Announcer: This is Why We Write. A podcast of Lesley University. Each week we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley Community to talk about books, writing and the writing life.
One quick note before we start. We had a few technical difficulties with Tony Eprile’s mic in this episode, but thankfully Cheryl Tan comes in crystal clear! I hope it won’t detract too much from this awesome interview. Ok, on with the episode.
Tony: Hi, I'm Tony Eprile. I'm a teacher in the low residency MFA program. I teach fiction and I am delighted to be talking to Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, who is our All Lesley Reads visiting writer for the summer residency in 2019. And Cheryl is the author of the international bestseller Sarong Party Girls as well as a food memoir, A Tiger in the Kitchen. Cheryl is from Singapore and she holds a degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Hi, Cheryl!
Cheryl: Hi, thanks for having me.
Tony: Cheryl is both a journalist and a fiction writer. She's written for the Wall Street Journal. She's had articles published in InStyle Magazine, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times, Foreign Policy, Bon Appétit, Food and Wine and the list goes on. Cheryl, what led you to move from writing journalism to writing fiction?
Cheryl: Well, I had always thought that I wanted to write fiction. I had been a voracious reader since I was–as early as I could read. Growing up in Singapore, if you've never been there, it's a very small island, it's very cosmopolitan, it's very modern in many ways. But when you're growing up there, the way to see the world when you're six, you're not going to be traveling the world, is to read. I read as many books as I could. My parents took me to the library every single week to check out as many books as the entire family could just for me.
And so I'd always thought, “Well, one day it will be wonderful to be able to write a book to introduce a world in my head to other people.” I thought, "Well, okay, I'd love to write." And my parents, who were very traditional Chinese-Singaporean parents were like, "Well, how are you going to make money doing that?" And so I thought [laughs], "Well, okay. Well, if I could show them that I could have a salary while writing maybe they'll let me do it." I came up with journalism because I thought, "Hey, those are actual jobs and you would have a salary and you would work somewhere." And they said, "Sure, okay, you'll go to J school first and then you'll go to law school right after that," and that never happened.
I loved journalism so much. One of my first stories when I was a high school intern at the national–at the Straits Times, which is the national newspaper in Singapore, and I was only seventeen or eighteen at the time and my boss somehow trusted me with this story. He said, "Hey, I hear there's this illegal puppy mill out there you should go check it out." So me and this photographer went and we checked it out, and he pretended he was my uncle and we were trying to buy a dog. He took pictures, I asked all sorts of questions which they answered because why would a teenager be writing a story for the national newspaper? [laughs]
Tony: So did you wind up with a puppy?
Cheryl: No [laughs] but it was terrible! It was so heartbreaking to see this puppy mill. And we ran the story and within 24 hours or very soon the government shut it down. Right then I realized the power of words and the power of journalism. So I got into journalism. My first job was at the Baltimore Sun. I covered Sunday Cops. I loved it. I moved into features eventually. I was a journalist full-time for many years at the Wall Street Journal, at InStyle covering fashion primarily but also culture and the arts. And I sort of forgot about book writing along the way because I loved being a journalist so much.
Then one day after about ten years of covering fashion, I started to feel a little burned out, and I started to think about food a lot because growing up in Singapore, I came from a very food-obsessed culture. In Singapore, you're barely done with lunch and then you already start talking about where we're going to eat dinner or what we're going to have for dinner. Covering fashion for ten years, I realized that I had surrounded myself primarily with people who actively avoided eating and food. [laughs] Somehow that made me really miss my grandmother's food and the food of my aunties and my mom.
It also made me realize that I had never learned how to cook with my aunties and my mom and my grandmothers. I didn't know how to make the food that I grew up eating. So I took a break. I went home and I begged my aunties to let me into the kitchen with them. They were very surprised because they had always tried to teach me how to cook, and I refused to do it because I had always seen that as something that my mother and her mother and her grandmother had to do in order to be a good wife.
