The *Pride and Prejudice* of Singapore

The book is Crazy Rich Asians, and the author is Kevin Kwan, who grew up in Singapore and also Texas.  It is a fun and popular “beach read” in its own right, but also more subtle and sociologically intriguing if you know a bit about Singapore.  I found it difficult to put down and it even made me laugh in a few places, which few novels do.  By the way, the female protagonist is an economics professor at NYU.

Here is one excerpt:

“Every time any Asian guy so much as looks in your direction, you give them the famous Rachel Chu Asian freeze-out and they wither away before you give them a chance…Honestly you are the most self-loathing Asian I have ever met.”

[the protagonist, Rachel] “What do you mean? I’m not self-loathing at all.  How about you?  You’re the one who married the white guy.”

“Mark’s not white, he’s Jewish — that’s basically Asian!  At least I dated a lot of Asian guys in my time.”

Singapore is the only place I know where you can meet someone who has an economics degree from Stanford, and have her tell you that she has a liberal arts background.

Anyway, I recommend this book to about one-quarter of you.

Yesterday I was visiting Kinokuniya, the largest bookstore in Singapore.  I asked the literature specialist which Singaporean novels I should buy.  Without irony he responded “I don’t know, for literature we are a small provincial backwater.”  But I hope that is wrong.  And after all, he didn’t mention Crazy Rich Asians to me.

But I have a question for you, dear readers — which are the Singaporean literary works to buy, read, and perhaps reread?  Amanda Lee Koe?  How about Alfian Sa’at?  Oddly enough, or perhaps appropriately enough, he published a famous poem “Singapore You Are Not My Country,” well-written, far too negative in my view but at least he mentioned easy access to all the MRT stops and also seems to understand the difference between gnp and gdp.

Please leave your Singaporean literature recommendations in the comments.


Kinokuniya is great, but there is little literary culture in Singapore or habit of reading. Sadly, its a place which is happy to get entertainment from Marvel superhero movies and not much more. Its hard to find any remotely independent or art house films screening, whether English or Chinese language.

+1 that seems to be par for the course in SE Asia, they don't read here. In the Philippines though they do have great used bookstores, with copies of books from US libraries sold by the pound and resold here, so you can get a cool obscure topic hardcover, complete with crossed-out library from some obscure town in the USA, for about a $1 or so.

I doubt here that a significant minority of the young people even know who Hitler or Stalin were, and what WWII was (or possibly even if it ever happened). Holocaust denial but from ignorance not stupidity.

How do those books find their way to Philippines? Who brings them in? From whom the bookstores get them?
"I doubt here that a significant minority of the young people even know who Hitler or Stalin were".
Then, besides the reading issue, they have a attendance/quality schooling issue.

@Thiago Ribeiro - good question. It turns out having friends at the local Customs office is crucial to making a profit importing stuff into the Philippines. If you piss them off (read: don't bribe them correctly is the usual answer) they can slap a duty tax on your goods and you'll not make a profit. As for who the supplier is: there must be some recycler in the USA, for books I don't know, for clothes probably the "Good Will" people very common in the USA that collect used clothing 'for the poor'.

Thank you very much, I had no idea.

I was cleaning up at a big friends of the public library sale of donated books. Huge piles of left over books were tossed in large crates. Something like 10'x10'x6'. I heard they were going to the Philippines.

I never heard of this Philippines connection. Thank you for the information.

What rubbish. We have very high standard schools here, and modern history is taught in secondary schools, which is itself compulsory.

Kinokuniya is great, but it's a Japanese chain. What would it say about the New York literary market if everyone's favorite New York bookstore were the Kinokuniya there? (Which I adore, but not everyone has taken lots of Japanese.)

The Kinokuniya in Singapore caters to the local market. So while it does carry some Japanese books, most of its offerings are in English. It is very much a bell weather of the English side of the local scene. There used to be Borders too, but it closed around the time the US based branches closed, though apparently for different troubles. The Chinese scene is more spread out between a number of different stores. But bookstores don't tell a complete picture--many readers here would be quite ready to get our fixes straight from Amazon (or its Chinese equivalents).

