What Can We Learn From the Sarong Party Girl?

A deconstruction of the sub culture of Asian women on a mission to snag a white husband. 
Saturday 25 August 2018
On the lookout for the perfect white husband. Photo: Everett Collection

You’ve probably seen a provocatively dressed Asian woman strutting down the street protectively clawing at her partner’s taut arm to the point of cutting off circulation of said appendage.

You may even think it’s semi-cute as they share a bag of keropok but then you notice something – the man is white.

The instant judgement one makes is to assume that this woman is a Sarong Party Girl (SPG).

This knee-jerk condemnation also takes an indirect hit at what the locals perceive as shades of superiority or wealth – an indelible colonial stain left behind from decades of colonial rule.

READ: Why Race is Such an Ingrained Part of Southeast Asian Culture

The intriguing subculture of Sarong Party Girls tells us something about gender and racial politics but can you blame a woman for desiring this presumed wealth and influence and her need to seal this status through a transaction, ahem, I mean marriage?

After all, not everyone is lucky enough to fall in love for love.

Before we form any more opinions, let us revisit the backstory of the SPG.

Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Singapore was ruled by the British. The British forces personnel generally socialised among themselves, according to their military ranks and status. Occasionally, invites were extended to special local ‘guests’ who were the crème de la crème of Asian women.

These women would arrive at the social functions donning traditional wear which included the sarong. After several soirees, the term ‘sarong party’ acquired a life of its own, and along with that, white male fetishism – after all it takes two to tango.

Soon, many were catching ‘yellow fever’ and while it isn’t just a disease you get from mosquitoes, this fascination with oriental skin was spreading like a rampant malady.

The SPG phenomenon has gone on to inspire films such as The World of Suzy Wong (1960), a series of satirical books by Jim Aitchison in the 90s called Sarong Party Girl, and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s brilliant and engaging novel Sarong Party Girls (2016).

Tan’s book illustrates the SPG phenomenon by putting her protagonist, a quick-witted 26-year-old Singaporean woman on a mission to find and marry an ang moh (colloquial term for ‘white man’). Achieving this would leave her “only one step away from the number one champion status symbol in Singapore – [having] a half ang moh kid. The Chanel of babies!”

Although side-splittingly humorous, the novel, in Singlish patois, underscores serious underlying issues for the protagonist in getting what she wants.

For one, the narrator, Jazzy, reveals that she has changed her name from Ah Huay, which is apparently too cheena (or Chinese) to Jazeline which she finds to be ‘quite power’, thereby trading the most basic form of her identity for social elevation, along with a sub par imitation of a British accent. Fine, one can change their name and accent, but would doing so also mean removing the culture and upbringing linked to that original name?

In Tan’s book, Jazzy puts it perfectly when she says that “somehow in the expat neighbourhoods the bushes always seemed more perfectly round, the trees fuller, the grass brighter.” Maybe 50 years ago, when the West was ‘happening’, but newsflash! -Asia’s reign has just begun.

READ: Why Expats Love to Hate Malaysia

Unfortunately, to this day many still display attitudes that reek of a colonial hangover. Jazzy’s mother warns her against “These ang mohs – (as) they only want one thing. When they take already, they don’t need you anymore.”

She can’t help that she’s stuck in 1952, but she’s not the only one who still believes that a white man and an Asian woman can’t get married for the sake of love alone.

This stereotype undermines the aspirations of millions of couples around the world and gives the false impression that every interracial relationship comes with an ulterior motive.

The condemnation of interracial couplehood arises from the prejudice of the token, oh-so-submissive Asian vixen to a white husband which certainly gives new meaning to ‘desperate housewives.’

Jokes aside, the SPG’s pursuit may seem minor and may pale in comparison to Louis Theroux’s ‘Looking for Love’ episode of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends on Thai brides in which he enrols himself in a marriage agency called ‘Anglo-Thai Connections’ to search for his lady in white by sifting through an array of A (very attractive women) and B (the alternatives) tapes.

One could say that SPGs and these vying brides are two of a kind, but are they really?

Some may argue yes, due to their shared goals – more money and social status.

But the reality is that one is born out of true agency and absolute disgust for anything “LC” (low class), while the other comes from a need to escape less-than-ideal conditions which ominously reminds us that feminism has principles but life has compromises.

Take a look at Melania Trump. In an interview she was asked, “Would you have married Trump if he weren’t rich?” to which she stoically replied, “Would he have married me if I weren’t beautiful?” So in a world where many feel that socio-economic elevation is a prerequisite to feeling good about oneself, is it fair to call them “gold-diggers”?

On a side note, why is it that Caucasian men can’t get enough of smooth, tanned Asian skin? They might as well invest in skin grafts!

At one point in Tan’s book, Jazzy casts her eyes on a friend’s baby and says, “Eh, Keira, your boy has so much black hair! Very Asian, no?” Silence. Keira stopped smiling.”

Perhaps, what we react to is the blatant racism towards fellow Asians and their approach to raising their “Chanel babies” to have a superiority complex, because European blood courses through their veins. So much for Asian pride.

There’s no one solution and it’s definitely not going to be solved by marrying someone within your race but faking it till you make it isn’t always the answer, it’s self-empowerment – playing the damsel in distress is so passé.

To thrive and revel in one’s Asian identity is key because we were already made whole and that will always be enough.

So to all SPGs feeling pressured by family and friends to cuff a white hubby for a “better” life, channel your inner Cher and say, “Mom, I am a rich man.”

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