And when I was growing up I said, "I'm not going to do any of that. I'm not gonna do this good wife business. I'm gonna grow up and write books." So when I finally begged to be let back into the kitchen, they were like, "Oh now you want to learn how to be a woman." [laughs] It was very funny. Anyway, so they let me in. I learned how to make my late grandmother's pineapple tarts, wrote an essay about it and a book editor called me and said, "Let's turn this into a book." So, somehow book writing bit me. It came back to find me even though I had sort of forgot about it or thought it might not happen.
Tony: At this point in time your grandmother was no longer alive, had you cooked with her before or this was the first time you were really going cooking her recipe?
Cheryl: At this time, only one of my grandmothers was alive but not the one whose pineapple tarts I really miss, which are these buttery shortbread cookies topped with pineapple jam that she used to make. She was this amazing cook, but she died when I was 11. I had refused to be in the kitchen with anybody before then. So I had never cooked with her, but fortunately, my aunties did cook with her. And so when I went back to learn how to make her pineapple tarts, as I was leaving it had been this incredibly rich experience over this one weekend.
And I had learned so much about my late grandmother just in those 48 hours because they were telling me stories as they were telling me how to cook. And as I was leaving, I was like, "Well, [sighs] I can't believe this is over." And they said, "You know, we have all her recipes. Any time you want to learn something just come back." So that was–I feel very fortunate.
And my other grandmother is also an amazing cook. And I was very fortunate that I researched the book in that year that I did because right after that she started having dementia. If I had even done it one year later, she wouldn't have remembered most of her recipes. So it really was kind of the right time. I believe in serendipity, so, this book found me at just the right time.
Tony: So this is–we're talking here about Tiger in the Kitchen?
Tony: And this book was a way for you to bring your grandmother back to life in a certain sense through eating which is also how we experience beloved parents, especially the women in our families. This made you to go back frequently to Singapore. I know you go back regularly every year for about five weeks. You went back much more for that year than–?
Cheryl: Yeah, my whole family lives in Singapore except for my sister who lives in Hong Kong. When the book editor said, "Let's turn this into a book," I thought, "Okay well, why don't we book end it?" So I went back from one Chinese New Year to the next Chinese New Year and I hit all the–I tried to hit the festivals, and I tried to–like for Dumpling Festival during the summer. My family makes dumplings so I went back to make dumplings with them and Mooncake Festival. You know, my family, they're maniacs. Like they don't buy mooncakes, they make them.
And so I went back and I learned how to make mooncakes with them. But really being in the kitchen with them was sort of this excuse to really get to know the women in my family because my family is still quite traditional. And the women are all really fierce women, but you ask them questions and they always go, "Oh go ask you grandfather, go ask your uncle." It's like the guys know the answers like, "Go ask them." And they would always sort of deflect.
But when you're in the kitchen with them and you're waiting ninety minutes for something to happen, you know what, you can ask them all the questions you want and they're going to tell you those stories. It was really a way for me to, through food, tell the stories of the women in my family. I found out so much about them that I'd sort of ignored over the years because I was so focused on having a career and the people in my family who were the role models for that were the men. "I'm gonna do this and go out into the world and do that," like my dad or like my uncle.
The whole time I thought, "Oh well, the women they just stayed at home and like, raised kids and cooked." But I learned, for example, my late grandmother, she had married into–my grandfather was the son of a very wealthy man. She had married into a very rich family. But then my grandfather's generation, when my great-grandfather died they all fought over the money and squandered it all, so suddenly she was really poor. But she was very resourceful.
So she opened up an illegal gambling den at some point in the home. And I only found this out because I was on a walk with one of my uncles and he said, "You know you should really ask your auntie Kym to teach you how to make pua kiao beng," which means like gambler's rice or gambling rice. And I was like, "What is this?" He said, "Just go ask her." So she taught me, it's basically this one-bowl dish of rice with cabbage, some Chinese sausage and various things in it. My grandmother, to put food on the table and feed her family, because my grandfather was not doing anything, she had this gambling den but she didn't want the gamblers to get hungry and leave, so she started to cook for them.
