When author and journalist Cheryl Lu-lien Tan looks out of her window in New York, she gazes at the stately Lincoln Centre, with its modern concrete archways, walls of glass and massive sparkling chandelier. It’s a view that, for many people, would signify one thing: you’ve made it, babe.
And yet, for Tan, who has lived in the Big Apple for 13 years and enjoyed an enviable career writing about fashion, travel and food for the likes of The New York Times, InStyle, The Paris Review and The Wall Street Journal, there is a view that touches her heart and soul – and certainly her stomach – even more. And that’s the one from her family home in Singapore.
“From my mum’s front window, I can see her mango tree. It seems unable to stop growing and produces hundreds of mangoes a year,” Tan says.
In many ways, Tan, who moved from the Lion City in 1991 as an 18-year-old to study journalism at Northwestern University, in Illinois, seems to have left her hometown only in body. Her mind – and her taste buds – remain in Asia. As evidence, take the three books she has penned in the past decade. In 2011, she made her publishing debut with A Tiger in the Kitchen, a food memoir set among the hawker stalls and Tan family kitchens throughout Singapore, in which she learns clan recipes and closely guarded family secrets along the way. In 2013, Tan put the city-state back in the spotlight by editing Singapore Noir, a collection of essays by 14 authors that captures the darker, more mysterious side of the seemingly strait-laced island.
Now, Tan returns to her homeland with her first novel, Sarong Party Girls. In this comic tale, the 41-year-old author takes on some of Singapore’s fiercest, craftiest and most determined citizens. Sarong party girls (SPGs for short) are women in their late 20s, ageing out of the singles market, who will stop at nothing to marry a foreigner with a fat bank account and produce a designer Eurasian child, referred to in local parlance as a “Chanel baby”.
The narrative also offers a complex and fascinating insight into the effects of colonialism and materialism on Singapore.
“To me, this little subculture in Singapore says something significant about the country and the sexual and racial politics of the place,” Tan says. “Why is there 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? Seeing SPGs in Singapore always made me ponder these questions, so when it came to writing my first novel, this very Singaporean character that had always fascinated me came to mind.”
Tan has created an indelible soul in the book’s narrator, Jazeline (Jazzy) Lim. “She’s smart, brassy, ambitious, vulgar, but also direct, sweet, genuine and loyal to a fault.”
A 27-year-old assistant to a newspaper editor, Jazzy starts to panic when she feels her sell-by date approaching. Gathering close friends who she feels are in a similar situation, she sets out a step-by-step plan for the group to make themselves attractive to the city’s Caucasian men.
“It’s an age-old story about trying to make a good marriage, not unlike any Jane Austen novel. You see lots of this in New York city, for example. In the West, it can be seen as gauche to be too open about wanting to be rich, but Asians don’t really see the need to mask the ambition and desire for wealth. So it seems amplified there.”
Tan grew up as one of two daughters in an upper-middle-class family, and did not move among the SPG crowd. However, such women were always in view. When Tan was researching A Tiger in the Kitchen, she reconnected with many childhood friends, some of whom had divorced and were hitting the bars and clubs again.
“The more time I spent with these women at clubs, the more interesting characters and vignettes I came across,” she recalls. “It wasn’t intentional, but when I sat down to write Sarong Party Girls, these backdrops and scenes formed the tapestry that ended up as Jazzy’s world.”
Jazzy isn’t based on one friend or acquaintance, she says.
“I basically took the stereotype of the Singaporean sarong party girl and amplified some of those characteristics. But the way she speaks” – in the unmistakable East-meets-West mishmash of Singlish – “is inspired by some of the people I know. These are people I love speaking with because we often lapse into coarse, colourful Singlish. I miss it when I’m away from Singapore.”
Still, Tan does have a thing or two in common with Jazzy. For one, Jazzy discovers her businessman father, who is often away from home for weeks at a time, has another wife and family on the other side of town. In her memoir, Tan revealed her father also had a mistress and another family.
“One of the things I thought about a lot when I was writing SPG were the family units in Singapore and how fragile they are – more so, it seems, than in many other countries,” Tan says.
While she was editing the first draft of Sarong Party Girls, Tan split up with her journalist husband after another woman entered the picture. “The combination of a mid-life crisis and a ruthless young woman can be a dangerous one,” she says. But the painful situation gave Tan new appreciation for Jazzy and her tribe. “I found I had more empathy for my characters and some of the situations they were in. As I was revising, I feel that empathy helped make the world a little more real, textured and vivid.”
Another thing Tan has in common with Jazzy is food. Like many Singaporeans, the author spends a lot of time thinking about her next meal, and the first thing she does when she arrives on native soil is go out to eat.
“When I land, usually after midnight, my mother doesn’t take me home to drop my bags off or freshen up. We head straight to a hawker centre and have a bowl of bak chor mee [minced pork noodle soup],” she says. “This has been our ritual for 20 years.”
Sarong Party Girls, by Cheryl Lu-lien Tan , is published by HarperCollins on July 12 .