Skip to main content

How 'Beauty Queens Of Bishan' Got Me Through The Boredom Of Safe Distancing

When the circuit breaker started, I told myself that finally, FINALLY, I would have more time to read. I envisioned myself plowing through two, three, four books a week.

I finished exactly one, and that was Beauty Queens Of Bishan.

I like telling myself that this book was such a riot that it nullified all my other attempts at reading – that nothing, not even Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – could rival Akshita Nanda’s tale of sparring salon owners.

The truth is, I was unfocused and lazy, not to mention anxious about the days to come. But this book, with its heartland setting and clown car of personalities, took me back to the days when I could get a haircut without wearing a mask, and when eyebrow tattooing was treated like an essential service.

The story follows veteran salon owner Gurpreet Kaur and her arch-rival, April Chua, who has just opened a beauty parlour down the street. In a bid to control the network of salon owners in their HDB estate, Gurpreet and April enter two of their star clients into the Grand Glam Singapore Beauty Contest.

Gurpreet’s client is Tara Chopra, scion of a wealthy Indian family and mother of an Instagram-famous pair of teen influencers. April’s is Candy Kang, a Mediacorp actress-turned-mommy blogger, otherwise known as the “Queen of Caldecott Hill” and “Peranakan Cinderella”. Throw in Gurpreet’s occasionally dimwitted Malaysian assistant, who skirts Singapore’s employment laws to earn money under the table, and Tara’s African-American BFF, who worked on Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign - and who treats Tara's candidacy with as much seriousness - and you've got the makings of a glorious local comedy. 

While the premise might sound a little silly, Nanda hooks you in by constantly raising the stakes. There’s scheming. There’s a hospitalisation. There's a delightfully awkward plot arc about a fat-phobic barb mistakenly sent over Whatsapp. And there’s Singlish. Lots and lots of Singlish. Chapters alternate between different points of view, which can feel disorienting at first, but trust me: seeing all those plot points come together, only to descend into a cesspool of backstabbing, will make you care more than you ever thought you would about the politics of waxes and facials.

If you’ve read Nanda’s debut novel, Nimita’s Place, then you should know that Beauty Queens is a tonal 180. But that doesn’t mean that it lacks depth. Amidst all the squabbling, the book raises questions about beauty standards in Singapore and the price women are willing to pay in order to preserve their femininity.

Which reminds me, it’s time to book my post-quarantine eyebrow appointment. Pandemic or not, April and Gurpreet would definitely NOT approve of these caterpillars.  

Available in local bookstores and online via Kinokuniya

For the latest updates on, be sure to follow us on TikTok, Telegram, Instagram, and Facebook. If you have a story idea for us, email us at [email protected].

Share with others!