But she wanted to be something really easy. So she started making this rice dish so they could hold the bowl in one hand and keep gambling. And so in my family, it's called gambling rice [laughs]. That little dish said so much about my grandmother and how strong she was, how resourceful she was, how much she cared for her family. I never would have gotten to know that story if I hadn't been in the kitchen and been like, "Okay, teach me this."
Tony: That's so interesting for me because growing up in South Africa with a German-Jewish mother and then moving to this country, to the US, the only time I would really get her stories about her life is when we cook together in the kitchen. If I sat her down like this and said, "Tell me what happened in this", I would get, "Oh, you don't want to hear those old stories." Where in the kitchen I said, "Hey, what about that person?" The next thing you know, there's a whole long story. I think it's a fascinating element that the food is both a way of showing love and also the preparation of food is a way of sharing culture and stories, particularly women's stories.
Cheryl: Yes. That's very true.
Tony: I want to use this to segue little into how you came to write Sarong Party Girls because this wonderful novel is a social satire with quite a lot of sex in it [laughter] and some pretty interesting attitudes that are not feminist in the way the protagonist presents them, but it's actually a feminist perspective on the life of women in Singapore. I'm wondering a little bit like your experience of really getting to know your aunts and through them, your grandmother, how that then led you to look at young women in Singapore and how they're dealing with the legacy of patriarchy and the legacy of colonialism that still exists in the society at large.
Cheryl: Yeah well, Sarong Party Girls came about very organically as well. It was another case of, I wasn't looking for it. It just sort of came in and bit me again. In the year that I went back to Singapore, I would be in the kitchen with my auntie's during the day and be cooking with them. And at night, I had reconnected with some of my childhood girlfriends, and I've known these women since we were six. They had done the good Singaporean woman thing and gotten married in their 20's, had children and then all of a sudden in their 30's they found themselves divorced and so they were back on the circuit.
And they said, "If you want to hang out with us, come meet us at these bars and clubs." And so I would cook during the day and then I would go and meet my friends at night. They just tell me what it was like to be newly single and out on the scene again. One of the things I learned from listening to their stories was when we were growing up, we would look at our great-grandfathers and our grandfathers and in that generation, a lot of them had multiple wives or mistresses, et cetera. In my dad's generation, to some degree, there was that too, the mistresses, the girlfriends and we always said, "You know what, when it comes to our marriages, we're not gonna do that."
And then when I listened to some of those stories, I thought, "We might have had that progressive thought of not having those kinds of marriages but the boys really–that we grew up with, really never changed." And that sort of concubine culture, that cycle wasn't getting broken. And so that, that sort of–that seed planted in my head and I started taking notes about a lot of things. One of the things they said to me was, that really struck me was–they'd sort of jokingly said, "Well, we did the marry the nice Singaporean boy thing and it didn't work out. Now we're modern SPG's." And when I was growing up being a Sarong Party Girl was a really, really derogatory term.
It was like, I would look into these SPG bars and I would see these women in high heels and short skirts and they're trying to meet expat guys because that was their ticket to the good life. You don't want to be an SPG, but my friends were kind of regarding it jokingly, perhaps but as a sort of way to be like, "We're modern feminists. We're going to find men who can handle independent women and not expect us to be in the kitchen and blah, blah, blah." I thought that was really funny because I'd also been thinking about this–I thought it said a lot about postcolonial gender and racial politics in Singapore.
And what does that mean? It was so layered, it's like the cycles not getting broken but also, trying to find a path to a happy life with a man who can accept that you're independent and doesn't want you to just be the little wife at home. I started to hang out with them and then one night one of them said to me, she said, "Well, the point of this is to have a Chanel baby." And I'm like, "What's a Chanel baby?" And she said, "Well, it's a baby that's half Singaporean, half expat. It's a Chanel of babies." So I thought, "Okay, that right there, just says everything about Singapore and this social group because it's materialistic." It's very direct. It's very practical but it's also very questionable in terms of, "Well, what are your values and that's what you subscribe to".
