Currently reading Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s Sarong Party Girls

It was while wandering around Chapters one day last summer that I saw the cover of Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s Sarong Party Girls: A Novel and I earmarked it for a light summer read at some point. I didn’t think I would read it as soon as I did but drizzly spring is also an appropriate time to read a hot, summer kind of novel.

The back-of-the-book premise tells of Jazzy leading her friends on their one-month mission in dizzying Singapore society to get hitched to suitable ang mohs (Caucasians) because at 26 years of age, they are nearing their perceived expiry dates – reminding me of Sex and the City. But other blurbs would liken the story to Emma or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I am far more familiar with Emma and after reading that blurb, my consumption of the novel was directed by figuring out who her Knightley is. Seng? Her Churchill is obviously Roy. Mrs. Weston would be her old friend Sher, but with a twist with Jazzy’s intolerance of Sher’s Ah Beng husband Ah Huat. Who is hapless Harriett? Imo? And the despicable couple Mr. and Mrs. Elton? It seemed like many people fit the bill on that one!

To start, the novel is written in Singlish. (NPY hadn’t heard of it before and I ribbed him for that. His guess was that it’s “single people language.” SMH.) That in itself is different. I’ve read (listened to the audiobooks) the first two of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, which are largely based in Singapore, but this is a different turn. There was not an “Alamak!” in sight and I believe it was replaced with the much more crass kani nah, lots of cock and other LC terms* I don’t even know how LC they really are. Jazzy Lim’s world only barely collides with that of Crazy Rich Asians.

In this, the author’s first novel, and as part of the story, it is fitting that the reader is taken on grand tour of the Singapore venues girls – particularly Sarong Party Girls (SPGs) – frequent hoping to meet guys. It also allows Tan to make her comments on modern Singapore society. We traipse from Club Lunar that is overrun with mainland Chinese girls (SPGs’ new competition), to the club Jazzy rarely frequents but you can find cool cucumber Charlie, a KTV lounge where guys find NSA action, the hottest clubs chockful of ang mohs and not so happening ones overrun with Ah Bengs, brunch outings and high tea.

But are the clubs, in which Jazzy and her friends spend most of their time, really the best place to meet a guy? Jazzy’s exploits and success rate (not yet married or in a serious relationship) seems to indicate not. At the time of this writing, a contemporary Ed Sheeran song opens with, “The club isn’t the best place to find a lover / So the bar is where I go.” But Jazzy swears by this strategy to land herself a husband that will pull her up in terms of social status. We can collectively shake our heads because we have a Western mindset and I – for one – am 13 years older (and wiser).

But we can’t apply our Western values. As much as Singapore is a super modern city state, the oft-alluded to clash between tradition and modern values is apparent in Jazzy’s world – she is daily trapped by societal expectations, that someone of her birth would rise up only through marriage, and so all energy is focused on that endeavour. (Also, is her boss Albert for real?!) This comes at the expense of finding a satisfying career or having interest in current affairs, higher or more broad learning, and general interests in food, travel and world outside of pulsating night clubs (like the outdoors).

I find myself in between generations – not strictly where my age makes me fall but in my empathy while I read the novel. I did some of the sh*t Jazzy does and some of it doesn’t feel that long ago at all, like I would do it again tomorrow. My relationship with my mum was like hers with her mum – that of a self-absorbed and self-righteous woman-child assuming the woman 30+ years your senior couldn’t possibly understand basic human psychology and the modern (Singaporean) woman’s life!! There is so much irony in Jazzy’s conversations with her mother. It also appears when Jazzy is interacting with Sher and Sharon, the former made a decent match but Jazzy can’t look beyond him being Ah Beng and the latter has marital troubles and Jazzy’s advice is superficial and doesn’t come from a place of understanding.

I was bracing for SPG to be cringeworthy comedic chick lit with the hapless heroine getting into awkward situations that rely on physical humour. Jazzy is both savvy and hapless at the same time. She’s following the formula that seems to work for SPGs preceding her but it seems like she could be more savvy about matters outside of her world, like when she can’t assess that Roy is probably more affluent than she thinks but she can’t get over his employer is an “oil refinery” rather than a financial institution. She relies on clues like the high end brand of his wallet and the hilarious calculation she makes based on his ability to own a car, even if it’s a Mini. The awkward situations she gets into with Alastair and Louis are truly on a different level and almost take a sad and slightly horrific turn.

I could be so against Jazzy – she seemed so oblivious and who can tell she isn’t as LC as the Ah Bengs and Ah Lians she looked down on? But her acceptance of her friends and her determination to improve her life are admirable and redeeming at the end.

Additional reading:
* SINGLISH – A Language Guide for Foreigners
– This Slate article “The Concubine Culture is Alive and Well”