“Last Tang Standing” by Lauren Ho

Last Tang Standing, Lauren Ho (GP Putnam, HarperCollins, June 2020) Last Tang Standing, Lauren Ho (GP Putnam, HarperCollins, June 2020)

Andrea Tang seems to have it all. She’s a rising mergers and acquisitions attorney on Singapore’s 40 under 40 list. UK-educated Andrea’s goal is, via grueling hours at her Singapore law firm, to make partner at the age of thirty-three. But her family has other plans for her, which propels her to invent a boyfriend at her aunt’s Chinese New Year party. So begins Lauren Ho’s debut novel, Last Tang Standing.

Reminiscent of Bridget Jones’s Diary (so much so that it’s a tag-line in the marketing), Ho’s book is also structured in a diary format. Where Bridget is awkward, clumsy, and confused in love, Andrea is all of that, too, along with a Chinese family that is pressuring her to marry early and produce grandchildren soon after that. At thirty-three, Andrea is, according to her mother and aunts, quickly approaching a life of spinsterhood.

 

My mother doesn’t have time for leisure, or retirement for that matter—that’s for rich white people. When she’s not hustling to sell some multilevel-marketing product of the day, she’s obsessing over how she will marry me off—the last item left unchecked on my mother’s checklist of Life Goals (for me.)

 

It doesn’t help that Andrea has just broken up with a long-term boyfriend and finds her only dating options to be found on Tinder and other apps. Andrea also hopes to avoid the type of rift that developed between her sister, Melissa, and their mother. Melissa is engaged to (gasp!) an Indian architect. Andrea can’t help but think about this family drama when she is partnered at work with Suresh, another M&A attorney from the London office. She finds Suresh funny and attractive, but knows it will go nowhere because of her mother’s reaction to Melissa’s fiancé. It’s pretty much a moot point anyway, since Suresh is engaged to a physician back in London. And Suresh is also in competition for partner. Andrea cannot let her guard down.

 

One evening, Andrea is invited to an exclusive book group at a friend of a friend’s house. When Andrea arrives, she feels completely underdressed and finds refuge when she strikes up conversation with a man she assumes is the hired help. But as it turns out, he’s actually the owner of the mansion and a billionaire hotelier with eco-friendly resorts throughout Asia. Everyone in Singapore knows Eric Deng, despite his keeping a low profile and avoiding paparazzi and social media. So when he asks Andrea out, she can’t help but feel flattered.

As Eric wines and dines Andrea, Suresh reveals more about himself. He hates the law and hopes, to the horror of his London fiancée, to focus full-time on online comics which he secretly writes on the side. Despite her hopes to become partner, Andrea finds she isn’t very happy in her job either.

Eric moves quickly and proposes to Andrea within months of first meeting her. Her mother would approve, but is the life of a tai tai really what Andrea wants?

 

Eric was offering to free me from being a slave to the system, but was what he was offering real freedom? And how could I consider myself a feminist if I did that? But was being a feminist as important as being free to live the life I’ve always aspired to have, i.e., quit a job I hate and have enough money to buy whatever I wanted?

 

Andrea’s dilemma plays out in a Singapore setting full of fusion restaurants, fancy bars and modest hawker centers, discussions of  the most bizarre English names their Chinese friends and colleagues have taken, and reminisces about time in Hong Kong. In one scene, Andrea makes a late night junk food run to a grocery store, wearing jeans shorts and a t-shirt. It is after 1am, after all. There she runs into her ex-boyfriend of five years and his fancy new girlfriend.

 

He did a head twitch in the girl’s direction. “This is, ah, my girlfriend, Nessadalyn.”
      I did a double take. “I’m sorry, Ness—?” I genuinely didn’t catch her, erm, name.
      There was a flash of anger in his face. “Nessadalyn,” he repeated. He glanced pointedly at my toes, which were a little grubby, because #AllWorkNoLife.

 

Last Tang Standing employs the same formula as the Bridget Jones books, but updated for a globalized 21st century by celebrating multiculturalism and delving into serious subjects like filial piety and intermarriage.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.