“The Concubine Culture Is Alive and Well”

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s new novel exposes the glittering compromises of the “sarong party girl.”

Young persons dance with Electronic dance music in at a old factory house in Jinghua, Zhejiang province, east China on 12th June 2015.
People dance in a club in Jinghua, China, in 2015.

Jie Zhao/Getty Images

In 2009, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan found herself hanging out in Singapore with a group of newly divorced high school friends who had started calling themselves “sarong party girls.” Tan had been recently laid off from her job as a fashion writer at the Wall Street Journal in an economic downturn and come home to Singapore to write a memoir about food—and, as it turned out, deep fissures in her family. Days were spent learning recipes from her aunties and discovering secret sources of family shame. Evenings, Tan would accompany her friends to the fashionable bars and clubs favored by SPGs. The nightlife districts swarmed with these attractive young women in short skirts and killer makeup.            

Tan’s friends, in their mid-30s, were a little too old to be true SPGs. The real sarong party girls were working-class Chinese women in their 20s, dancing atop club podiums in fluorescent bras or lying down on bars to let strangers lick shots from their navels, women using their bodies in their quest for one thing: a white husband.

“I’ve always been fascinated by them,” Tan told me when we met recently in Manhattan, where she lives and writes again for the Journal. “And by that whole culture in Singapore of materialism and status, and how race fits into that. Why do we value white men above Chinese or Indian or Malay? In a sense it’s a holdover from our colonial days.” It was just a couple of weeks before the launch of her very funny, irreverent, sharp-eyed debut novel, Sarong Party Girls, about women using their sexual power—the only power they possess—to better their lives in a country driven by money.

The sarong party girl originated in colonial Singapore when British soldiers brought local women to their officers’ parties. Sarong, that delicate wrapped skirt, as a modifier of girl suggests a European view of exotic beauty and the submission of East to West. Over time, the stereotype of the SPG coarsened into a gold-digging Asian vamp who uses her wiles to seduce hapless white men. Tan was intrigued by her barstool view of 21st-century sarong party girls, their glamor and ferocious materialism—the worship of the Prada handbag, the Seven jeans—their lives circumscribed by persistent forces of racial and sexual politics.                    

“I wanted to tell the story of what it’s like to be a young woman in modern Asia,” Tan said, “just sort of the struggle of it.” It’s a story she hasn’t lived but has observed with fascination during her frequent trips home, since leaving Singapore in 1993 to study journalism at Northwestern. “Women have certain roles and, often, men are allowed to play around. The concubine culture is alive and well.”

Tan herself seems to have eluded these prescribed female roles. She is a poised career journalist with a talent for connecting with people—a chance meeting led to her becoming editor of Singapore Noir, part of a popular fiction anthology series published by Akashic Books. Though married at the time, she spent periods of time away from home at writers’ residencies around the country and abroad to focus on her novel. Tan’s earlier visit home to learn to cook family dishes had been a conscious attempt by her to claim part of her traditional feminine identity. In the beautiful memoir that resulted, A Tiger in the Kitchen, Tan writes that her family attributes her rebellious streak and fierce ambition to her birth in the Year of the Tiger. Her mother used to scold her strong-willed daughter that female Tiger babies were killed in ancient China.

Tan can write like the devil—her memoir was completed in just seven weeks to meet the publisher’s deadline—but she struggled with formulating a journalistic book on the sarong party girl subculture. No recipe emerged, but she knew what she wanted to cook. Sitting down at her keyboard one morning, she started typing and by the next day had the first chapter of Sarong Party Girls, a novel that opens on a note of desperation:

Aiyoh, I tell you. If we do nothing, we are confirm getting into bang balls territory. We have to figure out how to make this happen—and we have to do it now.

Jazzy, Tan’s protagonist, spills out her story in Singlish, the Singaporean street vernacular, a patois that punches up the queen’s English with its distinctive grammar, slang, and smattering of vocabulary from Chinese dialects, Tamil, and Malay. The this that Jazzy wants to make happen is marriage to one of the well-paid, suit-wearing white expats pouring into the global business hub of Singapore. We includes her two best friends, Imo and Fann, also unmarried and in search of husbands. The marriage effort has to be kick-started now because Jazzy lives between two worlds, the Westernized city she works and parties in, and her traditional Chinese home culture, which expects a girl of 26 to be married already.

Tan cleverly uses humor to examine the women’s vulnerabilities and pathos. Her satire builds upon Jazzy’s one-month game plan for the three to identify their competition and move in on the best potential Caucasian husbands. The alternative Jazzy dreads is to end up like another good friend who settled for marrying an Ah Beng, a lower-class Chinese guy with a long pinky nail and few prospects who makes her want to “vomit blood.” If the premise rings of chick lit, the scenes of women being sexually debased in clubs, bars, and hostess lounges are cut from a darker material.

