In 1994, “The Official Guide to the Sarong Party Girl” was unleashed on Singapore.
Written by Jim Aitchison and illustrated by Theseus Chan, it presented a lewd and satirical depiction of the titular sarong party girl — an Asian woman who exclusively dates caucasian men.
And lewd really is an understatement:
Four years later, Aitchison would go on to publish the first entry to what would become Singapore’s best-selling series of children’s books, Mr Midnight, under the pen name James Lee.
Mr Midnight released its 104th book this year, and even received a Netflix adaptation in 2022 (side note: you couldn’t be blamed for never hearing of it though). According to CNA, Aitchison, a Australian former expat, left Singapore in 2010.
As a 27-year-old who grew up reading at least a half-dozen of the Mr Midnight books — like many other Singaporean kids — finding out the same man wrote the over-the-top sexual and racially-charged SPG books was beyond jarring.
And the deeper I delved into the stories behind both books, the more I found fascinating the picture of Singapore and the author that they presented.
“She is supposed to have a flat head, so a white man can rest his beer on it.”
Frankly, explaining the contents of the book really wouldn’t do it justice.
Here are some excerpts:
- “Unlike their fellow Singaporean workers, SPGs are never on MC unless they are actually on an MC (Male Caucasian).”
- “For the white man, the SPG is not a serious woman, more his plaything, a brown fantasy in a tight black dress.”
- “She is supposed to have a flat head, so a white man can rest his beer on it. And whereas other women have stretch marks on their stomachs, hers are around her mouth.”
- “Expatriate wives fear her the most. As they flit from the Polo Club to the British Council, they suspect that their husbands are diving into bed with a horde of little brown SPGs.”
- “ZOUK: Mostly for teeny SPGs and Wanna-Be-SPGs, who cluster around the entrance waiting to be picked up by men who are older than their fathers. These SPGs are also known as Little Grunters or LBFMs, requiring frequent lubrication with Corona, tequila or vodka. They do not need to drink XO Beer in order to take it lying down.”
The success of the “Official Guide” prompted the release of two more books from Aitchison and illustrator Theseus Chan, “Revenge of the Sarong Party Girl” — which takes jabs at Caucasians in Singapore — and “The SPG Rides Again.”
The SPG books were so popular that they made regular appearances on the Straits Times’ best-sellers lists, alongside prolific writer Catherine Lim and the immensely popular Russell Lee’s True Singapore Ghost Stories.
And curiously, its launch parties appeared to be social gatherings where those wearing sarongs — both men and women alike — enjoy two drinks for the price of one, as well as free copies of the SPG books. In other words, folks openly professing their love of the books and the stereotype at its core weren't exactly low-key.
The Sarong Party Girl stereotype and its colonialist roots
To be clear, Aitchison isn't the first to use the term “sarong party girl.” A commonly told story claims that the term originates from colonial rule, when the British would invite local guests clad in sarongs to parties. Over time, the term took on the derogatory connotation it now holds today.
According to a journal article by professor Kuah Khun Eng, the first SPG book’s release “aroused much indignation because of the author's prejudiced treatment of Singapore women.”
And Kuah described how reviews and forum letters about the SPG books, published in the Straits Times, “have been a barometer of the moral outrage directed at the book and, indirectly, at this group of women.”
Much of these discussions are unavailable on the National Library Board’s online newspaper archive, and can only be viewed in person from a library multimedia station.
Tantalisingly, what I could see of the Straits Times’ review online is the headline, “Tone is what really counts,” and the article’s first line: “Should one take offence at the forthcoming book about the Sarong Party Girl? It depends.”
(As an aside, I can’t help being amused by how the paper’s house style appears to not have changed much since the 90s.)
Reader letters about the books published in the Straits Times prompted Aitchison to write his own letter, which the paper published in 1995, titled “Satire can help demolish SPG stereotype.”
In his letter, Aitchison justified his satirical approach as his way of breaking down the SPG stereotype. He also noted the changing political mood on the island and shifting attitudes towards western expats.
“When I came to Singapore and first started learning Chinese, 15 years ago, my expat boss told me I was turning yellow,” wrote Aitchison.
“Memories of colonial class differences and notions of racial superiority do not vanish overnight,” he added, expressing his hope that books like his would provide laughs as prejudices fade.
Two years later, after the launch of his third SPG book, Aitchison told City Weekly that the premise of his series was crude but also “very funny.”
Pivoting to children’s horror stories with a Singaporean twist
It is unclear why Aitchison later adopted a pen name for his Mr Midnight series of books, the first of which came out in 1998.
What is clear, however, is that Mr Midnight would soon become a smash hit and mainstay in Singapore bookstore shelves. Publisher Flame of the Forest claims to have sold over 3 million of the books.
On a CNA radio show about the books' Netflix adaptation, Sadie-Jane Nunis, a former president of the Library Association of Singapore, explained the appeal of Mr Midnight.
“It was localised horror stories that children could see names of other kids that they’re familiar with, maybe, and just relate. It was like the Singaporean version of R.L. Stine,” said Nunis.
And it wasn’t just names — Aitchison also solicited character backstories and settings from readers that he would flesh out into fully-formed books.
Nunis added, “The stories were easy to digest and read. And in fact, one thing that made me really really happy is that it encouraged a lot of kids to pick up reading.”
I myself must confess to Mr Midnight and R.L. Stine's Goosebumps being among the first books I’d ever read, and can credit them for sparking a lifelong love of the horror genre.
Aitchison had a somewhat different explanation for his books’ appeal, however, which he gave during a 2006 interview with the Mail and Guardian:
”Asian kids are very different from American kids. They have different values,” says Aitchison. ”The kids in Asia are a lot more innocent … what would shock an Asian kid in a book, an American kid will think, ‘That’s it?’,” he adds chuckling.
Adding to that, whatever mixed feelings I have about Aitchison and his writing only deepened after watching this video of him receiving an Australian Arts In Asia Literature Award for his Mr Midnight books in 2013.
Here’s the end of his acceptance speech, presented without comment:
There was a Chinese taxi driver and a Caucasian taxi driver. They saw this rich man drive past in a huge Mercedes Benz. And the Caucasian taxi driver said, “look at that bloke, who does he think he is?” And the Chinese taxi driver said, “one day, my son will have a car like that.”
From 1994 to 2023
It's difficult to imagine books like the Sarong Party Girl series — or the opinions held by their author — receiving the same level of mainstream support and interest today in Singapore.
Times have changed since. Expat culture (as it previously existed) is perpetually on the decline. And there appears to be increasing recognition of racial and gender inequalities. Indeed, the SPG books were already contentious when they were first released back in 1994.
At the same time, this is a country that commemorated the 200th anniversary of its colonisation in 2019 — taking a celebratory tone that has few parallels among other former colonies (Check out this DW round-up of the controversy sparked by the Bicentennial).
I found it jarring that these SPG books — though satirical and clearly intended to be provocative — come from the not-so-distant past, filled with references to landmarks and language that still define the Singapore lexicon today.
And for me, there's a tension between that pivot from sexualising teens to writing about them that's hard to resolve.
Note: Thanks to this Twitter user for tweeting about the SPG books — after I tweeted about the Mr Midnight books. Never would've fallen down this unusual rabbit hole without it.