Creating Chick Lit for Asian Audiences

The man who grace thinks is the One has finally given her The Ring! She is so blinded by love, she barely registers that he is moving overseas for work and hardly has time to talk to her—or that a leggy blonde appears in nearly all his photos. When Grace surprises him with a visit to Singapore, she suddenly finds herself on a furious chase to save her dream wedding, her sanity and her future children. The plot of Amazing Grace, by Tara FT Sering, bears all the hallmarks of a typical chick-lit novel: a young, fashionable heroine working in a big city; a desperate quest for love; a series of obstacles encountered and overcome. But this story does have one notable difference: it was written by an Asian author for an Asian audience, and the protagonist is Chinese-Filipino.

Over the past decade, chick lit has quickly become a pop-culture phenomenon and a commercial force at bookstores all over the globe. Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary (1996) and Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City (1997) were two of the most successful early chick-lit books, selling millions of copies, appearing in dozens of translations, spawning film and TV adaptations and turning their heroines into cult figures. More recently, Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic series and Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada—and the new Chasing Harry Winston—have also won over fans worldwide.

But while Anglo-American chick lit has inspired Latin American, Eastern European and Indian versions of the genre, Asian authors have been slower to embrace it. "There is a lot of interesting experimental writing coming out of China, but commercial chick lit doesn't really exist," says Marysia Juszczakiewicz, head of Literary Agency at Hong Kong's Creative Work, which publishes the Asia Literary Review. While many Asian female novelists have tackled romance and sex—Wei Hui in Shanghai Baby or Ayu Utami in Saman, for instance—they haven't really done so in the lighthearted, funny style associated with chick lit. "Western chick lit is about aspirations and relationships—and largely having it all," says Juszczakiewicz. "Chinese women's fiction is more about identity, and often set against a social and historical backdrop."

Now one regional publisher, Marshall Cavendish, is seeking to capitalize on that market gap with witty literature written for Asian women and set within the Asian socioeconomic milieu. Last November it released the first three novels in a series titled Asian Chic, featuring sassy heroines trying to balance work, family and love. The initial response was encouraging if not overwhelming, with each book selling about 2,000 copies in Singapore and Malaysia—modest compared with established titles like The Nanny Diaries.

This month the publisher is launching Keshara Young's The Love of Her Life, which follows the jet-setting adventures of a billionaire's newly married daughter who is still pondering whether she married the right man. Two more titles are scheduled for later this year, thanks in part to a writing competition the publisher recently conducted in Singapore. More than 60 writers sent in their synopses, creating such a flurry of interest that Marshall Cavendish is now planning a similar contest in Malaysia. "We've always seen a demand for quality fictional writing with a local slant in the region," says Chris Newson, general manager of Marshall Cavendish. "Chick lit has been one of the most successful global publishing genres over the last 15 years, and it's been very successful commercially in the region, so why not produce a local variety?"

The trick is to make even local varieties hew closely to the standard formula. "You have a heroine who is cosmopolitan and independent-—someone who other women want to be," says Noelle Chua, author of Mrs. MisMarriage, whose heroine's glamorous life loses its luster as soon as her new boyfriend proposes. "But she's not perfect, like the heroines of old Barbara Cartland romance novels. From the beginning, like in Bridget Jones, you see her flaws, and the heroine can laugh at herself."

While love's travails and professional success are universal chick-lit themes, Asian chick lit also reflects some cultural differences. "In Western chick lit, the heroine's support system consists almost entirely of friends, but in Asian societies, family is also very much involved," says Lum Kit Wye, the winner of the Marshall Cavendish writing competition. Her novel, In Ten Easy Steps, about a homebody legal secretary who relies on her family to help her change her life after her boyfriend dumps her, will be published in Singapore this fall. Sex, fairly pervasive though never very graphic in most Anglo-Saxon chick lit, is more understated in Asian chick-lit novels. "The heroines are urbane, modern Asians, but they're probably less forward than their Western counterparts, especially in terms of their relationships with men," says Chua. "I think Asian women by and large are still less aggressive and outspoken than Western ones."

What works in one Asian country seems to work in another; Marshall Cavendish recently reached a licensing deal with a Philippine publisher for rights to the first three Asian Chic books. Similar negotiations are underway in Hong Kong and Thailand. But whether these novels can entice readers in Europe and Ameri-ca is less certain. "It will have to be strong work, because it's a style well installed in the West," says Juszczakiewicz. Still, there are some names Asian writers could drop that would help their work resonate with chick-lit fans everywhere: Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo, for starters.