Seriously funny

The success of Crazy Rich Asians, both the book and film, opened the door for more Asian-led comedies of manners. Arts correspondent Olivia Ho speaks to Malaysian author Lauren Ho, who has released her debut novel Last Tang Standing, and reviews Kevin Kwan's latest novel, Sex And Vanity, which is out today

Malaysian author Lauren Ho's debut novel Last Tang Standing opens with a scene that will be familiar to many singletons.

The heroine, Andrea Tang, 33, is bracing herself for the Chinese New Year onslaught of nosy relatives with the usual questions: "Why are you still single?"; "How old are you again?"; "Do you know you can't wait forever to have babies, otherwise you are pretty much playing Russian roulette with whatever makes it out of your collapsing birth canal?"

Andrea's dating life has had to take a back seat to climbing the career ladder in Singapore's cut-throat legal sector, to the passive-aggressive chagrin of her mother.

When she is courted by wealthy entrepreneur Eric Deng, it seems like she has it all sorted - that is, if she can get over her inconvenient attraction to her office rival Suresh Aditparan, whom she is vying against to make partner.

"Andrea is someone who superficially has it all together," says Ho over Skype from Kuala Lumpur, where she has been for eight months due to her husband's work. They have a two-year-old daughter.

"But actually, she's a hot mess underneath because she doesn't know what she really wants. All her life, she's just been making the easy choices and doing what other people expect of her. It's a universal theme."

Like her character, Ho, who is in her mid-30s, was once a lawyer and says pointedly in her author blurb that the novel "is not based on her mother. At all. Seriously".

Ho spent two years on the amateur stand-up comedy circuit in Singapore. Andrea was born out of one of her sets about Asian parents.

"I think good comedy has to draw from the well of personal experiences," she says. "The more you put of yourself into it, the more real it becomes."

Ho has worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and humanitarian organisation Doctors Without Borders. She spent some time in a Luxembourg law firm before moving to Singapore in 2013, where she decided she needed to go back to humanitarian work because she found the legal sector "very toxic".

Andrea, she says, is a little like a vision of an alternate future in which she stuck with corporate law. "Obviously, I was not as high-flying as Andrea. I was just the grunt worker, the one doing the document reviews."

Last Tang Standing paints a blackly comic picture of the legal grind: the long hours, the vicious office politicking, even the colleague with the most comprehensive hongbao matrix in Singapore (bar mitzvahs and tooth fairy gifts included).

Even while Ho was practising law, she would write short stories on the side. She placed second last year in Singapore's Golden Point Award for English fiction. She finished her novel in 2017 after a year. After some reworking and resubmissions, it was snapped up by publishing giant HarperCollins.

Last Tang Standing has been touted as a cross between Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding's 1996 chick lit "ur-text" - and Crazy Rich Asians, the 2013 Singapore-based bestseller by Kevin Kwan.

The success of Crazy Rich Asians and its star-studded 2018 film adaptation paved the way for a wave of Asian-led comedies of manners, including novels such Jenny Lee's Anna K earlier this year, a young-adult remake of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina with a half-Korean heroine; Mahesh Rao's Polite Society (2019), a South Delhi spin on Jane Austen's classic Emma; and even Kwan's latest, Sex And Vanity, out today.

Ho's characters, though also based in Singapore, are mostly high-flying professionals and do not move in the same rarefied circles as Kwan's uber-rich - even if Andrea does have a cousin who arranges a marriage of convenience to stay in her mother's will, saying: "I'll be damned if I have to start buying Zara clothes by default instead of ironically."

Ho says: "I do think Kevin Kwan has definitely sparked interest in Asian lit that is set outside of America." She refers to the recent #PublishingPaidMe scandal on Twitter, which put a spotlight on the discrepancy between what authors of colour and their white peers are paid by publishers.

"It's very strange. They really do operate in the sense of, 'Oh, I have one Asian-American author and that's it, that's my quota.' The publishing industry is waking up to how narrow its focus has been."

Ho, who is working on a sequel, believes comedy can be an important vehicle to carry serious messages.

"In fiction, particularly, I think comedy is very useful because there are still people who approach fiction with a lot of their own baggage and biases. Comedy is a way to approach a difficult subject somewhat tangentially, without people feeling like they have to have their armour up."

• Last Tang Standing ($19.26) is available at bit.ly/LTangS_Ho.

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Review

Plain tale about another crazy rich Asian

Another day, another crazy rich Asian wedding. Singapore-born, United States-based writer Kevin Kwan makes his long-awaited return to the world of the ultra-wealthy in his new summer romance, Sex And Vanity.

But the magic of his best-selling Crazy Rich Asians trilogy (2013 to 2017) does not seem to have rubbed off on his latest offering, a soapy spin on E.M. Forster's 1908 novel A Room With A View.

Lovely ingenue Lucie Tang Churchill seems to have it all - a blue-blooded family, a dream job as an art adviser, a devoted "billennial" boyfriend (a millennial with billions to burn) who has just proposed to her via flash mob on the steps of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There is just one problem: At the age of 19, while at a friend's wedding in Capri, Italy, she committed a youthful indiscretion with George Zao, a surfer dude who quotes poet Pablo Neruda and wears Speedos unironically.

In the parlance of millennials (the ones with no billions), he is a softboi.

In the high society that Lucie moves in, where people trail their educational pedigree in brackets whenever they are introduced - for example, Baron Mordecai von Ephrussi (Wetherby/Dragon/ Harrow/Magdalen College, Oxford) - George is an outlier.

He is also Chinese; Lucie's own Chinese heritage from her mother's side has long been a chip on her shoulder among her bloodline-obsessed clan.

  • FICTION

  • SEX AND VANITY

    By Kevin Kwan

    Doubleday/Paperback/

    296 pages/$29.91/

    Available at bit.ly/SVanity_Kwan

    Rating: 3 Stars

When George reappears in her life after her engagement, Lucie must deal with reawakened passion and the realisation that she wants more from her future than being an Instagram trophy wife.

Kwan reached ridiculous heights with Rich People Problems (2017), this reviewer's favourite of his books. He is at his best when he is skewering the peccadilloes of the preposterously prosperous.

There is a middle section of Sex And Vanity where he is in top form, as Lucie's buffoonish fiance Cecil attempts to secure with this marriage the seal of class that his considerable fortunes cannot buy.

He and his mother Renee face off with Lucie's snooty relations, helmed by her indomitable grandmother, who lives in the kind of building you cannot get into unless your ancestors came over to America on the first pilgrim ship, The Mayflower.

Unfortunately, there are too many moments when Kwan's satire of privilege is muddied by an earnest devotion to it.

Characters trot out hackneyed lines such as "the true beauty of this island is in its people and all these authentic areas off the beaten path".

Lucie and George are flimsy constructions. Lucie has been loaded with the requisite tragic backstory, but her characterisation vacillates: She is for the most part sweet and sensitive, but commits an inexplicably horrible act of sabotage to move the plot along.

For those craving the spicy flavour of the Crazy Rich Asians series, Sex And Vanity is sadly vanilla.

If you like this, read: Anna K by Jenny Lee (Macmillan, 2020, $18.94, available at bit.ly/AnnaK_ Lee), which puts a young-adult twist on the Russian classic Anna Karenina. Half-Korean teenage socialite Anna K has the perfect life, but risks throwing it all away when she falls for bad boy Vronsky.

• This article includes affiliate links. When you buy through affiliate links in the article, we may earn a small commission.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2020, with the headline 'Seriously funny'. Print Edition | Subscribe