Tan distills the dilemma of Jazzy’s identity in her challenge to find a white man interested in a genuine relationship with her—“Not just one night garabing garabung then everything is over already,” as Jazzy says. The problem is that ang mohs—white men—are used to having local women make themselves easily available, and the women are accustomed to being quickly discarded. Yet the swooning Orientalism of a smitten Brit Jazzy has just slept with—“But you Asians—whoo … just, wow! Your skin, your eyes, your hair—my god!”—only makes her cynical: “Aiyoh, this kind of obvious thing also must say. … He’s trying to make me feel special is it? Say my skill very good is it? Kani nah. Maybe I should fasterly go home.”

Jazzy’s voice is the heart and soul of the book: tart, spirited, brazen, naïve, knowing. Without hearing her Singlish playing in her mind, as if she were being dictated to, Tan said there would have been no novel. It’s a story that couldn’t exist in standard English. “Jazzy is of that culture that speaks it all the time,” Tan explained. “It has such immediacy of expressing her thoughts that I felt like Singlish was another character in the book.” Singlish also invests Jazzy with an authenticity she ironically struggles to strip herself of in the attempt to fashion herself into a thoroughly modern, Westernized woman—dropping her Chinese name Ah Huay for Jazzy, shunning the shameful memory of grandfathers who worked as coolies on the docks, recoiling from traditional Chinese milieus like the shabby wet market where animals are slaughtered.

Yet the rampant sexism of an age-old Asian patriarchy reaches beyond Jazzy’s congested working-class neighborhood into the moneyed city of glittering glass towers. Jazzy is unfazed; exploitation is her reality. The best she can do is manage it. Fearful of losing her plush job as assistant to the editor-in-chief of a newspaper, an older man who generally scraps his secretaries by the time they hit 24, she does everything she can to please and titillate. This includes a kind of daily office burlesque—posing provocatively against the editor’s desk, sitting with her legs slightly apart on his sofa. “Some people hang nice art on their walls; others look at legs. Who can’t understand that?” she argues in her boss’s defense.

I asked Tan if Singaporean workplaces were really so flagrantly sexist. Everything she’s written, she said, comes from stories she’s heard from friends and acquaintances or things she’s seen herself. Sarong appears to be a well-reported fiction.

Cheryl Tan.
Cheryl Tan.

James Veall

In dispatching Jazzy and her friends on a sort of sexual tour of the nightlife areas to assess their rivals, Tan astutely illustrates how Jazzy’s thinking is changed by what she sees. There are the hungry girls from mainland China (“cheongsam sluts”), desperate enough to hook up with grandfathers. The teenage Thai girls in bars being fondled under their skirts by obese, old white men—girls who elicit rare tenderness in her. The paid hostesses in private karaoke lounges, called KTV, ordered up to rooms by groups of businessmen like so many dishes—one with big boobs, one with long legs. (Tan pumped her male friends for details on these men-only lounges, and one praised the KTV lounges in Taiwan as superior because naked women fed the men.) Though Jazzy has been blasé about her own mistreatment by men, thinking nothing of being groped by strangers on the dance floor (“rubba-ing”) or pressured to sleep with them, the stunning degradation of other women moves her to pity and even to offer to help, calling into question the glamorous world she wanted to climb up in.

I mentioned to Tan that in South Asian culture (my background), the sexuality of young women, both Hindu and Muslim, is covered up, denied, the honor of family dependent on the honor and purity of its daughters. I was surprised that East Asian culture appeared so different, the sexuality of young women exposed, the girls treated like sexual playthings. Was this accurate? What’s surprising about Singapore, Tan said, is that it is a very patriarchal Asian society beneath its progressive, modern façade. In such a society, men view their wives as mothers and other women as sex objects. “When my friends and I were growing up, we looked at our parents’ generation, and a lot of men had mistresses and second families,” she recalled. “That was just accepted. You didn’t talk about it. We were like, ‘We’ll never stand for that.’ But then I saw a lot of my friends had gotten divorced. The guys in our generation didn’t grow up to be much different than in our parents’ generation. Concubine culture perhaps will never leave Asia because it’s just so easy to keep it going.”

At a time when American publishers are being assailed by writers of color for putting out too few diverse books, Sarong appears as an unexpected outlier. Not only does it introduce American readers to unfamiliar Asian characters, it does so entirely on its own terms, rising off the page in the Singlish parlance beloved by Singaporeans, a language the government has tried vigorously to stamp out with a multimillion-dollar “Speak Good English” campaign. Tan calls her novel “a subversive celebration of a patois that I love,” while the late Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore who turned an impoverished colonial port into an international financial capital, called Singlish “a handicap we do not wish on Singaporeans.” It is a question of identity versus image, of who you are versus what you wish to become.

In light of the cultural skirmishes in the book world, it’s worth examining Sarong’s presentation to a Western audience. The cover image of a svelte, miniskirted Asian fashionista posing against an urban skyline suggests chick lit. “Emma set in modern Asia” says the jacket copy. Yes, there are the common bones of a marriage plot. But Sarong is interesting in all the ways it diverges from Emma. Jane Austen’s England is a homogenous society, uncomplicated by differences of race and culture. Emma is not compelled to question her identity like Jazzy—how Western is she? How Chinese? What assaults on her inner self is she willing to condone by the white man she hopes to catch?

“I feel a lot of these stories haven’t been told in literature here,” Tan said. “I really wanted to throw that door open.”

Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. William Morrow.

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