I thought there was just so much to unpack there. I went home, I wrote the word Chanel baby down and I thought, "Well, I've got to write this book." That was when I started really thinking and really gathering notes and sort of anecdotes. I wanted the book to be–it's a very dark book. I didn't want it to be didactic. I didn't want it to be like, being a woman in modern Southeast Asia can be terrible because the patriarchy still exists. I wanted that to be conveyed, but I also wanted to be funny and so the situations in this book are kind of they're satirical, they're dark, they're comic but they also, things spiral out of control and you're like, "Did that really happen?" It gets kind of crazy.
Tony: Well, I can assess the fact the book is very funny and I definitely laughed aloud quite a lot reading it. And I think one of the interesting things about this novel is that Jazzy, Jaslyn, the main character is both–her mind is both controlled by the patriarchal system she's grown up in but she also subverts it. The novel works this interesting tightrope where she's often an unreliable narrator, yet she's extremely observant. She falls into the category of the woman who is often submissive when it comes to sex and to other pressures.
And yet is also not at all submissive and also very powerful and a strong woman. And I think that you work with these dichotomies and paradoxes beautifully throughout the novel. Your British publisher describes the novels being a little bit of a Trojan horse. Can you explain that?
Cheryl: [chuckles] Yeah. I loved that they wrote that and said that because on the surface, it can be seen as chick-lit. I mean Jazzy is a young woman who is out there, she and her three friends are out there trying to find husbands. You know, I love Jane Austen, in a way, it's like Emma set in modern Asia but it's about a woman trying to better her station in life by finding just the right husband. On the one hand, it can be read as this kind of chick-lit premise but as you read it, the situations that unfold make you think and it really shows you the ugly side or the not pristine side of Singapore which I really wanted to delve into.
Because people think that Singapore is this squeaky clean place. When people find out I'm from there, they're like, "Is it really true that you can't chew gum there, that you can't litter?" I'm like, "Well, all that's kind of true" but at the same time we have this–it's a very, very complex city. It's a very complex country and I wanted to show the underbelly of Singapore a little bit. And so the novel really gets into that. So, the Trojan horse is you might enter thinking, "Okay, it sounds like a chick-lit premise" but as the novel unfolds, I hope, it sort of–things start to take a darker and darker and darker turn. At some point you go, "How did we get here?" I hope it makes you think while you're laughing at the same time.
Tony: I think what happens is we see Jazzy trying to hold on to her illusions as they're being shattered around her, especially her illusion that she's in control. What makes her be in control is her willingness to jump into bed with people and be sexy and be a Sarong Party Girl and we start to see that coming apart in her life. That's a very subversive approach because I think quite a few readers wind up finding her unlikable for part of the book while sympathizing with her.
Cheryl: Yes, I've heard from several people who would say, "We just wanted to strangle her." Or be like–just shake her and go, like, "Why do you keep doing, making these wrong decisions?" But I think the book is really a journey for her and she starts out very stroppy, very determined and she believes she's right in this new goal that she set for herself. As the book turns slowly, slowly, slowly, she starts to–the reader realizes how dark this world is and she herself realizes that too but, ultimately, she realizes that she has control, she just has to exercise it.
It's about self-discovery, redemption, et cetera, et cetera. But also, I think it's a journey of learning both for her and for the reader. I wanted people who read this to kind of get a sense of how–I mean I'm not saying that every Singaporean woman is a Sarong Party Girl. I'm not saying there are a lot of them, I mean there's a sizable number, [chuckles] but I wanted to really highlight what it can be like for some women in modern Asia if you don't have necessarily the resources or the smarts to become a doctor or a CEO in your own right and the choices that you might have to make sometimes.
Tony: You both show us the Sarong Party Girls but also the women who didn't become Sarong Party Girls and have a more traditional life and then they wind up having husbands who have a second family. Or they’re the mistress and in the case of one of the characters, her mother–she learns her mother is–not only is there another wife, but is actually the wife and her mother's the mistress.
