Dissecting the Sarong Party Girl
In 2009, Singaporean author-journalist Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan found herself hanging out frequently in clubs and bars here. They were popular meet-up spots for her and her primary-school friends — many of whom she had not met in years.
During one memorable moment, a friend who was seeing a British man jokingly referred to herself as an SPG (Sarong Party Girl), and said something tongue-in-cheek about a “Chanel baby”. Curious, Tan asked what it meant. It was a half “ang moh” and half-Singaporean baby — the “Chanel of babies”, her friend replied.
That moment became the basis for Tan’s new book, Sarong Party Girls — a humorous look at party-loving women here who strategise on snagging a rich Caucasian partner, and hopefully, score the ultimate “status symbol” of a Eurasian baby.
The novel is Tan’s first attempt at writing fiction. Her first book, A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family, was a food memoir, and her other piece, Singapore Noir, is a collection of essays featuring mostly stories by Singaporean writers that she had edited.
Currently based in New York, Tan, who was born in Mount Alvernia Hospital, was previously a fashion writer at the Wall Street Journal, as well as a senior fashion writer at InStyle magazine. She left the Wall Street Journal in 2009 and was in Singapore during the time doing research for A Tiger in the Kitchen.
THE SPG SUBCULTURE
Sarong Party Girls’ protagonist, Jazeline “Jazzy” Lim Boon Huay, is a Singlish-spouting “Ah Lian” from the heartlands. She sizes up the men she meets based on material concepts such as the cars they drive and the designer brand of their wallets — a classic caricature of a Sarong Party Girl (also commonly referred to as an SPG), which loosely refers to a local girl who exclusively dates Caucasian men.
Tan, 41, said she has had the idea of writing about SPGs burning at the back of her mind “for years”.
“I’ve always found SPGs and the culture around SPGs completely fascinating — this little subculture in Singapore, to me, says something significant about the country and the sexual and racial politics of the place,” she explained.
She continued: “Why is it that there exists 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?”
Asked what she was intending to portray with her characters, Tan said she “did not set out to portray them in any way other than a manner in which they were vivid, true, lively and interesting — all the qualities any good character in literature should have”.
In the case of Jazzy, Tan wanted to explore someone who is “caught between two Singapores — the high-end, luxe, modern and glitzy one”, and the traditional Singapore. Far from being a one-dimensional personality, Jazzy is a complex character who is not in it purely for the cash and status, and is in fact quite the feminist, she said.
“Her desire to be an SPG stems from a desire to fashion a better life for herself — one that is outside of the traditional patriarchal set-up that she sees around her and abhors,” she added.
Tan also wanted her novel to address the materialism that is prevalent in society “in an unflinching way”.
“I didn’t mean to write a ‘cynical’ book, but it’s hard in this day and age to look at hyper-capitalism and rampant materialism and think of it in rosy terms, no? I’ve always been fascinated with materialism in Singapore and Asia. What’s that old saying, that Singaporeans want the five Cs in life to be happy? And so that’s what I explored in the novel through the prism of SPG life.”
Lest you think any part of this is based on her life, or that of her friends, Tan is quick to state that the novel is “all made up”.
“Jazzy and her friends aren’t based on anyone I know — and certainly not me,” she quipped.
Still, her experiences with her friends at bars have helped, as she was able to observe Singapore’s nightlife at the time. “A lot of that colour — the sounds, the smells, the people, the scenes — seeped into SPG as I was writing it.”
Other realistic portions lie in the vignettes and scenes, such as that of a kopitiam or a wet market, which she was able to describe from memory.
“As a non-fiction writer and journalist, it was an interesting experience to take a kernel of something I’d seen — whether it was a scene in a club or an anecdote a friend told me — and blow it up in a fictional way and see where that would lead,” she added.
So, why was Singlish chosen as the main language for Jazzy? It “would have made no sense to have her speak proper Queen’s English or American English”, explained Tan. “That would have rang so false this book would not have any authenticity whatsoever.”
Tan said she had long loved Singlish, and felt that the novel is, in a way, her love letter to the language. “I’ve always felt that it’s very quintessentially Singaporean and so closely tied to our national identity — it’s direct, a little bossy, funny, sarcastic, witty and cheekily vulgar,” she shared.
“This patois is so much a part of Jazzy’s character as well as the rich tapestry of Singapore and its culture and the rhythm of its everyday life. I really wanted to share this intimate part of Singapore that I so love. I’m hoping this introduces Singlish in all its glory to the world outside of Southeast Asia.”
Tan currently freelances for the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, among other publications. She is also busy with a book tour around cities in America, and has plans to visit Kuala Lumpur, Bali, Singapore and Hong Kong next.
On how she thinks Singapore literature is viewed overseas, Tan acknowledged that there are “so few of us — in America anyway — telling Singaporean stories”.
Still, she is heartened by the growing numbers. “It has been such a delight seeing the books of Ovidia Yu, a writer I’ve long admired, just take off in the United States. And to see other names like Suchen Christine Lim, Kirstin Chen and Kevin Kwan on American bookshelves has just been so lovely. We need more Singaporean voices in the West!”
Tan says she hopes to keep writing her Singaporean tales. “They’re the intimate stories of Singapore that I’d love for the West to read more of and I’m not going to stop telling them. Hopefully, my little stories will help open more doors in the future for more Singaporean writers to cross over.”
Sarong Party Girls is available at major bookstores here.