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Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan on the seamy underbelly of Singapore

The former Baltimore journalist Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a fashionista who doubtless looks pulled-together even when she's sick in bed, a woman with a taste for Narciso Rodriguez gowns and Manolo Blahnik shoes.

She also delights in fine food and wine — even if she is slender as a model, and even though she adopted a guise of determined ineptitude in her first book, "A Tiger in the Kitchen," which describes her attempts to learn to prepare the dishes of her native Singapore.

But Cheryl Tan, noir connoisseur? There's something about a 39-year-old who clearly savors the good things in life that doesn't immediately jibe with a desire to explore the seamy underbelly of society.

When that question is posed to Tan during a recent phone interview, she laughs and then says:

"My agent thinks I have ADD [attention-deficit disorder] because each of my projects is so vastly different from the last. The thread that runs through them is that they all are set in Singapore — the place where I grew up, the place I love and a place that is misunderstood by the rest of the world."

She discussed those misconceptions in advance of her appearance Thursday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. (A condensed version of that conversation appears below.) Tan is on a book tour for "Singapore Noir," the new collection of crime stories she compiled and edited.

The 14 tales introduce readers to a fisherman working out of the floating dwellings on platforms known as kelongs, and to a "taxi uncle" who keeps a coffin in his cab. There's even a feng shui master who solves murders while repositioning objects at the crime scene to cleanse the place of bad vibes.

Tan came to the U.S. in 1993 to attend college at Chicago's Northwestern University, and she's almost as familiar with Charm City as she is with Singapore. She worked as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun from 1997 to 2003, though for the last 11 years, she's been based out of New York.

You've said you started reading noir as a teenager.

I had grown up reading these writers who I admired greatly, and I always wondered why they never crossed over. So for me to make this wish list of the best writers in Singapore, and to ask them to give me a story, was very exciting.

When I started at The Baltimore Sun, my very first job was covering Sunday cops. I loved it. It was this fascinating world. I'd led a very sheltered existence before that, first in Singapore, which is very safe, and later, when I went to Northwestern, in the cocoon of school.

Suddenly I was covering Sunday cops in Baltimore, and it was like, "Oh, there were four homicides last night. Where do I start?"

That experience was something that always stuck with me. I learned a lot about reporting and storytelling, and doing it quickly and being very observant on the fly.

It turns out that both the cops beat and fashion reporting are war zones. The only difference is that people dress differently.

In the prologue, you repeat a great observation by the magazine writer William Gibson, who writes that most Westerners think of Singapore as "Disneyland with the death penalty."

Yeah, there are these interesting darker pockets that people in the West don't really know about. When they think about Singapore, they think of it as being very pristine and clean and boring and sterile.

If Singapore is Disneyland, it's a slightly warped Disneyland. It's not all twirling teacups and "It's A Small World." There are some really fascinating dark stories and intense people, and I really wanted that to come to life.

What characterizes Singapore noir as compared to, say, Las Vegas noir or Beirut noir?

Singapore is a very small, dense country. You have all these different races, very rich people, very poor people, and everyone's kind of packed against each other like sardines on this tiny little Island. And when that happens, there's going to be friction.

The book touches on some issues that are very topical right now. Sex scandals have been popping up in Singapore recently, and maid abuse has really been in the news in the last few years.

Tell me about "Singlish" and how that dialect is used in some of the stories in the collection.

Singlish is the local pidgin — English with Chinese words and Malay words and sometimes Indian words thrown in. It's basically spoken by everybody, although in an office situation you would speak less Singlish than you would with your friends.

The sentences don't quite make sense because even though the words are English, the sentence structure might be Chinese or Malay.

For example, Malay doesn't have plural words, so if you want to emphasize something you say it twice. Let's say you want to refer to something you're carrying. "Barang" means bag. But you always say "barang-barang" because you're carrying more than one bag.

In addition, someone speaking Singlish will say "lah" for inflection or emphasis. "Lah" is kind of tacked on at the end of sentences, sort of like the Canadian, "eh."

You wrote one story for the collection, "Reel" which takes place on a kelong. What was your inspiration for that story?

I set my story in Changi, this very quiet part of Singapore that's on the far east coast and is near where I grew up. It's still kind of sleepy and it feels like old Singapore to me. I loved to go there as a child and as a teenager, and sit by the water and look out at the fishermen and soak up the atmosphere.

The kelongs are fisheries on stilts, and they used to be the primary source of fish for most restaurants. But now, people have moved to fish farming so these fisheries in the middle of the water are disappearing. Now, there are only a handful of them left.

The stilts on kelongs are designed to trap fish, so when you're out there, you don't really have much to do. The days are boring, one flowing into the next. I started to wonder what happens when people in an isolated place get bored.

And I wanted to explore this old bit of Singapore that I love and that I'm sad to see disappearing.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

Author and editor Cheryl Tan will appear in conversation with writer Rafael Alvarez at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. Free. Call 410-396-5430 or go to prattlibrary.org.

About the book

"Singapore Noir" will be published Tuesday by Akashic Books. 242 pages, $15.95.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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