Cheryl: Yes. Actually a lot of these stories–this book when I first started writing down notes and taking down notes from scenes and what the interiors of clubs look like, and everything. I thought I would write it as nonfiction because I'm a journalist and my first book was nonfiction. I actually planned to write this as nonfiction. I did research it a fair bit. When it came down to writing it, I've owed my agent a proposal and it just wasn't coming out.
Finally, in this panic, I literally owed her something the next day. I said, "Well, I've just got to fight through this. Why don't I just try to write it as fiction and see what happens, see where it goes?" Essentially, what is the bulk of the first chapter of the book is what I wrote that day because it came out in this flood. Jazzy's voice came through loud and clear right away. I thought, "Okay, well, maybe this is the right thing to do." I sent it to my agent and I thought that she'd be like, "What is this? You're a nonfiction writer." And she said, "Keep going." Then it became–from then on I was like, "Okay, I guess I'm working on a novel." [laughs].
Tony: This is a very voice-driven book and you made a particularly bold and, I think, linguistically innovative choice in deciding to write the novel in Singlish in Jazzy's voice in the Singaporean patois that she speaks and not to provide any glossaries or cues for the reader beyond the context. Can you talk a little about both the decision to write in Singlish and the response you've gotten to that?
Cheryl: Well, I was very nervous about it throughout because Singlish is–I love Singlish, I have a huge fondness for it. In Singapore, we speak varying degrees of it, we code-switch. So for example, if I'm sitting around with my friends, we'll speak one level of Singlish, if I'm talking to my boss, I'll speak another level of Singlish. I might speak more proper Queen's English or whatever. It depends on the situation you're in. Jazzy is someone who and she does code switch a little bit in the book, too, you can see that. She primarily, especially among her friends would be speaking a very intense Singlish.
As I was writing it, I was very worried about this because I was worried that people would pick this up and go. "What is this? What am I reading? I don't understand any of it." What I found encouraging was that my agent is not Singaporean. She's never been to Singapore. She at the time, I think knew just a few Singaporeans. She said, "I understand this." It's–she's like, she understood. She said, "I understand this, just keep going." The first draft of Sarong Party Girls was really hardcore. I wrote it as I heard it, and I was nervous throughout, so nervous throughout.
I had put footnotes throughout the book explaining everything. There were so many footnotes, it was crazy. She looked at it and she said, "Get rid of all the footnotes, it's stopping people." I said, "How are they going to understand it?" She said, "You'll have to make them understand it." The revisions that we did, a lot of them were about to do with the language and just stripping it down a little bit. There are a lot of Singlish words that I love and not all of them got used because it was the strategy to use a certain set of words. Then, as you repeat them, you're like, "Wait, I saw them in chapter one." I know what it is now. Then after a while, you're like, "Okay, I totally know what that is." Also, it was building the narrative around the words. Even if you don't know what the exact word means, you know what it means because of the narrative that's been built around it. That was a lot of that and we fought really hard to not have a glossary. I'm happy that my publisher understood, and we don't have glossary.
Tony: I'm glad that you don't. My first book of short stories has a glossary. and a friend who was looking at the table of contents goes, "Oh I didn't know you wrote a story called Glossary."
Tony: It feels very strange writing very basic things of life you know well and having to put that word in a glossary in the back. I think the problem with it is once there is a glossary people go to the back to look up the word rather than just staying inside the narrative and staying inside the head of this character. One of the joys of reading Sarong Party Girls is you get to inhabit Jaslyn's world and Jazzy's vision, even when you're appalled by it, you're still like, "Okay, and what happens next?"
Cheryl: [laughs] Yeah, and you know we live in the age of the internet, if there's really a word that you're dying to know what it means, it's so easy to find out. I really was opposed to that and also, I could have written Jazzy in more proper English, but it wouldn't have been as real because she really wouldn't speak like that. It's written in first person. So it was very important for me that she would be read and heard exactly like she would be speaking. And I guess you know I should explain what Singlish is. It's basically English. Most of the words are English, but there are some Malay words thrown in and Chinese words thrown in.
