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July 29, 2016

Book Notes - Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan "Sarong Party Girls"

Sarong Party Girls

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Distinctively written in "Singlish," Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan's dark and funny novel Sarong Party Girls captures modern Singapore from a young woman's perspective.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A rowdy tale, memorable language, and a very distinctive protagonist."

In her own words, here is Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Sarong Party Girls:

Music was very much threaded through the canvas of my novel Sarong Party Girls -- quite organically, as this is a tale about a young woman in Singapore who finds herself in bars, clubs and karaoke TV lounges in her quest to find an expat husband. This satirical novel, which finds Jazzy, the brassy heroine, on a journey through Singapore's nightlife, colorful wet markets and gleaming office settings, is one that shows a young woman caught between a modern Asian society and old-world traditions.

Much like Jane Austen's heroines, Jazzy wants her friends and herself to make good marriages in order to achieve a certain social standing in life -- and their plan to go about it by marrying an expat Caucasian man acutely clashes with societal pressures and expectations to enter into a conventional marriage with a Singaporean man. Jazzy is a strident feminist in a way -- she is drawn to the world of expats as she is hoping to escape what she sees as a continuing patriarchal social structure beneath the sparkling veneer of modern Singapore. Even so, she still feels the pull of her parents' old ways and values.

So naturally, two rather disparate threads -- nostalgic Singaporean tunes as well as contemporary music that the upper strata of Singapore club-goers might enjoy -- inspired bits of this novel:

"Di Tanjong Katong"

"Di Tanjong Katong" is a folksy Malay-Singaporean song that's often sung around Singapore's National Day -- August 9, our independence day. I love this song because it's a nostalgic tune that references Tanjong Katong, one of my favorite Singaporean neighborhoods. Tanjong Katong is not too far from the sea and its narrow lanes lined with squat pre-war shophouses still give the neighborhood a deliciously sleepy, old-world feel even today. And the melody and lyrics of the song seem to embody that -- very much rooting it in the old Singapore setting that Jazzy finds herself mired in and drawn to while also simultaneously seeking to reject it.

The song comprises pantuns -- traditional Malay oral literature verses -- set to music, as explained by Malay-Singaporean poet Alfian Sa'at.

His translation of the first verse here:

Di Tanjong Katong, airnya biru,
Di situ tempatnya dara jelita;
Duduk sekampung, lagikan rindu,
Kononlah pula nun jauh di mata.

In English:

At Tanjong Katong, the waters are blue,
That is the place to find pretty maidens;
We live in the same village, yet I pine for you,
What more if you're beyond my eyes' reach.

"Productivity Song"

Singapore's history is littered with well-meaning government campaigns -- from the Courtesy campaign with its chirpy anthem that encouraged everyone to remember that "Courtesy is for free" to ones that nudged Singaporeans to "Eat Frozen Pork" or sterilize their pets. One of my favorite government campaign songs, however, comes from the productivity campaign in the 1980s, when a chipper mascot named Teamy the Bee was introduced and foisted on schoolchildren and the general citizenry. The productivity song we were all taught in schools at the time went something like this:

Good, better, best
Never let it rest
‘Til the good is better
And the better best!

These lyrics very much reflect the intrinsic spirit of Jazzy, who is a determined young woman who plays to win. From the first chapter of the novel,  in which she coolly lays out her strategy for finding that expat husband, this drive and determination to succeed is ever-apparent and this song might well have been one to fuel her on her journey.

"One Small Umbrella"
(Note: This is a rather modern, jazzed up version of this song.)

This romantic old Hokkien love song about a couple sharing a small umbrella in a rainstorm is a popular one in some clubs and karaoke settings in Singapore. It makes an appearance in Sarong Party Girls when Jazzy decides to check out a Chinese nightclub. Jazzy, though disdainful at the time of many things Chinese, finds herself momentarily moved by it. I love the nostalgic melody of the song and its simple sweet lyrics -- and it's a song that's very much entrenched in that traditional Singaporean culture that Jazzy wants to reject. (It is, for example, a song that's often popular with the Ah Bengs -- slightly out-of-step and uncouth Chinese-Singaporean guys -- whom Jazzy abhors.)

The first verse:

Na Neng Lang
Two of us

Jhue Din Ghia Tio Ji Ki Sio Hor Sua
Together holding a small umbrella

Hor Lu Tua
Rain is getting heavier

Gua Lai Jiao Ko Li, Li Lai Jioa Ko Gua
I will take care of you, and you will take care of me

(Translation of lyrics above from

"I Gotta Feeling" by The Black-Eyed Peas

This Black-Eyed Peas song is tremendously popular in Singaporean bars and clubs and it's one that you may hear multiple times in just one night out. When this novel was percolating in my head, I visited several nightclubs and bars in Singapore to gather scene and color and this song was everywhere. As I was writing the novel -- especially the evening scenes -- the first few lines of this song often popped into my head as they seemed like exactly the kind of lyrics that would pump Jazzy up before she left home for a big night out: "I gotta feeling that tonight's gonna be a good night …"

"Express Yourself" by Madonna

I've always loved this catchy song for its direct and rather bossy advice for women regarding love and relationships. I can almost hear Jazzy's voice and spirit in each line as the song aims to set down rules for what women should and shouldn't settle for, much in the same way that Jazzy lectures her own girlfriends. "Don't go for second best, baby" or "You don't need diamond rings or eighteen karat gold / Fancy cars that go very fast you know they never last no, no / What you need is a big strong hand to / Lift you to your higher ground." It's probably my favorite Madonna song.

"Lo Stadio" by Tiziano Ferro

Sometime during the revisions process of this novel, I spent two months writing and learning Italian in Sardinia, Italy. It was the summer of 2015 and "Lo Stadio" was one of the songs of the summer -- it was inescapable on every radio station. The better my Italian got the more I understood the lyrics of this song, and it struck me as very Jazzy in its ambitions and its heart-on-one's-sleeve desires -- striving to change the world and be a "voice, a choir that smashes the skies," for example. On the surface, Jazzy's desire to marry an expat man may seem superficial and materialistic but she is a feminist at heart and she wants to change the world -- or at least her world -- by marrying differently than her parents did. And she's at a crucial moment in her life when she believes this has to happen rather urgently. This lyric is especially poignant for me in light of that and I often thought of Jazzy whenever I heard it:

Il destino mi osserva stavolta
no non posso fermarmi

Destiny is watching me this time
No, I can't stop

"In The Upper Room: Dance IX" by Philip Glass

Despite my listing of disparate songs above, when it came to actually listening to music while writing Sarong Party Girls, there was always only one -- this eight-minute piece by Philip Glass. In the almost four years I spent working on this novel, I listened to this song on an endless loop whenever I wrote. I had seen the Twyla Tharp dance choreographed to Glass's In the Upper Room pieces some years back and the experience blew me away. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat at New York City Center, my heart a jackhammer, as the fluid movements unfolded in front of me -- writing and life should be that graceful and easy, I thought. This song has everything a writer needs to get through a blank screen -- lots of energy-packed crescendoes and forward-movements that propelled me through writing some key scenes, as well as sweet, reflective moments. Most important, it did not have lyrics to distract me from the words at my fingers.

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan and Sarong Party Girls links:

the author's website

Kirkus review

Dallas Morning News profile of the author
Deborah Kalb interview with the author
Slate profile of the author
South China Morning Post profile of the author
The Sun interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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