Is this the next Crazy Rich Asians?! Expat mum-of-two Stephanie Suga Chen is the author brand new book, Travails of a Trailing Spouse. She tells Carolynne Dear what prompted her to put pen to paper
So what’s it all about?
The story begins with Sarah, a lawyer in the US, quitting her job and moving to Singapore with her husband and children. They become part of a close-knit group of expatriates, enjoying alcohol-fuelled evenings together. But when cracks appear in this seemingly perfect world, Sarah and her friends discover how complicated life can be.
How long did it take you to write?
The answer usually shocks people! It took me about five weeks – I wrote a chapter a night. I think I just had it all pent up inside me, ready to flow out. Editing, well, that’s a whole other story – I think that took five months.
Have you always been a writer, or is this a shift from a previous career?
It was a complete shift; I left my career in finance when we decided to move to Singapore in 2012. Although one of my goals had been to possibly find a new career for myself, I admit it took longer than I had expected. I spent about four years floundering quite a bit – lots of yoga, lunches and volunteering until I discovered writing.
How was the writing process?
I wrote everywhere – at home, on the MRT, at school waiting for the kids. And I used many different media – laptop, phone, scribbles on a scrap of paper.
How much of the story is autobiographical?
This is everyone’s favourite question. It did start as a memoir, but I found it a lot more fun to fictionalize it. So if you’re wondering, the juicier bits are probably made up. Although I’ve heard many readers say “I know that exact person!”
Why do you think expats often struggle despite their comfortable lifestyles?
Although the novel centres around expat life, the problems that the characters face are not necessarily unique to trailing spouses. I think the journey of self-discovery applies to anyone at a crossroads in life; it just happens to have a more exotic setting – similar to Eat, Pray, Love.
What would you say are the best and the worst bits of being an expat?
For me, I would say the best is having my children experience diversity on a daily basis. The worst is definitely being away from family and friends, although that can sometimes be a good thing, too – being shielded from the stressful, Christmas holiday period is one example that springs to mind.
Any downsides to life in Singapore?
The unyielding heat takes quite a bit of getting used to.
What would be your advice to expats moving to Singapore?
Three things: 1) The fight against mold is real, 2) Enjoy every moment, 3) Read my book!
Do you have any plans for a follow-up novel?
I have several projects in the pipeline, and I’ve already collected dozens of stories for a possible sequel. If you’ve got any of those ‘too crazy to be true’ expat stories, please do send them my way!
Travails of a Trailing Spouse by Stephanie Suga Chen is published by Straits Times Press and is available internationally from stpressbooks.com.sg.
A few years ago I was corresponding with a “mummy friend” who had recently moved to Singapore with hertoddler.
“Oh, we’re renting a desert island with some of our playgroup friends,” she breezily told me when I asked what she was up to over the summer. At the time, pre-Hong Kong days, my own playgroup get togethers consisted of a dusty community hall, an urn of over-stewed tea and several vegemite-smeared children playing noisily on a plastic climbing frame.
Phew, I thought, what a life! And with nothing much to reply to a statement like that, the conversation swiftly ended.
And yet, several years later, here I am, settling back on the silky sands of said private desert island, while the kids disappear down a leafy jungle path to play, not an i-pad or a pokemon (or a vegemite sandwich) in sight.
Welcome to Nikoi, a modern day shangri-la for weary parents everywhere.
Nikoi Island lies in Indonesian territory approximately 80kms south of Singapore, nestling serenely off Bintan Island, close to where the South China and Java Seas meet.
To reach it, we flew into Singapore and caught one of the regular high-speed ferries from Singapore’s Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal to Bandar Bentan Telani on Bintan Island (an easy journey of approximately one hour). From there, a car met us to whisk us across Bintan to a private launch (a 45-minute journey), and this powered us over to tiny Nikoi in under half an hour.
As we approached the island, the white sandy beaches, swaying palms, and wooden grass thatched beach huts felt a million miles away from our early breakfast in downtown Singapore.
Nikoi was “discovered” by long-term Australian expat Andrew Dixon, and American Peter Timmer (who had been living on Bintan for the past eighteen years). Dixon, disenchanted with what was on offer for holiday-makers in the region, had decided to explore the then undiscovered east coast of Bintan.