Sometimes if the sentence doesn't seem to sound quite right, it's because maybe the words are English but the sentence structure is Mandarin. So the words are not quite in the right place. I just really wanted to convey that. Also, in recent years, the Singapore government has been–they've had this multimillion-dollar campaign "speak good English campaign" to get people to speak less Singlish. And I've always–I've looked at that and thought, "Well, it's–know you want to present Singapore as this world-class city where everyone speaks proper English, but we can do that but also speak Singlish I think." So this book is really, in some ways, a love letter to Singlish as well.
Tony: Maybe read a little bit of that and then I have some more questions. That's great, isn't?
Cheryl: Okay. I'm just going to read from the first page of Sarong Party Girls to give you a sense of Singlish.
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. After all, we've wasted enough time already and we don't have any more time to waste. We are not young anymore, you know, Fann just turned twenty-seven. My twenty-seventh birthday is two months away and Imo's is not far behind. If we don't get married, engaged or even nail down a boyfriend soon, my God we might as well go ahead and book a room at Singapore Casket because our lives would already be over. In many ways, in Singapore, our kind of age is already considered a bit left on the shelf. Ordinarily, I don't heck care about such things. Hello, Jazzy here knows she's quite power. Usually, unless the guy's blind, or stupid, or some shit, whatever guy I have my eye on I also can get, even at my age. You ask any bookie out there, my odds are damn good. But it's true that Singaporean men are a bit fussy, especially when it comes to older girls. But luckily for us, we still have one big hope: ang moh guys, that's what we need to be thinking about. These white guys they really catch no ball about Asian ages. Us twenty-something-year-old Asian girls, if you wear a tight, tight dress or short, short skirt these ang mohs will still steam over you. Some of them even go for the really old ones, thirty-year-old women also have chance.
Tony: I'm actually really glad, too, that you mentioned Jane Austen. You mentioned Emma, although I was actually thinking a lot of Pride and Prejudice. I just wanted to read a little section from Charlotte Lucas, talking to Elizabeth Bennet and she says,
Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object. It was the only honorable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness must be the pleasantest preservative from what. This preservative she'd now obtained at the age of twenty-seven without having ever been handsome. She felt all the good luck of it. I am not romantic, you know, I never was. I asked only a comfortable home and considering Mr. Collins’ character, connections and situation life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.
So I see this connecting wonderfully with several of the characters include Jazzy's friend with, this is partly with whom, Jazzy is avoiding. She wants a better marriage than just the preservative of want. One of the things I like about the novel, I think you're doing something subversive here, writing a Jane Austen novel in Singlish in contemporary Singapore. Can you talk a little bit about the having grown up with the English novel as what you're taught as the model to hold up to in terms of how we see the world and the ways in which you're responding to that literature legacy, but also colonial legacy because you and I both went through schools where British literature was presented as the pinnacle of literature.
Cheryl: Yes, it's true. I grew up reading mostly British literature. That's what we studied in school, Jane Austen, Chaucer. If you want to talk about satire, one of the earliest examples of social satire that I really loved was Sheridan, School for Scandal. I remember I loved that so much. In some ways as I was writing Sarong Party Girls, I was like, "These characters, it's like there's kind of spiraling out of control." The foppishness of the situation and the people sometimes it reminded me of that as well. Those were really the books that I grew up reading and really understanding this old British society. I'm not saying I buy into it and Jazzy certainly doesn't really buy into it. Just understanding that sometimes the structure of a society that you're in, even if you didn't choose it, and then how do you navigate that? I guess that's the part where it's a modern thing aboard, Jazzy looks at this. She's a very practical person. She looks at this landscape and she goes, "How am I gonna win?" She comes up with this ticket that she thinks is going to help her win at marriage.
Tony: The word win, Jazzy's uses a lot about how–
Cheryl: And it's a very Singaporean thing. One of the defining national characteristic of many Singaporeans and our prime minister, our government has talked about this, is that we're katsu. The term means afraid to lose. You're so afraid to lose that you will do everything you can to win. Whether that means you're going to make your kids study like, Chinese proverbs, for like six hours a day or like whatever. You're gonna do it because you want to win. Jazzy is very much that way. She really wants to win. She really wants to win at this marriage thing. She's come up with a strategy on how to do it.
