Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan isn’t complaining, and she certainly wouldn’t call the Singapore Writers Festival blur, which is Singlish for dumb. The author of Sarong Party Girls, probably the world’s first novel written entirely in Singapore’s patois Singlish, has been rebuffed by the festival this year, even though she’s previously been welcomed by it and remains generously supported by Singapore’s National Arts Council, the government agency behind it.
In fact, NAC (indulging Singapore’s fondness for three letter acronyms) supported Tan’s trip to the Ubud Writers Festival in Bali late last month and the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, where she’s appearing this week. In between, Tan – who left home for college at Northwestern outside Chicago two decades ago and has stayed in the United States since – stopped in Singapore, where her publisher, William Morrow, set up a book launch and other events.
“We booked these events in spring, and at the time, we didn’t know that the festival would be happening at the exact same time,” Tan says. The publisher’s subsequent efforts to get Tan into the festival were rebuffed. Singapore Writers Festival didn’t respond to questions by our deadline.
Tan’s homecoming could hardly be better from a popularity standpoint. Sarong Party Girls repeated at number three last week on Singapore’s Sunday Times bestseller list, where it first appeared in August. “Nine weeks on our fiction bestsellers list for a Singaporean author is unprecedented,” Leslie Lim Boon Hup of book distributor Pansing says. “And we are still counting!”
Despite her time in the US, Tan remains firmly rooted in Singapore. Her first book, A Tiger in the Kitchen, explores Tan’s hunger to reconnect with her roots through the recipes of her grandmothers and aunties. Tan appeared at the Singapore Writers Festival after the release of Tiger in 2011 and has also been a festival panel moderator.
Sarong Party Girls, published in the US in July, is named for Singaporean women seeking ang moh – white Western – husbands and, in quick succession, a mixed race baby, the ultimate fashion accessory. Pushing 27, heroine Jazzy and her SPG pals make a pact to find boyfriends within a month. The novel explores the clash between modernity and traditional values in relentlessly materialistic Singapore, a story also playing in metropolises across Asia. What roots Sarong Party Girls in Singapore is Singlish, the lilting, creole of English spiced with Singapore’s other official languages, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, plus dashes of Teochew and Hokkien.
Singlish transcends race and class, it’s energetic and authentic, an original creation that’s blossomed in what’s often characterised as a cultural desert. Nevertheless, Singapore’s leaders have tried to suppress it. Modern Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew called Singlish “a handicap we must not wish on Singaporeans”. Lee’s successor as prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, inaugurated the Speak Good English Movement.
In May, Singaporean writer and literary critic Gwee Li Sui’s New York Times op-ed “Politics and Singlish” hinted authorities may be ending their “war on Singlish”, noting the patois had infiltrated government officials’ speech. That prompted the press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (Lee Kwan Yew’s son) to assert, “Using Singlish will make it harder for Singaporeans to learn and use standard English”, then mock Gwee, because, with a Ph.D in English literature, he can “extol the virtues of Singlish in an op-ed written in polished standard English”. Tan, in a Time magazine essay, suggested Singapore’s government should trust citizens to speak both English and Singlish, based on advanced degrees of common sense.
Official animosity toward Singlish could explain Tan’s absence from the Singapore Writers Festival. But it doesn’t explain grants to write and promote the book. It requires a huge leap of cynicism to suspect that Singapore is keen to see Tan’s work promoted anywhere but Singapore. And if that’s the plan, the local bestseller list and Tan’s five events in town during a six-day stay indicate it’s a cock up, as they say in Singlish.
By not embracing Sarong Party Girls, Singapore Writers Festival’ misses a chance to demonstrate, even if through clenched teeth, that this is not your father’s (or his father’s) Singapore any more. Amanda Lee Koe, whose short story collection Ministry of Moral Panic won the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize, notes Singapore aspires to become a cultural capital. But bureaucrats can only fathom the “infrastructure” for arts, not the logistics, relevance and process of creating art, Lee Koe contends.
Tan’s case illustrates that bureaucrats are neither nimble nor great readers of literature. Sarong Party Girls has plenty of examples of how to say yes.