Tan Hwee Hwee

Singapore Infopedia


Tan Hwee Hwee (b. 1974, Singapore–) was the recipient of the National Arts Council’s (NAC) Young Artist Award in 2003. She is the author of Foreign Bodies (1997)1 and Mammon Inc. (2001),2 which won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2004.3 Her works have been published with Michael Joseph, part of the Penguin Group.She has also worked as a lifestyle journalist with Singapore newspapers The Business Times and Today.5

Early life
Tan’s father is an engineer and her mother, a teacher. She studied at Raffles Girls’ School before moving to the Netherlands with her parents at the age of 15.Tan lived there for three years, after which she pursued her Bachelor of Arts at the University of East Anglia in England, graduating with first-class honours. She then went on to obtain her master’s in English studies at the University of Oxford. In 1997, supported by a New York Times Fiction Fellowship, she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing in New York University.

Tan stayed on New York and worked as a journalist with Adweek Magazine’s Technology Marketing magazine from 2000 to 2001.8 In 2001, she returned to Singapore because she had received a bursary from the NAC. Upon her return, she joined The Business Times as a lifestyle and arts reporter, and then became a senior writer for Twenty4Seven, a lifestyle and entertainment magazine. She also worked as a freelancer for publications such as TimeHarper’s BazaarElle, The Straits Times and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).9

Literary achievements
Tan decided to embark on fulltime writing when she was 16. She received between 200 to 500 rejection slips from publishers for her early writing efforts. However, her efforts paid off as she won awards such as the Ian St James Short Story Award and the BBC Radio Four “First Bite” competition for young writers.10 Her stories have been aired on the BBC and published in literary publications PEN International, Critical Quarterly and New Writing 6.11

Tan’s first novel, Foreign Bodies, was published when she was just 23, and still doing her graduate studies at the University of Oxford. Her manuscript reportedly caused a price war between Michael Joseph and Hodder & Stoughton, two major London-based publishers. The book was finally published by Michael Joseph as part of a two-book contract.12 The novel explores the anxieties and tensions of living in a postmodern world. Originally written as a series of short stories, it was later reworked into a novel.13 The book, which features elements from Eastern, Western, popular and religious cultures, garnered positive reviews from the critics. The Economist called it “a novel of distinction... almost indecently accomplished for a 23-year-old”, whereas Kirkus Reviews described it as “one of the strangest and most original works of the year”. Asiaweek named it as one of the best books of 1999.14

Tan wrote her second novel during her stay in New York from 1997 to 2001. Published in 2001, Mammon Inc. also received glowing reviews.15 Punch magazine called it “a remarkable novel that is stylishly written and well argued, with a story that is light, witty and yet dazzling in its details”. The Wall Street Journal hailed Tan as “the most important female fiction writer in English to emerge from Southeast Asia”.16 The novel, which follows Foreign Bodies in its eclectic mix of East and West, is a story of how materialism consumes the soul. It was adapted into a play by Action Theatre for the 2002 Singapore Arts Festival.17 In 2005, excerpts from Mammon Inc., were featured as part of the first staging of Second Link during the Singapore Writers Festival.18 For her artistic achievements, Tan received the National Arts Council’s Young Artist award in 2003, and Mammon Inc. won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2004.19


Tan’s tales about the dichotomised global citizen are influenced by her own personal experiences living in Singapore, the Netherlands and New York.20 Foreign Bodies deals with the evils of child abuse, which relates to Tan’s own childhood when she suffered molestation and violence.21 The story also relates to her work with rape victims while serving in the University of East Anglia’s student counselling service.22 

An avid reader since young, Tan explores a wide array of genres, from science-fiction, fantasy, plays, comics to football writing. On the literary front, she credits works by the Beat Generation writers, metaphysical poets, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Arthur Miller as influences. She also names Amy Tan, Michael Ondaatje, Robert Olen Butler and Rudyard Kipling as writers whose works have influenced the portrayal of Asians in books.23


1997: New York Times Fiction Fellowship, New York University
1997: Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Young Writer’s Fellowship24
2002: Singapore Internationale Award, Singapore International Foundation25
2003: Young Artist Award, National Arts Council
2004: Singapore Literature Prize, for Mammon Inc.

 Foreign Bodies
2001: Mammon Inc.

Gracie Lee

1. Tan Hwee Hwee, Foreign Bodies (London: Michael Joseph1998). (Call no. RSING S823 TAN)
2. Tan Hwee Hwee, Mammon Inc. (London: Michael Joseph, 2001). (Call no. RSING S823 TAN)
3. “Singapore Literature Prize 2004 Winners,” Singapore Book Council, accessed 8 October 2016.
4. Ong Sor Fern, “S’pore Author Sparks London Bidding War,” Straits Times, 2 August 1997, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Tan Hwee Hwee,” Linkedln.com, accessed 7 October 2016.
6. Jill Lim, “I Had Friends Who Were Raped,” New Paper, 30 July 1997, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Leong Liew Geok, ed., “Tan Hwee Hwee,” in Literary Singapore:  A Directory of Contemporary writing in Singapore. Singapore: National Arts Council, 2011), 47. (Call no. RSING: 809.895957 LIT) 
8. Parvathi Nayar, “Reaching Out to People,” Business Times, 30 June 2001, 19 (From NewspaperSG); Linkedln.com, “Tan Hwee Hwee.”
9. Toh Hsien Min, “Mammon and the Discipline of Writing,” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 21, no. 1 (January 2022)
10. Kirpal Singh, ed., “Positioned Bemusement: An Interview with Hwee Hwee Tan,” in Interlogue: Studies in Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Ethos Books, 1998), 167–74 (Call no. RSING 809.895957 INT); Ong, “S’pore Author Sparks London Bidding War.”
11. Tan, Foreign Bodies, n.p.  
12. Ong, “S’pore Author Sparks London Bidding War.”
13. Singh, “Positioned Bemusement,” 169–71.
14. Tan Hwee Hwee, “Foreign Bodies,” Blog, n.d.
15. Suhaila Sulaiman, “About Generation Expat,” Straits Times, 7 July 2001, 15 (From NewspaperSG); Nayar, “Reaching Out to People.” 
16. Tan Hwee Hwee, “Mammon Inc.,” Blog, n.d.
17. Clara Chow, “Drawing Inspiration from the Force,” Straits Times, 6 June 2002, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
18. June Cheong, “Cross-Strait Look,” Straits Times, 18 August 2006, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “About Young Artist Award,” National Arts Council, accessed 29 September 2016.
20. Alvin Pang, “Tale for Gen Vexed,” Straits Times, 18 August 2001, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Singh, “Positioned Bemusement,” 171; Lim, “I Had Friends Who Were Raped.” 
22. Singh, “Positioned Bemusement,” 171.
23. Toh Hsieh Min, “Mammon and the Discipline of Writing,” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 1, no. 1 (October 2001); Singh, “Positioned Bemusement,” 171.
24. Ong Sor Fern, “No Money for Five, But Award Is Symbol of Recognition,” Straits Times, 29 October 1997, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “S'pore Creative Works Go Overseas,” Straits Times, 31 May 2002, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Adeline Chia, “Spirituality Is Her New Calling,” Straits Times, 1 June 2008, 73. (From NewspaperSG)

“Faith of a Young Newcomer to Writing,” New Straits Times, 10 September 1997. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)

J. Samuel, “Mammon Inc.,” Esplanade: The Arts Magazine (November–December 2001), 83. (Call no. RSING 791.095957 E)

The information in this article is valid as at September 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 


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