Tony: One of the things you mentioned that your journalism led you to explore when you were back visiting Singapore is the dark underbelly of the nightlife. We really see this in the novel when Jazzy goes to one of the KTV lounges. Can you read the section of the book that has that event?
Cheryl: KTV lounges in Singapore are very prevalent, you'll see them all over the place. They're mostly for men. There are some that are family-friendly now, but they're mostly for men. It's a part of doing business for many men in Singapore, to take people when clients are visiting or just each other, to take your clients out to KTV lounges and basically spend a lot of money.
You go there, you basically pick girls. They come and they pour you drinks and they sit next to you and they're your girlfriend for the night and if you want more there's more blah, blah, blah. I have friends who are my age who have to do this for work and have to bring people out. I was always very troubled by this for several reasons. First of all, if you're a female working with these guys, you can't go to KTV lounges with them. You're missing out on this whole level of socializing on a corporate level, that only men can do.
On the other level, you don't want to be there. It's disgusting from everything I've heard. Just the idea of men having to do this as part of their job, and the wives having to look away, that really troubled me. I still remember one of my friends told me he said, "I'm faithful to my wife, I love her so much. I only do Japanese baths when I go to these KTV lounges." I'm like, "Okay, well, what's that?" He said, "Well, they strip you and they bathe you and they give you a happy time. But it's not sex. I'm not cheating on my wife." And I'm like, "It pretty much sounds like cheating to me." [laughs]
So the more of these stories I heard, the more I started to get disillusioned with how the patriarchy was manifesting itself even in modern Singapore. I'm not saying all guys do this, but I'm saying that I knew enough of them and enough of their wives who had to turn away from it, that it made me a little queasy. So I really wanted to bring that into the book and it was actually a natural thing to bring into the book.
So this is a chapter where Jazzy is brought into a KTV lounge situation because one of her friends invites her and it's her first time there and she realizes how things actually go down.
After Kin Meng settled in next to me, the Mamasan got serious. "Tonight, do you want butterfly or by the hour?" she asked. Kin Meng looked at his watch, it was 9 PM. "Not much time left in the early shift," he said. "We'll do the hourly girls. Butterfly, wasting time only." Butterfly? Kin Meng could see from my face that Jazzy here catch no-ball. So he came closer and whispered, "Butterfly girls fly from one room to the other. These girls split one hour among four rooms so you only get each one for 15 minutes. It's cheaper, yes, but not so worth it right now. The late shift is starting soon. The girls, the drinks, everything gets much more expensive then. Better to get it all fun and quickly."
"Mr. T, the girls, the usual kind?" Mamasan asked. Kin Meng looked around at the guys. He seemed to be mentally calculating something. "Tonight we have a range of taste. Just bring a variety so people can pick," he said. "You know what kind I like but also throw in one with big breasts, a tall one with very nice legs. Hey, Sam these days what are you in the mood for?" "Hmm," Sam said. "You got new China girls?" Mamasan nodded. "Okay, then China la," Sam said. "Madam!" he shouted after the Mamasan as she started to leave the room. "Very young ones, okay?"
Mamasan disappeared, returning a few minutes later with ten girls. All of them looking cheerful and smiling. All of them wearing sexy, shiny dresses. Mamasan was good la. The group had a few girls fitting each of Kin Meng’s descriptions, plus the young China girls Sam ordered were wearing dark red lipstick and tight mini cheongsams, with big slits down each side. "I say!" Sam said quite loudly, jumping up so he could inspect them closely as if he'd never seen women in his life before.
Nigel got the big boobs one, George picked one with such long legs, she looked like a runway model, and Kin Meng chose a Korean-ish girl with the same look as the girls he had showed me in his phone. Sam was taking quite long to pick from the three China girls. "How?" he said turning to look at Kin Meng. "Boss cannot take it la. All of them also make me steam. Can I have two?" "Don't even think about it," Kin Meng said. "As if you can handle more than one. Hurry up, you're holding everyone up." Sam just did an eeny, meeny, miny, moe and ended up with the shortest, smallest one. So small in fact that she looked like she was just about fourteen. The leftover girls quietly left. Once the girls sat down next to their guys, they started mixing drinks. "Come, come," Big Boobs said. "Let's bottoms up.”