Speculatively, one factor that's made it harder for a local scene to develop would be this: being a place that is highly connected to the rest of the world, consumers of literary productions in Singapore have pretty much the whole world to shop from. And wide exposure to both Western culture (for the English speaking), or Chinese culture (for the Chinese speaking) meant that we could just as well get our books, TV, movies, etc., from the US, Britain, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Japan and Korea. This meant there is less of an felt need to be especially loyal to the local writers and producers.

No comments, no books to read? I have a wild Singapore story showing it's not all 'law and order' but this being a small world you could Google it and find out who my friend was, and thus find out who I really am by asking him. No, my real name is not Ray Lopez, which is a chess opening.

Ruy Lopez is a chess opening, Ray Lopez isn't (so far as I know). PS my name very much is Jaunty Rockefeller.

With good intentions I've often browsed the local fiction section of Singapore book stores, but the contemporary stuff seems to be trying too hard to be hip and outrageous, and the historical stuff from memory is largely expats trying their hand at sweeping colonial sagas, or sentimental family histories of Straits and Peranakan Chinese in a watered down White Swans genre.

Ray, why did you let your buddy get so out of control?

That made me guffaw.

While on a business trip to Singapore, I asked my Singaporean colleague, what is there interesting to do in Singapore. He thought about it for a second and said "Not much"

Singaporeans have no inner life.

There's plenty interesting to do, as long as you find food interesting.

Note that is a comment from a different Tyler, not from me. There is plenty interesting to do in Singapore.

Tyler, maybe I am a bit dense, but why did you recommend that book to a quarter of your readers?

The Singapore Grip - JG Farrell. From his Empire trilogy.

This one comes to mind immediately. Highly recommended. It is about Singapore before it becomes a nation state
(specifically before the Japanese invasion) but a good backdrop to the history - international trading hub.

You know there is a sequel to CRA?

+ 1, although the tone of dry humor throughout is overdone and lessens the book's impact, and seemed like it was unintentional on Farrell's part.

Saint Jack - Paul Theroux. Can't speak for the Bogdonavich film, which I've never seen it it's entirety - though maybe it could be described as a Singapore version of Louis Malle's "Atlantic City"?


Shehan Karunatilaka lives in Singapore.

One poll found that Singaporeans read 45 books per year, vs. 60 in Vietnam and two in Thailand.

I'm put off this book as it appears to use the word "Asian" as if they're all somehow alike. Not everyone from Sapporo to Samsun has the same mentality and culture.

On a side note I've met many people, mostly from the USA who would deem an ethnic Korean "Asian" but would never refer to an Indian as Asian. Why is this?

For the same reasons that people from the UK automatically assume someone of subcontinent descent when you say "Asian." It's largely availability bias.

it is because of political correctness. We used to call koreans/chinese/japanese : "orientals"....then we were told that was racist and to stop doing we did...we were told "asian" is what we had to call we did.

We always called Indians, Indian....political correctness social justice warrioirs never told us we were racist for using that word so we kept using it.

What is wrong with saying Singaporean?

Because most Koreans aren't Singaporean.

Shoot, I don't even know one Korean Singaporean. I mean why don't we just call each person by their country demonym, unless they want to lump together and say Asian. Is that so hard?

I think it comes from American culture and practice, which I imagine lots of Singaporeans have exposure to as international students in the US and from consuming American media. In the US, Asian is the primary designation used to identify, refer to, speak about, etc. those people

By contrast, in places like Japan and Korea that are relatively less plugged in to the US and where the people are much worse at English, Aisan isn't a term they identify with or refer to themselves as.

I believe it's because Indians are Caucasian [].

I get your point. I'm Angolan but most of the time, outside of Africa, people just call me "African". Like the Indian case you point out, I see the same with Northern Africans, actually their region is (smartly) grouped with Mid-East under MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and you don't see Egyptians or Algerians being called Africans in Europe or USA as often as you would see a Nigerian or Togolese...

Tyler, I am insanely jealous of how much time you have to read.

a good (?) economics university professor has time to read books? I seriously doubt it...

It is unheard of. The Koch Brothers must be behind it, of course.

