15 Books on Singapore That’ll Give You Serious Wanderlust
The first book I read about Singapore was Crazy Rich Asians.
Read the next two in the series, and I was not disappointed!
Singapore intrigued me. Was everyone else on the island just as crazy rich as the people in these books?
Who are these Peranakans?
Where can I try achar and sambal?
I just had to travel to Singapore on my next vacation.
When I got to Singapore, I was so disappointed that I couldn’t stay longer. I saw so much diversity (Chinese, Malays, Indian, Peranakan, European), ate so much delicious food, and visited so many world-class museums and colorful neighborhoods. The Easter-egg painted shophouse architecture just blew me away. So safe, clean, and convenient. And the people were nothing like the crazy rich Asians in the books.
Here are my four must-read books about Singapore:
- How We Disappeared
- Crazy Rich Asians books 1-3
- The Great Reclamation
- The Aunty Lee Mysteries
Trying to figure out how long to stay in Singapore? Looking for an itinerary guide with lots of history and culture? Check out my Five Days in Singapore Itinerary Guide for those who love to explore the history and culture of their destination.
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Novels Set In Singapore
By Ovidia Yu (2013, 2014, 2016)
Aunty Lee’s Delights – 4 out of 5 stars
Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials – 5 out of 5 stars
Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge – 5 out of 5 stars
Think No 1 Ladies Home Detective Agency novels but set in Singapore, and you’ve got the Aunty Lee mysteries.
There are three books in this series: Aunty Lee’s Delights, Aunty Lee’s Deadly Special, and Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge. All three star Aunty Lee, a middle-aged Peranakan chef who runs a small Peranakan café-shop in Singapore. She’s also a nosy busybody who tends to get herself tangled up in more murders than is normally possible.
Aunty Lee’s Delights: A dead body is found on the beach in Sentosa and one of Aunty Lee’s dinner guests has gone missing.
Aunty Lee’s Deadly Special: Two people die at a party catered by Aunty Lee. The Police suspect Aunty Lee’s food might be the culprit. Will Aunty Lee be able to find the real killer before she’s driven out of business?
Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge: An American woman turns up dead in her hotel room. Aunty Lee finds herself compelled to discover the killer when one of her employees becomes a suspect.
Hanging out with Aunty Lee lets you immerse yourself in Singaporean and Peranakan food and culture, making it a great way to prepare for your trip to Singapore.
You’ll also learn about characteristics that are uniquely Singaporean like kiasu, Singaporeans’ fear of missing out, kaypoh, and em zai si.
Another thing I liked was that Yu doesn’t shy away from controversial issues like gay rights and the mistreatment of guest workers in Singapore.
These are not masterpieces of literature, but they are a lot of fun to read! Aunty Lee is a hoot and the plot is fairly plausible. Ovidia Yu is a decent writer. An enjoyable series of books about Singapore!
I consider myself a reader of serious literature, but ashamedly, I must admit that I loved all three books (book 2 less so) in the Crazy Rich Asians series. They were my guilty pleasures of 2016. They’re melodramatic, completely outrageous, and wickedly funny.
The Crazy Rich Asians series is the love story of Chinese American, Rachel Chu, and Nick Young from Singapore. She’s an average American, and he’s well, a not-so-average Singaporean. In fact, he’s from the richest family in Singapore.
Nick takes Rachel to Singapore for the first time for his best friend’s wedding. She meets his crazy rich family and friends for the first time.
Rachel meets her father for the first time. He’s also one of the richest men in China. There’s also a crazy, rich half-brother and his girlfriend. This is my least favorite.
The matriarch of the Young family is on her deathbed. Since she disinherited her favorite grandson, all the relatives vie to inherit her money and land. This is the best of the three. It’s the funniest and most emotional.
Out of all the books on Singapore that I read, these three inspired me the most to visit. Singapore comes across as fun and exciting and the people as whacky and outrageous. There’s some history of the war years and when you visit Singapore, you’ll find many of the same locations mentioned in the books.
