Crime on the Island: Interviewing Cheryl Tan of “Singapore Noir”

An interview with Cheryl Tan, editor of the first Singaporean crime fiction anthology published in the United States

Singapore has one of the world’s lowest homicide rates, but much like its partner in (low) crime, Iceland, it’s fertile ground for noir stories. Launched this month, ten years after the release of Brooklyn Noir, is Brooklyn-based Akashic Books’ newest title in its bestselling series of Noir anthologies, Singapore Noir, edited by the Singaporean writer Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a former staff writer at the Wall Street Journal and author of A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.

Nicole Idar: Singapore is the fourth Asian city to boast an Akashic Books Noir anthology, after Delhi, Manila, and Mumbai (Seoul is forthcoming). Can you tell us how Singapore Noir came about?

Cheryl Tan: I’d long admired New York publisher Akashic Books’ award-winning Noir seriesa series of anthologies, and there are dozens by now, each one set in a country or a city. Brooklyn Noir was a personal favorite but you also have everything from Baltimore Noir to Paris Noir. Some really big names have edited these collections of dark stories set in these locales—Joyce Carol Oates edited New Jersey Noir, for example, and Dennis Lehane edited Boston Noir.

In November 2011, I was at the Miami Book Fair, speaking about A Tiger in the Kitchen, my first book. At the authors’ party, mystery writer extraordinaire S.J. Rozan introduced me to Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher. I told Johnny how much I loved his noir series but asked why there hadn’t been a Singapore Noir. He said it was because he didn’t know any Singaporean writers. And S.J. said, “Well now you do.”  

NI: The stories in Singapore Noir capture a strong sense of unease and foreboding as Singaporeans confront rapid political, economic, social, and cultural change in the 21st century. How do you think the kinds of societal upheavals captured in these stories relate to the growing interest in noir fiction in Singapore?

CT: Singapore is undergoing massive societal changes right now. Our population has exploded in recent years, due in large part to immigration, bringing about the increasingly important question of what it means to be “Singaporean.” The polyglot culture has become much more so and is much more densely packed on that small island—tensions are inevitably going to flare. I love how current so many of the stories in the anthology are—from narrative threads on maid abuse, sex scandals, a growing expat community and immigrant tensions (as seen in Colin Cheong’s lovely “Smile, Singapore”), these stories reflect a very of-the-moment snapshot of Singapore today. And I’m thrilled to be sharing this with the world.

NI: One of the pleasures of Singapore Noir is the enormously varied settings: the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in Philip Jeyaretnam’s “Strangler Fig,” the Geylang red-light district in Lawrence Osborne’s “Tattoo,” Sentosa in Johann S. Lee’s “Current Escape,” and even a kelong, an old-fashioned wooden fishing platform built in the open sea, in your story, “Reel.” What is it about the kelong that inspired a noir love story in your imagination? Did you visit a working kelong for this story, and if so, what were your impressions of it?

CT: So glad you noted the varied locales—I wasn’t sure what to expect when I told the writers they could just pick any neighborhoods they wanted. (I was afraid the stories would all be centered in one bit of the island!) But each writer really showcased a neighborhood that they knew very intimately and was very dear to them. In the case of the kelongs, these stilted fisheries have always held a great sense of romance for me. I grew up near Singapore’s far eastern shore and I used to take the bus to Changi Village, a tiny sleepy spot by the sea, and watch the fishermen, soak in a bit of old, tranquil Singapore and look out at the water. In this sliver of water that slices between Singapore and Malaysia, you’ll see these kelongs—houses on stilts, surrounded by a tall labyrinth of poles. I always wondered what it was like to live on a kelong and a few years ago I finally got to visit one, which I found completely fascinating. The idea of leading such a solitary existence in a house in the middle of the water, surrounded by massive traps laid out for flotillas of fish—it jumpstarted my imagination. When I sat down to write, I knew what the setting would be immediately.

NI: It seems to me that what marks Singapore Noir as particularly Singaporean among the four Noir anthologies set in Asia is the focus on ghosts and supernatural elements; indeed, you’ve got three stories grouped under the theme “Gods & Demons” in Part 3 of the book. Was it your intention to invite writers to write about supernatural themes, or did that happen anyway?

CT: I’d like to think that I’m that organized! (And that writers take instructions so readily!) As a writer myself, I like to be given as few directions and parameters as possible: I want to feel the world before me as I sit down to a blank screen, a million different doors I could walk through. So all I really told the contributors was, “chope” (Singlish for “reserve”) a neighborhood and just write.