Not to be a racist or what have you, but super-rigid cultures do not have a great track record when it comes to producing quality literature, or any art for that matter. I'm a wee bit unsurprised that Singapore's best books are about pretentous women arguing over the wealth and skin color of their boyfriends.

It's far from Singapore's best book. It's sensational airport fiction and I'm surprised Tyler didn't notice that in the process of, you know, reading it.

It doesn't exactly bring home the bacon either.

I really enjoyed A Candle or the Sun.

+1 for A Candle or the Sun.

Well, horribly out of date are certain short stories of Somerset Maugham, which drag in the Raffles Hotel (still there), which he used to frequent along with Hemingway, hardly proper Singapore literature.

However, when I am not playing at being a semi-Southern Dad, I like to hang out (at least I did so one time) in the Long Bar of the Raffles and eat the raw peanuts they serve there that people throw the shells on the floor of. However, I hate to report that the Singapore slings they serve there these days resemble the pink and sweet types one finds in most places rather than the yellow and sour and bracing ones that were first served there when Maugham and Hemingway would have had them, in the spot in which the drink was invented.

How about Singaporean movies? Singapore doesn't seem to match up to Hong Kong (John Woo and Wong Kar-wai).

the old wave of pre-1970s Singapore cinema is largely accepted to be part of Malaysia's cultural heritage rather than Singapore's, even if those films were produced and screened in Singapore back then

a little-appreciated historical element is that the PAP rode to power in 1959 on a strong mandate to clamp down on "yellow culture" that was perceived to be a British import of a alien immorality upon local youth, particularly girls. Local desires to clamp down on jukeboxes and pop music ran into the fact that the colonial elite enjoyed these things; this elite also did not see much of a problem with local girls sleeping with colonial officers or soldiers. British muttering about freedom of choice did not seem very convincing when they were simultaneously shooting communists and delaying independence. Tenuous alliances with anticolonial radical youths rapidly broke down after independence, of course. Riots against conscription and education reform stop being appealing when you are in supreme government rather than colonial subordination.

In Hong Kong the elite got its way; in Singapore, the triumphant postcolonial state thoroughly defeated counterculture, with campus politics finally utterly crushed in 1975 with the University of Singapore Act 1975. Singapore and Malaysia probably stand alone amongst Westernized nations without a generation of postwar-baby-boom elites who claim counterculture and consumer culture as their own heritage. John Woo could build a 1970s career on pulpy kung-fu drama; in Singapore the last locally-produced kung-fu film of that era (Ring of Fury, in 1973) was banned and largely forgotten. Regardless, the impact is that until the Goh-era liberalization of the 1990s, Singapore cinema was largely extirpated, even past the point where its original political mandate had evaporated from popular memory.

"Mark’s not white, he’s Jewish"

The Flight from White is one of the big stories of the 21st Century.

It's not politically correct to say "Aryan" in the 21st century, which is what people often seem to have in mind.

I think it's been a long time coming. My baby daughter is half white and half Asian. My wife and I plan to never refer to her as white. Being white isn't going to get her anything, so why have her adopt that identity? We hope she becomes part of the new overclass with this strategy.

Sound plan as long as she doesn't try to get into Harvard.

Oh, we'll be checking the Native American box on that one.

I wonder what my late grand father would say about the world taking shape today... he who lived under colonialists and told me once "I was used to hate whites because they hated us, but deep inside I wanted to be white because of their privileges".

When I think about my grand father I think about his religious appreciation of grilled quail and that sentence he told me in 2001.

I wanted to be white because of their privileges

"Privilege" is what happens when you're smart and believe in yourself.

It also helps to have a lot of you, because after a point no amount of brains and self-confidence can make up for your lack of numbers, as the Alawites, the Rum and the Afrikaaners are finding out,

I don't know as much about Singaporean fiction / poetry as I do poetry, but here's what comes to mind.

Novels: Tan Hwee Hwee (Foreign Bodies, Mammon Inc), Catherine Lim (various novels, short stories, poetry, political commentary), Wena Poon, Dave Chua. (And probably quite a few others that I'm either not familiar with or that don't immediately come to mind.)