Yes, I would read them. They’re fun and they’ll make you want to visit Singapore.
By Jing-Jing Lee (2019)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“All of it had begun with her waking to the world, the name she had been given. The fact of her upbringing. And then, after the horror during what was supposed to be her best years, how her mother’s words, the shame foisted on her by herself, her family, and everyone around her, had dictated the silence that shadowed her every move after the war.”
If you’re looking for a page-turner set in Singapore that will break your heart into a million pieces, read How We Disappeared—a book about the atrocities the Japanese committed against the comfort women during World War II. It’s not an easy book to read but it’s also not an easy book to put down.
There are three interwoven stories. The first is the hardest to read but also the most riveting story of the bunch. Wang Di (her name means Hope for a Brother) is 17 years old when the Japanese conquered Singapore. One day the Japanese military visits her kampong and takes her away to work as a sex slave serving the Japanese army.
The second story jumps to the year 2000. Wang Di is now an old woman, recently widowed. She earns money collecting garbage for recycling. She’s lonely and she can’t shake what happened to her during the war. She regrets not sharing all of it with her husband before he died and letting her husband share what happened to him before he died.
Also taking place in 2000, the third story is about twelve-year-old Kevin. He lives with his parents and grandmother in a small flat in Singapore. While sitting beside his grandmother as she’s passing away, Kevin hears her reveal a secret about his father. But Kevin doesn’t dare tell his father yet, so he goes out himself in search of the truth.
I like how the book breaks up the very heavy and heartbreaking story of Wand Di as a comfort woman with the more hopeful stories of her life and Kevin’s life in 2000. If there were only the comfort woman story, it would have taken me longer to finish as it would have been too painful to read in one or two sittings.
How We Disappeared is an excellent book to read to help you understand what Singaporeans went through under the Japanese occupation during World War II.
By James Clavell (1962)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“Guard yourself and your conscience no one else will and know that a bad decision at the right time can destroy you far more surely than any bullet!”
King Rat by master storyteller James Clavell is another riveting book that delves into Singapore’s World War II history. This one is set in Singapore’s notorious Changi POW prison and examines the various ways people cope with living under extreme conditions.
The book follows the lives of a diverse cast of characters as they navigate the harsh realities of captivity, Each prisoner represents various nationalities and backgrounds. At the center of this intricate web is Corporal King, an enigmatic and cunning American who orchestrates a thriving black market within the confines of the camp. His resourcefulness and charismatic nature earn him the nickname “King Rat,” and he becomes both a savior and a manipulator to those around him.
Clavell’s own experiences as a POW in Singapore lend a sense of authenticity to the narrative, enriching the story with firsthand knowledge of the emotional and psychological struggles endured by the characters. The meticulous attention to detail and historical accuracy enhance the immersion, allowing you to gain a visceral understanding of the desperation, hunger, and brutality that define life in Changi.
Overall, King Rat is a compelling story of human resilience and adaptability. It’s a must-read for those who want to dig deeper into Singapore’s history.
By Liz Rosenberg (2014)
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The Moonlight Palace is an enjoyable novel that takes the reader back to the 1920s and to the historical and colorful neighborhood of Kampong Glam minus the trendy bars and graffiti.
The narrator of the story is the precocious Agnes Hussein, the 17-year-old female descendant of the Sultan of Johor-Riao, the man responsible for selling Singapore to the British.
Agnes and her eccentric family live in the Sultan’s palace, Istana Kampong Glam. With their fortunes nearly depleted, the family fights to hang on to its crumbling palace, fending off greedy government officials, scheming con artists, and bungling terrorists.
Maybe. I’m not sure how much of what Rosenberg writes is even true. I haven’t been able to find out whether these multi-racial descendants of the Sultan of Johor-Riao existed or not. Was Agnes Hussein a real person?