If you’ve ever been to Singapore, you’ll know that spirits are ever-present to many Singaporeans. It’s much-discussed in many ethnic cultures there—the pontianak is a famous Malay ghost that dwells in a banana tree, for example. I remember being told as a child that if you have a banana tree near you, you need to hang live crabs by the tree so the angry female spirit will kill those—and not humans—when she emerges and be satisfied. And the Chinese, we don’t just believe in ghosts: we have a whole month in the summer devoted to appeasing ghosts.

This is the Hungry Ghosts month, when the gates of hell supposedly open up and spirits are released to roam the earth for a month. If you want to make them happy, feed them—so this is why you’ll see elaborate platters of food and fruit set out by the sidewalk sometimes. Given all that, I was unsurprised that spirits were an element—or at least part of the set up—in some of the pieces. One of my favorite characters in the book is the protagonist in Suchen Christine Lim’s story who is a medium in a Chinese temple—she actually has a job that requires her to channel the spirit of the Monkey God.

NI: Can you share with us the selection process for Singapore Noir—how did you decide which stories to include, and how did you come up with the four central themes, “Sirens,” “Love (Or Something Like It),” “Gods & Demons,” as mentioned above, and “The Haves & The Have-Nots”?

CT: I basically sat down and created a wishlist of all the writers I wanted to be part of this collection—this was going to be the first collection of Singaporean crime fiction published in the United States, groundbreaking in many ways. So I wanted it to really represent the best of what Singapore Lit has to offer. So I wrote down what would be my dream team, and, one by one, they said yes!

You may not recognize a lot of the names here because many of them, though superstars in Singapore, have not published in the U.S. Three of them are winners of the Singapore Literature Prize—the country’s equivalent to the Pulitzer—and they really all are the who’s who of Sing Lit, the Philip Roths and Jennifer Egans of Singapore. And there are a few non-Singaporeans in there as well, people who know Singapore intimately and love it, from British novelist Lawrence Osborne to S.J. Rozan, who adores the country was happy to be a part of this. Once the stories all came in, the themes were pretty clear. Again, I’d like to say that I planned this, but it all happened very organically.

NI: It’s wonderful to see several writers in the anthology who are not Singaporean capturing the distinctive Singaporean way of speaking so perfectly in their characters’ dialogue. You yourself grew up in Singapore, but having lived abroad for so long, do you find that writing Singapore-style dialogue is more difficult now that you’re based so far from home? Or do you find that it just comes naturally?

CT: I second that! I was truly pleasantly surprised because I always think that Singlish (a mix of Chinese, Malay, English and Tamil) is such an unromantic patois that outsiders could not possibly appreciate it as much as we do. But they all had wonderful sprinklings of them in their stories. In some cases, more than in the stories of Singaporean writers themselves! In the case of S.J., she said that she fell in love with Singlish and spent an enormous amount of time reading everything she could about it. And her story really reflects that. I’ve had some Singaporeans who are very proud of Singlish and skeptical of foreigners mangling it come up to me and remark that they examined her story closely and said, “It’s solid.”

As for me, I’ve always been in love with Singlish—and that love has only thickened in my years away from Singapore. It’s ever present in my mind and I even dream in Singlish sometimes. If my best friend from Singapore were to call me now I would lapse back into it right away. So no, it wasn’t hard for me to write in Singlish at all. In fact, in many ways, I feel most natural when I do—the words, sometimes, are just flying off the page.

NI: Which other Asian cities would you love to see featured in the Noir series? 

CT: I am a child of Asia and I adore all pockets of it so I would love to say, all! In particular though, I’d love to see “Hong Kong Noir” come to be—I hope someone like Nury Vittachi steps up because I think he would be wonderful and I’d love to see the stories he drags out from the bowels of Hong Kong’s underbelly. And I’d love to see “Taiwan Noir” as well—the marvelous (and marvelously prolific) mystery writer Ed Lin, who is American but of Taiwanese descent, would be wonderful for it. His latest book “Ghost Month” is set in Taiwan, in fact—a must-read, if you haven’t already—and I would love to see him revisit that country in a noir collection for Akashic.


Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York-based journalist and author of A Tiger In The Kitchen: A Memoir of Food & Family (Hyperion, 2011). She is the editor of the fiction anthology Singapore Noir (Akashic Books, 2014) and is currently working on her first novel.

Nicole IdarAsymptote editor-at-large (Malaysia), has been published in World Literature TodayRattapallax, and The New Ohio Review. In 2013, she was one of 18 writers from around the world selected to attend the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle, Washington. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University.