Poetry: Arthur Yap, Wong May (, Alvin Pang, Aaron Maniam, Toh Hsien Min, Jee Leong Koh, Alfain Sa'at (already mentioned here, but why not again), Lee Tzu Pheng.

The theater scene has been experiencing a renaissance of sorts lately as well: see, e.g., companies like The Necessary Stage and Teater Ekamatra, and playwrights like Cheong Tze Chien.

Also see sites like the SG writers' festival for more names (

Oh and Cyril Wong for poetry! (e.g.

A quarter of us read?

"Mark’s not white, he’s Jewish — that’s basically Asian!" Can anyone explain this sentence to me? Is it because they are both brainiacs/nerds or something like that on average?

Can't say for sure, but the Korean fascination with the Talmud might be illuminating.

Maybe a common cultural value of academic achievement.

It's supposed to be a joke, obviously. If I had to guess, it's the sort of thing the author's Jewish friends would tell him in jest while commiserating over their shared love of Chinese food or something.

Israel is in Asia, weirdly enough.

There's a shared stereotype among secular Jews and Chinese (maybe Asians more broadly) that they are similar smart/learned/not-socially-fucked-up cultures. It's why you see so many Jewish/Chinese marriages in the US, like Jed Rubenfield and Amy Chua.

I am a white Gentile from the western U.S. who went to a high-end Ivy League school for undergrad. Never before, nor since, in my life, have I been around so many Jews and East Asians all the time.

Leslie Charteris, the author who gave us The Saint and Simon Templar, was born in Singapore. His house still exists in the Newton area as a kindergarten.

He tried to settle in the U.S. but ran into the odious Chinese Exclusion Act.

I hadn't known about Leslie Charteris; interesting background. According to the wikipedia article, he was eventually able to become a permanent resident of the US, but it took a special act of Congress.

Hwee Hwee Tan's books - Foreign Bodies and Mammon Inc - are a few years old now, but still very true.

For more recent stuff, go to Books Actually in Tiong Bahru. Very different to Kinokuniya...

Books Actually has me hooked. They threw in a free novella each time I went, one time of which was during a reading by a series of local writers. Not exactly highbrow, but enjoyable and authentic and that's not always easy to get without pretension.

Books Actually is fantastic for local work. I'm surprised no one's yet mentioned Eleanor Wong, whose Invitation to Treat trilogy is fantastic. I second Hwee Hwee Tan's Mammon Inc and anything by Cyril Wong or Jerrold Yam.

Really did not like that book. It's melodramatic and condescending.

The Battered Butterfly, by Jake Jacobs, although it isn't as much about Singapore as about Manilla, however the author is from Singapore, if that counts.

In general, go to Books Actually in Tiong Bahru, not Kinokuniya. They also run a publishing business (Math Paper Press) that specializes in local writers. Their shop is littered with those works. They'll often throw in an extra novel with your purchase too.

In particular (though not by Math Paper Press) Amanda Lee Koe's "Ministry of Moral Panic" is very much worth a read. Here's a bit from one of her interviews:

Asia Literary Review: The Straits Times in a review of Ministry of Moral Panic says, ‘Readers expecting another local writer waxing lyrical about the everyday intricacies of HDB life will be pleasantly disappointed…’ How do you feel this anthology subverts expectations of what a traditional Singaporean short story should be?

ALK: One of my senses is that I’m not sure how old and wide a canon has to be before we get to definitive parameters of what a “traditional Singaporean short story” is. That said, I think it is fair enough to say that there has been a social realist slant to Singaporean writing that is specific to themes of domestic drudgery, coming-of-age-ness, the returning Singaporean, familial tension, the burden of responsibility as opposed to the pursuit of freedom – often set in a public housing block. This has been done to sharp perfection by forerunners like Dave Chua and Alfian Sa’at, but what bothered me was that through conversations with younger writers and through editing their work, there seemed to be some tacit pervading “understanding” that what made a story “Singaporean” was that you stuck with these themes, wrote in a HDB void deck somewhere, and sometimes when this was not well done, I thought that this could – instead of the ethos of social realism which was to draw attention to the everyday conditions of the disempowered as class critique – instead be patronizing, even if one were to be perfectly sincere in one’s writing thereof.