Still, the story gave me some background of the neighborhood when I visited it. The palace still exists. Sitting right next to the Aladdin-like Sultan’s Mosque, it’s now called the Malay Heritage Centre. You can read how to explore Kampong Glam in this fabulous Singapore itinerary.
Moonlight Palace is an enjoyable book about an interesting part of Singapore’s history.
By J.G. Farrell (1978)
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I’d wanted to read Singapore Grip for the longest time. However, since it wasn’t at my local library and it was pricier than the other books about Singapore, I put off buying it for the longest time!
This is such a good book. Such great writing! J.G. Farrell really knows how to write smooth and witty prose with characters that you can get emotionally attached to. I loved the writer’s subtle dark humor.
The book is loooooong. 578 pages. J.G. likes to write ten pages about one small mundane activity like a car ride from the airport.
A great deal of the book is spent analyzing the evils of colonialism and the greed of Western capitalism. Being a huge history and politics nerd, I loved this!
Singapore Grip is about Singapore in the last months before the Japanese invasion. The story centers on a wealthy British colonial family called the Blacketts. They’re such horribly racist, shallow, and greedy people, but also so typical of their time and place. However, you read on because you know the Japanese are going to invade soon, and you hope that this oblivious family gets its comeuppance.
Then there’s the idealistic, ahead-of-his-times nerd of all nerds, Matthew. He’s the estranged and wayward son of Walter’s deceased business partner and the antithesis of the Blacketts.
Surprisingly, it’s kind of suspenseful even though we know the Japanese are going to invade and it’s going to be horrible.
There are a few other well-developed supporting characters who are just as fascinating.
This is another great book to read about Singapore during World War II. As a historical novel, it’s great for giving you an understanding of Singapore’s history and for enlightening you on the struggles of the Chinese refugees.
By Kirsten Chen (2014)
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Written by Kirsten Chen, Soy Sauce for Beginners is just OK. The story isn’t original enough and the main character, Gretchen, is dull as a doorknob.
After living in the U.S. for several years, Gretchen returns home to Singapore. Her husband has left her for another woman. She’s devastated. However, her problems don’t end there. Gretchen has to also deal with her mother’s drinking problem, Asian expectations of filial piety, the struggles of her father’s artisanal soy sauce business, and her scheming cousin.
Soy Sauce for Beginners didn’t inspire me to visit Singapore or educate me much about Singapore. There are some interesting facts about soy sauce that intrigued me. There’s also the typical story of the struggle between personal ambition and filial piety. Nothing new.
I’d say that there are other books about Singapore that you can read instead.
By Sharlene Teo, (2018)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“It’s so much harder to detest your only friend in the world when (1) it is like deciding whether to pick the sole option on the menu or to go hungry; (2) her hatefulness comes and goes like a rash or a fever; (3) the memory of her kindness is so fresh that it encourages forgiving; (4) sometimes her slights are so slight I wonder if I imagined it and I’m the one being mean, undeserving.”
Szu is 16 years old. She’s an awkward, friendless, lonely, below-the-bell-curve student at an all-girls convent school in Singapore. Her family life isn’t ideal either. Her father walked out on her family many years earlier leaving Szu with a cold and distant mother who doesn’t love her and who on most days can barely get out of bed.
Szu’s mother is also stunningly beautiful—the kind that makes men and women stop and stare at her as she walks down the street. Before she had Szu her mother acted in a series of cult horror movies called Ponti! Szu’s mother played the part of a Pontianak, a vengeful female ghost from Singaporean, Indonesian, and Malay folklore. The ghost seduces unsuspecting men and then sucks the soul and youth out of them.
But then things change for Szu when she meets sarcastic and equally awkward, Circe. The two develop an intense friendship that gives Szu hope and a chance to escape from her home life. However, good things don’t always last, and you can’t always count on your friends.
Seventeen years later, Circe is faced with feelings of guilt over what happened to Szu and their friendship.
The story really sucked me in. I so wanted Szu to be happy and to give her mother a big kick in the butt for being so awful and to tell Circe to stop being such a jerk. The writing is really good—I’m only sad that I haven’t been able to find any other books by Sharlene Teo.