Fed up with either flea-ridden beach shacks or grandiose marble and chandelier be-decked resorts, Dixon was looking to create something of good quality but genuinely in tune with the natural environment.
So, the pair hired a tiny fishing boat to take a look at a nearby island that was reputably up for sale. On landing, they were amazed to discover gorgeous beaches, pristine reefs, extraordinary rock formations and verdant rainforest. “It was hard to believe a piece of paradise like this could remain uninhabited and untouched a mere 50 miles from Singapore,” says Dixon.
Significantly, the pair do not describe Nikoi as an “eco-resort”, considering the term to be overused. While creating a quality destination, they just wanted it to respect the natural environment – “as much as possible, we have left Nikoi as we found it – a desert island,” explains Dixon.
“Our plan was to develop a private island, not a resort,” he says. “We wanted guests to enjoy the best of local dishes and appreciate service that is relaxed and genuine – not bound by training manuals and fake smiles.” He likens the island to “luxury Survivor”.
It would appear they have achieved their aim. Entirely constructed of driftwood, with a grass roof and exciting tree-top walkways linking the bedrooms and two bathrooms, our beach hut is what dreams are made of for our seven-year-old boy. There are no doors, no windows, no air conditioning – just gentle sea breezes, ceiling fans, graceful mosquito nets draping the beds (although I have to admit we didn’t have a single problem with biting insects, a welcome change from our own New Territories backyard), simple bathrooms, extremely comfortable beds – and a handy torch for after-dark.
Almost paralysed with excitement, the seven and nine-year olds decide to move their mattresses and sleep in the huge wood-hewn window seats.
And as you would expect of a quality resort, the gentle staff visit every morning to sweep our sandy floorboards and mop the bathrooms.
This is barefoot living at its best, and our days quickly relax into a stunning early morning kayak around the island (even the seven-year-old can manage it by the end of the week), followed by jetty-jumping and snorkelling for the kids while I catch up on my pile of magazines on the beach, and finally an indulgent lunch.
The catering on the island is what impresses me most – the dining room consists of a long, polished table – perfect for our large group of friends from Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong – in an open-sided, sandy-floored, dining hut by the beach.
The daily “menu d’hote” is chalked up on a board at breakfast-time, with sensible alternatives for the children (thank god, not a chicken nugget in sight), which mostly consist of local dishes using fresh ingredients – fish and seafood feature regularly. Parents everywhere will appreciate the bliss of not having to navigate an a la carte menu plus fast food-laden kids menu every mealtime.
In the afternoon, the children disappear to do their favourite thing on Nikkoi – Yogi’s kids club. Yogi is amazing, he spends hours with them, carving wooden objects for them, showing them how to mix mocktails behind the little bar, designing complicated adventure games covering the length and breadth of the island – this is about as close as you will get to an Enid Blyton childhood in the age of tech. Rather marvellously, they disappear for hours on end, leaving us parents to retreat to the pool on the other side of the island with books, i-pads and cocktails.
A couple of evenings we did manage to rouse ourselves for a tennis match with the kids (on the immaculate grass court – Wimbledon eat your heart out), as well as enjoy the odd massage (a team of masseurs are happy to stop by your beach hut).
Dinner is served early for the kids, so they can disappear off with Yogi for an evening by the beach bonfire or watching a movie on the huge outdoor screen at the kids club hut. Again, we adults are left alone to linger over our food and wine.
By the end of the week, none of us is ready to go home and the eleven-year-old virtually has us in a headlock promising to come back next year. “Seriously mum, it’s our best ever holiday!” she pleads with us.
To be honest, I’ve never seen our well-travelled, been there, done that children quite so animated about a holiday. We will certainly be back some day…
There are fifteen beach huts on Nikoi, with either two or three bedrooms.
The island can be rented privately, or as individual huts (nikoi.com). We travelled with other other families with similarly aged children, which worked well.
From Hong Kong, we broke our journey with an overnight stay at the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport (crowneplaza.com).
The Bintan Resort Ferries can get busy and should be booked in advance (brf.com.sg), as well as the car pick-up from Bendar Bentan Talani (this should be organised through Nikoi Island, nikoi.com).
The group is launching another, adult-only luxury destination on privately-owned Cempedak Island at the beginning of 2017 (cempedak.com).