But I think that at the same time, right about now, there is a growing number of young Singaporean writers working in different genres who are very aware of and interested in deviating from the seemingly “traditional” – across style, content and form: I think Daryl Yam and Ann Ang are doing very good work in fiction, that Joshua Ip and Daryl WJ Lim write truly innovative poetry, and that Joel Tan (also a playwright in his own right), Tjoa Shze Hui and Brandon Chew are sophisticated non-fiction essayists.

For me, I think that with my work, it felt pertinent on the macro level to attempt to open up ideas of what Singaporean literature could be, but on the micro level, these stories are just what felt natural to me; these are undercurrents I feel in my bones, characters I’m interested in, and forms I am investigating.

An aside on form – I do think that in Singaporean fiction, straight-up narrative has been the categorical norm. There has been much more formal innovation in poetry but not nearly so much in fiction. I’m drawn to form, not as a highfalutin practice, but just as different ways you as the writer can interact with the reader and make his/her brain tick, off the page, across space and time.

Here in Kenya the culture of reading books is diminishing people are too much in the internet to the point that even students do their research using the internet. Even if these books find their way to bookstores in Kenya I doubt a few will read them, so sad.

Cowen's opinions overestimate the quality of Singapore relative to what I think it is.

Cowen is mood affiliating with emotionless people.

American who lived and worked in Singapore from '11 to '13. The most interesting piece of fiction I read (and saw performed) was local playwright Tan Tarn How's Fear of Writing (2011), about how censorship impacted him personally. It was good enough that I picked up his book of six earlier plays (representing roughly 1993-2002, I think) which was much more of a mixed bag.

This was a recent hit, got famous because the National Arts Council withdrew funding for it.

Good to see you in Singapore. Amanda lee koe's ministry of moral panic is definitely worth your time. You might enjoy Jean Tay's Boom, which is a play set against a property market boom. I particularly enjoy Joshua Ip's poetry

Surprised nobody has mentioned Catherine Lim. Her writings are quintessentially Singaporean. She hasn't produced any new notable literature in recent times, but her books from years yore are excellent and my childhood fodder.

Try the poetry of Edwin Thumboo, professor (emeritus?) of English at NUS. He wrote the subversive poem inscribed at the base of the Merlion statues, "Ulysses at the Merlion," which the Singapore authorities evidently didn't understand before they decided to make the plaque.

How about Kirstin Chen's Soy Sauce for Beginners:

Tyler, here's a recommendation from a Singaporean friend with long experience in international trade policy:

"George Yeo on Bonsai, Banyan and the Tao" edited by Asad-nl Lqbal Latiff and Lee Huay Ling - - she adds, "George Yeo was our former Minister for Foreign Affairs and prior to that Minister for Trade and Industry. He lost in the last General Election. This book is an interesting read."

Amazon link here:

James Clavell doesn't count, does he? Everything I know about Singapore I learned from Marginal Revolution and King Rat.

A lot of people have already mentioned Catherine Lim, in terms of Singapore literature I don't think anyone else comes close.

A bit old, but "Saint Jack" by Paul Theroux is maybe the best portrayal of Singapore in the 1970s.

Kevin Kwan's sequel "China Rich Girlfriend" just came out, frankly though it never captures the mood of "Crazy Rich Asians".

You mentioned Joe Studwell's "How Asia Works before", have you read his "Asian Godfathers"? Nonfiction, but it makes a great counterpart to Kevin Kwan's books.

Neil J. Humphrey was an Australian who wrote several travelogues while he lived in Singapore. A bit cheesy, but they were very popular in Singapore when they came out:

Correction, Neil Humphrey is British. Sorry about that.

Tyler (and Tyler), you might be interested in the anthology "Starry Island", which includes several of the writers you and others mentioned:

Check out, she grew up in Singapore as a child of a diplomat. The book covers a family's struggle to cope with the rapid change in culture over the 70s to 90s with Singapore as a bridge between the east and west.

Comments for this post are closed