A Sarong Party Girls romp

New York-based writer Cheryl Lu-lien Tan (above) checked out Singapore’s nightlife scene for her debut novel, Sarong Party Girls.
New York-based writer Cheryl Lu-lien Tan (above) checked out Singapore’s nightlife scene for her debut novel, Sarong Party Girls.ST PHOTO: LIM YONG TECK

Singaporean writer Cheryl Lu-lien Tan's debut novel is a comic romp about Asian women who hope to hook a Caucasian lover

The title of New York-based Singaporean writer Cheryl Lu-lien Tan's debut novel, Sarong Party Girls, is a nod to the derogatory term slapped on Asian women who dress sexily and date only white men.

The book is a profane, comedic romp centred on Tan's protagonist Jazzy Lim, a working-class secretary, who yearns to score a rich Caucasian lover and have his "Chanel babies" - a colloquial term for mixed-race children.

It follows Jazzy as she parties with her friends at clubs and bars, and sleeps with different men, while trying to figure out what she wants in life.

Tan, 41, tells The Sunday Times in an interview: "In a way, I've been gathering string my whole life for this book by doing research and observing people around me.

"Like this term 'Chanel babies', I heard my friend use it and I thought it was funny, so I wrote it down. I found out it means to have a 'zup zeng' kid."

New York-based writer Cheryl Lu-lien Tan checked out Singapore’s nightlife scene for her debut novel, Sarong Party Girls (above).

"Zup zeng" is a Hokkien derogatory term for mixed parentage.

As part of her research, Tan checked out Singapore's nightlife scene, which she says is rife with sarong party girls (SPG).

"The culture has boomed along with the expatriate population in the last few years. When I was growing up, Harry's was the SPG bar of choice. Now, 90 per cent of the bars in Singapore are like that," she says.

She adds: "I had this group of friends who married in their 20s and got divorced in their 30s, and they told me: 'If you want to see us when you're back, you've to come out with us.'

"One of the scenes in the book has an auntie dancing in a podium with a fluorescent bra on. That's something that actually happened when we were out."

Tan, who is separated from her husband, The New York Times' television critic Mike Hale, says she is not an SPG.

"People do ask me if I'm one. But the answer is no. I've dated Asian guys mostly," she says with a laugh.

She wrote the entire book in Singlish and calls it a "love letter" to the local patois, which she hopes to introduce to readers from abroad.

"In all my years in the States, there are two things I miss about Singapore - one is the food and the other is the way Singaporeans interact. I want to share Singlish with the world. People always think Singaporeans are boring, but I'm like, no, we're so fascinating. Our language is funny, vulgar, cheeky and nonsensical."

Tan, who speaks with an American accent picked up from more than two decades living in the United States, is equally at home bandying about Singlish terms during the interview.

She admits to being nervous about writing a book in Singlish, but chose not to include a glossary as she feels it would be too much of a bother for readers to refer to a glossary.

"My agent has never been to Singapore, so when I first showed it to her, I thought she'd be like, 'What's this?', but she got it. We went through the first draft and pared it down a bit, but the essence of Singlish is still there," she says.

She also enlisted the help of satirist and film-maker Colin Goh, co-creator of the Coxford Singlish Dictionary online in 2000, to help vet her Singlish.

The book includes words such as "toot" (slang for earthy) and "mabuk" (drowsy) and vulgar Hokkien phrases.

Tan, formerly a staff writer at newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and Baltimore Sun, as well as In Style magazine, received a creation grant from the National Arts Council in 2012 to write Sarong Party Girls.

She says with a laugh: "I was scared when I turned in the draft as the book is so vulgar. I thought maybe they might ask me to give them back the money."

The book has received praise from publications such as Slate Magazine, which called it "funny, irreverent and sharp-eyed", while book reviews site Kirkus said it "offers fascinating insight into Singapore's club scene and social castes".

Tan, whose first book, A Tiger In The Kitchen (2011), is a food memoir about rediscovering her heritage through cooking Singapore dishes, says she used Jazzy's character to explore what life is like for a modern woman living in Singapore.

"It's about materialism in a society that embraces the rat race. If you didn't grow up rich or smart or go to the right schools, what is your ticket to the good life? It's marriage," she said.

She is not worried that some readers may accuse her of propagating the SPG stereotype.

"I write about things that fascinate me and, in this case, it's SPGs. Did anyone read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and say: 'I must become a paedophile?' I hope people see the book for what it is."

• Sarong Party Girls ($24.61) is available from major bookstores.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 14, 2016, with the headline 'A Sarong Party Girls romp'. Print Edition | Subscribe