean women who don’t own much else in what Jazzy calls “a society where girls grow up watching their fathers have mistresses and second families on the side.” Can you talk about the tension between how knowing and bright Singlish is, how the language itself is always looking for a good time, and how naïve Jazzy can be? In her words, “What does he think I am—born yesterday, is it?”

Tan: I love Singlish and I love slipping back into it whenever I touch down in Singapore or when I bump into a Singaporean friend in New York. I often feel my truest self when I speak Singlish, albeit not quite the hardcore vulgar Singlish that sometimes appears in Sarong Party Girls. So when it came to writing Jazzy, it truly was a joy. I feel that it is very reflective of the Singaporean persona. It’s hilarious, brazen, witty, direct, and cheekily vulgar. And Jazzy is all of those things. What she also is, however, is perhaps a little too earnest, and that can make her naïve.

Rumpus: On the narration and character fronts, SPG is an incredibly smart book full of insightful humor that is a pleasure to read. On the fronts of plot and conflict, I almost always found what Jazzy was going through to be deeply disturbing, no matter how game she was. Any given page came down to this experiential coin flip. Heads: Consuming Jazzy’s story is fun and funny and uplifting. Tails: I would never want to be treated the way Jazzy is treated.

Maybe I read SPG as though it was homework for a women’s studies seminar a little more than was necessary (n.b., professors: I’d put SPG on the syllabus in a heartbeat), but so much of what happened disturbed me. Is the lack of respect for women just as absent in America, or are there significant differences? Is it this bad everywhere?

Tan: I would love for this to be on the syllabus for a women’s studies seminar! A lot of the ideas that drove this story—and Jazzy—stemmed from my many observations of Singaporean life and society over the years and, perhaps, my disappointment in some aspects of it.

When I was growing up, I remember looking around at the men in my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. My great-grandfather had multiple wives and families. This mindset and practice, to some degree, continued in my grandfather’s generation. Some of the men my family knew had girlfriends, secret second families, or mistresses on the side. Their wives were supposed to be martyrs about it and just look the other way. The hope was that the marriages—and the men—in my generation perhaps would be better.

When I was back in Singapore for months researching A Tiger in the Kitchen in my thirties, I reconnected with some of my childhood girlfriends. Through their stories of dating, marriages, and divorces, I realized that some of the boys we grew up with didn’t turn out to be that different after all. I began to wonder if this is just how it can be in some pockets of Asian society, whether the concubine culture will always exist in some form, with places like KTV lounges normalizing it all. I wanted this novel to take an unvarnished look at that, at what it can mean to be a young woman surrounded by this swirl, just trying to make sense of it all.

Some bits in the book are hard to read—they were painful for me to write—but I wanted to throw back the curtain on some of the things and places that do exist in Singapore, but that “nice” people generally avoid talking about. How can society ever move forward or change otherwise? The details in the KTV lounge chapter, for example, came from stories my guy friends told me when I grilled them about their time in those lounges. As hard as they are to read, those KTV vignettes are rooted in reality.

That said, I do have to point out that this is fiction, and that it is set in a very specific segment of Singaporean society. Not all Singaporean women are SPGs, and not all Singaporean men are callous philanderers.

I’d always been fascinated with SPGs and just the fact that they existed in Singapore. As a teenager I’d walk by classic SPG bars and peer in to see high-heeled, short-skirted SPGs on the prowl for expat guys. I’d wonder what it was that would drive a woman to attach such value and power to a partner solely based on race.

Jazzy, for all her flaws, isn’t truly a classic SPG though. It’s not so much about money for her—it’s also in part about escaping the traditional patriarchal society and life that she knows is going to muffle her.

Rumpus: There’s a pretty epic friend breakup at the heart of Sarong Party Girls; Jazzy effectively disowns her best friend Sher over her choice of a romantic partner. What threat does traditional marriage pose to female friendships in this kind of patriarchal society? That conflict felt as familiar to me, a native New Yorker, as any of Jazzy’s run-ins with the men in her life.

Tan: Generally, as far as I know, marriage doesn’t pose any threat to female friendships in Singapore. Like it would be in the US, girlfriends who get married at around the same time, have kids at the same time, often end up having their friendships cemented a little more. In the case of Jazzy and Sher, though, it’s really about Jazzy feeling as if Sher has betrayed her and the ideals of their little posse by choosing to marry the man that she does. Jazzy is hugely stubborn and proud; if she feels she’s been betrayed, she acts swiftly and decisively. I suppose I see a slight streak of that traditional Asian pride in her—the episode brought to mind mothers threatening to disown sons or daughters if they married or dated someone that wasn’t approved. Jazzy’s reaction to Sher’s marriage is, in that way, really reflective of a certain age-old Chinese knee-jerk response and sentiment.