One of my FAVORITE books on Singapore!
By Rachel Heng, (2023)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“Think how much stronger we’ll be if we can make land wherever we need. A little island like our own. First, independence, then, who knows! Why should we not have everything the Ang Mohs do? Why not enjoy the same prosperity that the West does? And here we are, about to take the very first step. You can achieve anything with a hardworking people, a dedicated government—”
I’ve been waiting for a book like this ever since I stepped foot in Singapore and fell in love with the place.
The Great Reclamation is a sweeping work of historical fiction that tells the story of how Singapore went from a third-world country to a wealthy, safe, clean yet authoritarian, nanny state.
The story follows the life of Ah Boon, a poor boy born before WWII in a humble fishing village on the coast of Singapore.
The first time his father takes him fishing, Ah Boon discovers several magical islands that no one knew existed. The islands are pristine and beautiful, and the waters are teeming with fish. Thanks to his magical gift, the family prospers. They’re able to send Ah Boon to school where he meets Siok Mei, a smart and passionate girl who he develops a deep bond with.
Then Japan invades and tragedy strikes the family. After the Japanese are defeated, the British return. But Singaporeans have had enough of the inequality, injustices, racism, neglect, and poverty of British rule. They demand independence.
As Singapore moves toward independence, the colony begins to change and modernize. The government starts to take care of the people. There’s modern housing and higher-paying jobs. Life is more convenient and comfortable.
But there is a price to pay for this comfort, security, and prosperity. The old way of life is gone. The family, the village, the islands, the beaches, and the mangroves are gone. Freedom is gone. Democracy is sacrificed. (If you know anything about Singapore, I’m not giving away anything here.)
Ah Boon, his family, and Siok Mei perceive these changes in different ways. Some try to hold on to the past while others see the destruction of the old as necessary for prosperity in the future.
The Great Reclamation is one of the best books I’ve read in 2023. It’s beautifully crafted, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking.
I’m never going to see Singapore the same way again.
It’s the PERFECT book to read before (or after) a trip to Singapore.
NONFICTION BOOKS ABOUT SINGAPORE
By Jim Baker (2012)
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I fell in love with Singapore, and so I wanted to understand its history more deeply than the back of a Lonely Planet guide could give me. So, I purchased Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore. I was not disappointed.
Crossroads tells the history of these two countries from its first inhabitants 2,500 years ago to 2005. You’ll learn about why the British bought Singapore from the Sultan of Johor-Riao, why the colony and later the nation prospered, why the Japanese were able to conquer Singapore so easily, why no one had any expectations for it to succeed after independence, why there’s so much public housing, and how Lee Kuan Yu was able to become so powerful and how he turned Singapore into a wealthy semi-democratic/dictatorship nanny state.
Crossroads helped me understand Singapore much better and appreciate the many obstacles the Chinese, Indian, and Malays had to overcome to succeed.
By Ria de Jong (2022)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The Lonely Planet guidebook for Singapore is a mixture of good and bad. My favorite thing about it is that they mention places that I never would have gone to if I hadn’t had the travel guide I’ve never seen another blogger mention the Baba House or the Peranakan Museum.
The book has a plethora of maps of each neighborhood with super easy-to-read legends in the back of the book.
However, the Singapore guidebook has the same weaknesses that other LP guides have. They tend to substitute clarity for humor. I like witty writing, but in travel guides, I just want to know what the best way to get from point A to point B is and how much is it going to cost me in the simplest terms possible. No matter how many times I read it, I couldn’t decipher LP’s description of how to get from Singapore to Malaysia.
Some of their information is wrong or out-of-date. In getting to the zoo, they mention that taking public transportation would be too complicated. Take a taxi, they said. Not true at all.
Still, it’s the BEST travel guide for Singapore you can buy.
Have you read any of these books about Singapore?
What did you think of them?
Do you have any books set in Singapore that you suggest reading?
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