UNITED STATES—It’s a tale of sexism, status, and capital set in the late night clubs and bars of Singapore. Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s novel “Sarong Party Girls” takes sharp aim at a society where everyone is after money, prestige, and a higher place on the societal ladder.
The story focuses on Jazzy, a 26-year-old newspaper editor’s assistant and frequent denizen of the city’s clubs and bars. Along with her friends Fann and Imo, she desires to find a white man, or “ang moh,” to marry and live a life of luxury. By doing this she hopes to acquire not only a comfortable, pampered life, but the ultimate status symbol, a Chanel (half-white) baby. The story follows Jazzy on her quest for status through her day job, home life, and seemingly endless clubbing.
Tan has a unique voice. She writes the novel entirely in “Singlish.” According to a note in the beginning, it “is the patois that most Singaporeans speak to one another.” It gives the novel a great sense of place, and even adds some humor when we’re treated to some hilarious Singaporean profanity. I’d say that Tan’s ability to capture a place and people in such a unique, local voice is best compared to Junot Diaz.
It has to be said that Tan has written a subversive feminist novel that takes direct aim not only at Singaporean society, but world society more broadly. It does this by focusing in on the status of women in a society obsessed with prestige and money. Something that is not in any way unique to Singapore.
We get this massive sense of entitlement from the men in the novel. Tan is smart in how she traces this. She shows how it develops from a young age. People see how others around them are treated and valued. Everyone always wants more. More money, a promotion, a better car, a better job. People wear their wealth on their sleeve. They see it growing up, internalize it, and live it when they become adults. We get lots of descriptions of homes, clothes, booze, and all the other trappings of a fast lifestyle, but rarely do we see a search for love or purpose. Indeed, everything is a business transaction. The main characters scoff at the thought of marrying for anything other than status.
For the women as well as the men it’s all a vicious cycle. We see these women grow up in a society where women are undervalued and cast aside. Jazzy loses a man she really loves to class issues. There is pressure from Jazzy’s family for her to get married. Pressure comes from all sides. No one’s life is their own to shape in that existential, Sartreian sense. They grow up looking at men who use women for their own purposes, so they pursue status as a means of escape.
Tan shows us the end consequences of this. A glittering city on the rise with a darkness underside. We see that in workplaces bosses have no problem sexually harassing their female employees. This entitlement and its intertwining with business extends all the way to doing business in brothels. Tan’s depiction of one such establishment was shocking and revolting. The way in which the prostitutes were treated, as if they had no value as individual human beings beyond their bodies, was horrifying. We see throughout the novel in clubs, in personal relationships, men claim entitlement to sex. This is sadly one of, though not the only, overt examples.
Nor does Tan let us westerners off the hook. This is no chiding of an Asian nation from a western perspective. The westerners we encounter go to these same clubs and brothels and behave just as poorly if not worse. In fact, near the novels end we encounter an ugly American type that is so off the wall as to almost be a stereotype. I feel Tan could have been a bit subtler here, but the point is well taken. Yes, the character is stereotypical and caricaturish, but he fits into this society well. That’s the awful part. We know he comes from our society, and that some if not all of what exists in Singapore exists here to.
This is a novel where everyone wants more, and everyone is looking down on those of perceived lesser status. It takes form in some pretty stunning racism on Jazzy’s part. Even the best parts of Jazzy’s life are tainted by this pursuit. In Jazzy’s, like many of our lives I venture, the best things are relationships with others. Her best friend is the recently married Sher. Some of the novel’s most beautiful moments come from the interactions between these two. In a flash back to their childhood, Jazzy recalls resting her head on her friend’s shoulder while watching a group of boys practice rugby. The moment is interrupted when some passing young men tease them for being “lesbians.” They break their embrace. It not only symbolizes how constant the sexism around Jazzy is, but how the negative things around her are internalized. When she later begins letting her friendship with Sher slip away because she married an Asian man, it is a sad fulfillment of a system that internalizes sexism, classism, and the vicious desire to climb the latter.
Tan shows us that these problems make villains of everyone. It makes people scoundrels, traitors, narcissists, and selfish jerks. They sleep with people we know to be married because they feel like it, they pressure people into sex because they want it, they do nothing but drink and party while ignoring the important goings on of the world, and even abandon and betray their friends. It’s a message, a warning, we need to hear.
The novel has its flaws. I felt some of the clubbing scenes were a bit repetitive. I also felt we didn’t see much growth from Jazzy until the very end, and indeed it was only a little. Same goes with a lot of the other characters who too often come off a little bit flat. Not to mention the ending was somewhat abrupt. Tan could have taken out some of the more repetitive scenes and given Jazzy and the other characters more growth. It would have been better if in the end she made a move to better her life in a more significant way than she did.
Let’s not quibble over the details to much. Overall, Tan has written an excellent feminist novel that is at times funny, horrifying, sad, and always pertinent. When you read a novel you are committing to something that takes effort, and this one is well worth that commitment.