So that's the beginning of the KTV lounge scene.
Tony: I think what we see in this moment is Jazzy's turn to understand herself a little better and see how she is in her own way being treated badly as an object of sexual desire by the men.
Cheryl: True. She realizes at that point how, even her friends, in certain social situations, see women as just property to be picked like you're getting takeout food at the food court. What do you want to eat today? Do you want to eat Mexican food or do you want to eat Chinese food? What do you feel in the mood for? Her stomach starts to turn at this point. That chapter was actually really hard for me to write and perhaps hard to read as well, but it was very well researched because I didn't want to get anything wrong. I've never been in a KTV lounge not because I didn't want to, I begged my friends to take me and none of them would take me.
Actually it's hard for me to go on my own because the Mamasan will be like, "What are you doing here?" None of my friends would take me but they said, "Look, you can ask us any questions you want." I interviewed my friends, interrogated them, and I got all their stories. The stories in that KTV lounge chapter are actually based on my unnamed male friends [chuckles] who provided me with all this information. It was actually very, very well researched because I didn't want to get anything wrong.
Tony: This is a question that always comes up with literature of the post-colonial world, I think, in writing for an American audience. What is your sense of audience? Your first publisher is American, case of both books, and how do you see your role here as a translator, presenter, or–
Cheryl: Writer in exile.
Tony: Writer in exile.
Cheryl: It's funny because I live in New York, I used to live in Brooklyn. I've had some friends asked me, "Why don't you write a Brooklyn novel? Doesn't everyone do that?"
Tony: Brooklyn party girls.
Cheryl: Exactly. For me, the more important story for me to tell is the story of my country. I'm still Singaporean. My friends in Singapore, some of them say that I became more Singaporean after I left. I love the country so much. I love explaining the country to people because it's such a small place and it's so weird. It's really wealthy, but it's also really weird. Some people have called it North Korea lite. There are so many rules. People come to me with strange questions, like, "I just went to Singapore, why is it that all the trees are perfectly spaced apart?" That's actually true because everything is so regulated and so–everything is just so perfect all the time.
But at the same time, it's a very complex place. I keep trying to convey that. Singapore, to me, has endless stories that I want to tell. I feel like I could spend the next 30 years writing about Singapore and I would be so happy. That's been my main mission when you asked me why I write. It's really trying to explain this place that I have this complex relationship. I love it, but I don't live there, but I go back all the time. I think about it all the time. It's really trying to explain this place and bring it to life to the rest of the world in a way that I see it.
Tony: Great. Which brings me to segue into not too, I hope not too intrusive a question, but what is it you're working on now?
Cheryl: I'm working on my next novel. It's also set in Singapore, though in a very different part of Singapore. There are no Sarong Party Girls in it. There is a little bit of Singlish in it, but it's set in a very different social setting. The people in it are speaking more proper English than the Singlish Jazzy is speaking. I'm excited about it. I can't wait to share, and we'll see what happens.
Tony: Great. Well, I can't wait to read what you're writing next. Thank you, Cheryl. It's a bold and funny and beautifully written book. I hope our audience will go out and read it.
Cheryl: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.
Announcer: Thank you for listening. Check out more of our podcast episodes complete with show notes that have lots of extra information at Lesley.edu/podcast. Next week, we’re speaking with Michelle Knudsen, author of the creepy, funny, Evil Librarian series. Here’s a clip from our interview.
Michelle Knudsen: I wanna touch my book every day. In the initial stages, you know that could be like, just jotting down some notes. Like, anything that's putting me in touch with the story, even if it's notes on my phone like, while I'm on the subway. Just so my brain is engaged with it and I can at least believe that my subconscious is working on it even if I'm not.