Rumpus: Jazzy is hell-bent on marrying an ang moh white expat on an accelerated timeline, but when she’s being honest, she’s developing another set of observations entirely:

From seeing all the marriages around me, even if you marry a good catch, no matter how trustworthy or solid the guy is, you still never know all the things, all the girls, that can happen along the way to make his heart turn—whether at the end, no matter how good a wife, a mother, you’ve tried to be, you will somehow end up being the one left all by yourself.

She’s self-aware that her hunt just got so urgent because, at twenty-seven, she might be about to “age out” of her job (“Why else would I be trying so hard to hook an ang moh now?”), but do you think Jazzy ever gives any real thought to who her Ah Huat or her Eugene would be? Is Seng worth a second look? Or is Jazzy a classic career woman who would be more fulfilled pursuing event planning than yet another date? As comfortable as she is with hookups, the afterglow of male affirmation only lasts for so long.

Tan: Sher was much more evolved than Jazzy here, to be sure! Jazzy does gradually start to think a little more, to assess her situation in a more clear-headed way. She does start off like Emma Woodhouse in that sense—having this expectation for how she thinks her world should be and how things should unfold—but she quickly realizes that life may not work out quite the way she thinks. That’s when she becomes less single-minded, and perhaps a little more open to considering the alternatives.

Rumpus: Hua Hsu recently published an essay in the New Yorker on normalization. Jazzy is so used to how men (mis)treat her that it starts to take more and more extreme behavior for her to recognize that something is wrong, like when she goes to the KTV lounge with Kin Meng: “I had heard what happens in KTV lounges of course, but to see it happen in front of me… young girls getting picked or rejected like chickens in a wet market? I am very open-minded, but even I think maybe this is not quite right.” How does normalization work for so many of the women in this book? How does Jazzy know what’s normal in a relationship?

Tan: What Jazzy has to work out for herself is what is the normal that she should uphold in her own life. The journey that she’s on shapes that. I think she starts out with a certain view of what should be normal in a relationship, and that changes.

I am intrigued, however, by the notion of what should be normal in society, a topic that seems to be on so many minds right now. Growing up in Singapore, I always felt slightly out of step partly because I found myself questioning so many things within family structures that were either presented as “normal” or things that you just didn’t talk about—second families, mistresses, KTV lounges, etc. That scene in the Thai bar with the girls around the pool table is actually something I witnessed in a bar in Orchard Towers in Singapore.

Hearing some of the stories and seeing some of these places gave me a lot of rich material to explore in this novel. I wanted the story to look at the life of one young woman who finds herself having to question what is normal and acceptable—without looking away.

Rumpus: I’m actively considering and preparing for The Return of Jocular Sexism in both my work and my personal life; I’m positive, with such high-profile encouragement and modeling, that it’s about to make a serious comeback in America.

SPG is a brilliant cover-to-cover primer on both jocular sexism and jocular racism: the book is full of rape jokes, racial slurs, racist stereotypes, and a daily litany of harmless linguistic barbs designed to belittle and degrade women because it’s funny. SPG doesn’t judge or check any of that humor. How did you manage to leave that tone intact while making it clear that something is clearly wrong with it?

Tan: I did worry that this might be taken by some readers as okay behavior, but I have to believe that the reader is smart enough to know what is right and what is wrong. I don’t like being heavy-handed or preachy; I wanted to just tell the story and let the reader think. Jazzy is a flawed character and she lives in a flawed world. I didn’t want her to pull any punches in her assessment of people, their looks, or their lives. (Her opinions are most certainly not my own.) This makes her unlikeable—and that’s a fascinating canvas to start with—but it also makes her a good protagonist, because she does develop and change as the story unfolds.

Rumpus: How are you feeling about the current political landscape? What do you make of what’s happening?

Tan: It’s terrifying watching the post-election maelstrom unfold. Each day seems to bring new twists. It’s funny because I started writing the next novel early last year; ​it’s also set in Singapore, though in a very different world than the one depicted in Sarong Party Girls.​

Rumpus: As a personal postscript, this bit meant a lot to me, as painful as it is and may always be: “One time, someone tried to give him that book that Hillary Clinton wrote about helping children or some shit but he just laughed and said to them, ‘Please. She’s a wife.’ People should really know better lah: hallo, the editor of our country’s newspaper cannot look like he’s too open-minded.”

Tan: Oh I agree—it was painful to reread that in the wake of these past few weeks.

Years ago I had lunch with a mentor in Singapore, someone I respected a great deal. He expressed pride in my ambitions and how well I seemed to be doing as a journalist in the US. He did say, however, that he worried about me because sometimes he thought that I might “think too much like a man.” It drove home a point for me that in certain traditional cultures—even ones in glitzy, modern cities that may seem completely progressive—no matter what you do and no matter how well you may be doing, to some men, you’ll always be a “woman.”

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Author photograph © James Veall.


Catherine Cusick is a writer, producer, and standing advocate for independent bookstores. She lives in Harlem and tweets @CusickCatherine More from this author →