13 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?
Then I picked up a few more books about Singapore–the Aunty Lee Mysteries and Moonlight Palace, and I became even more curious about the country.
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.
Since my trip, I’ve picked up a few more books: Singapore Grip, another mystery series by Ovidia Yu, and Ministry of Moral Panic.
Here are my three must-read books about Singapore:
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
1-3. Aunty Lee Mystery Series
By Ovidia Yu (2013, 2014, 2016)
Aunty Lee’s Delights – 3 out of 5 stars
Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials – 4 out of 5 stars
Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge – 4 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.
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 really enjoyable! Aunty Lee is a hoot and the plot is pretty plausible. Ovidia Yu is a decent writer. A fun series of books about Singapore!
4-6. Crazy Rich Asians Series
By Kevin Kwan (2016)
Crazy Rich Asians – 5 out of 5 stars
China Rich Girlfriend – 3 out of 5 stars
Rich People Problems – 5 out of 5 stars
I consider myself a serious reader, 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.
Book 2 – China Rich Girlfriend
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.
I learned about the Black and White houses from the first book and went on a tour of them when I was in Singapore.
Yes, I’d read them. They’re fun and they’ll make you want to visit Singapore. These are great books that portray an exaggerated version of Singapore. How is that much different from American TV shows or movies of the rich and famous? Those aren’t realistic either.
7. How We Disappeared
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 visit her kampong and take 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 what happened to her during the war 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 broke 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.
8. Moonlight Palace
By Liz Rosenberg (2014)
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The Moonlight Palace is an enjoyable novel that takes the reader back to the1920s 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 onto its crumbling palace, fending off greedy government officials, scheming con-artists, and bungling terrorists.
Maybe. I’m not sure how much of what Rosenberg wrote 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 context when I visited Kampong Glam. The palace still exists. Sitting right next to the Aladdin-like Sultan’s Mosque, it’s now called the Malay Heritage Centre.
Moonlight Palace is a decent book about Singapore. However, probably not my first choice.
9. Singapore Grip
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 purchasing it until recently.
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 activities like a car ride from the airport. A lot of the book is spent analyzing the evils of colonialism, the greed of western capitalism, and the double standards of the Europeans toward the Japanese. 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! We know the Japanese are going to invade, but they don’t. There are a few other well-developed supporting characters who are just as fascinating.
Yes and yes! It’s the only fiction book about Singapore I read that focused on the Japanese invasion from a British perspective. As a historical novel, it’s great for giving you an understanding of Singapore’s history and for enlightening you on the struggles the Chinese refugees went through. However, the Singapore Grip focuses solely on the Europeans. The Chinese, Malays, and Indians serving roles as servants or prostitutes. However, at that time period, there wouldn’t have been much intermingling between the races and classes.
Yes, even at this high price. It’s such a well-written and fascinating book. It sucked me in for 578 pages. It’s the best-written book on this list of books set in Singapore.
10. Soy Sauce for Beginners
By Kirsten Chen (2014)
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Written by Kirsten Chen, Soy Sauce for Beginners was just ok. The story isn’t original enough and the main character, Gretchen, is dull as a doorknob.
Having lived in America 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. I had no idea that there was such a thing as artisanal soy sauce. There’s also the typical story of the struggle between personal ambition and filial piety. Nothing new.
For those into Asian cuisine, there’s some interesting information about soy sauce. It made me want to be more sensitive to the soy sauce I used in my cooking. It didn’t inspire me to visit Singapore nor did it inform me enough.
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!
NONFICTION BOOKS ABOUT SINGAPORE
12. Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and 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.
Yes, I’d buy it. Crossroads helped me understand Singapore much better and appreciate the many obstacles the Chinese, Indian, and Malays had to overcome to succeed.
Most of the book was well-written, easy-to-follow and enlightening. It held my attention while lying on the beach in Langkawi and enduring multiple bus and boat rides around Asia. The ending gets bogged down in too much politics and not enough people, but other than that, it’s one of the more information books about Singapore.
13. Lonely Planet Singapore
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 it. 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 written 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. It was published in 2018, but not once do they mention Grab, the ridesharing service found all over Southeast Asia.
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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Looking for more info on Malaysia and Singapore?
- How to travel from Singapore to Malaysia by Bus
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- Penang Itinerary: 3 Days of Street Art and Night Markets
- 10 Best Books about Malaysia: Read Before You Go!
- Singapore Itinerary: How to Spend 5 Days in Singapore
- How to Save Money in Singapore
- 10 Awesome Books About Singapore
- Hello Singapore Food Tour - Unbiased and Honest Review
- Review of Black and White Houses Tour
Have you tried Ponti by Slarlene Teo? Quirky but so well written. I loved it!