Notes from a re-formed Ah Lian


For some reason, I always get the words ‘ah lian’ thrown at me. I’m quite bewildered. True, I might used to have bright red hair; I might used to be cuss quite fluently in dialects, but not anymore. Now you’re more likely to see me trying not to pull out my hair while working on articles at cafes than to walk around the heartlands in too tiny shorts with pointy combs sticking out of the back pocket.


What is it to be an ah lian, though? I’ll say that even at my most… ah lianness, I wasn’t meeting enough of the requirements to be considered a full blown one. Urbandictionary and Wikipedia seem to both have quite condescending views of ah lians, characterising them with bad fashion, bad English, crudeness and loud and foul-mouthed.

I guess the reason why I was considered ah lian – despite my relatively good command of English – was the fact that I didn’t shy away from having a head full of dyed red hair. If ostentatious is the sole defining trait, then I’m probably guilty as charged.


Ah lians to Singapore are just like guidos to Jersey Shore. They’re both considered quite caricature of the locals, with all the quirks and characteristics, just more loud. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being ah lian. In fact, ah lians can be some of the most endearing friends you’ll ever make. After all, once you’re friends with them, they’ll consider you their sister (or brother).

I’ve long since given up trying to protest the label ‘ah lian’ being used on me, because there’s nothing that bad about being thought as one. Sure, there are some characteristics that I might cringe at (I hope my fashion sense isn’t horrible), but get on the good side of an ah lian and you’ll see so many traits that have been ignored while people made fun at them.

It probably isn’t just the superficial – not the way they dress or look. Perhaps it’s more an attitude. Ah lians wouldn’t tolerate anything less than what they feel they deserve, and good luck to you if you even tried to short change her and treat her badly. And in this age of burgeoning feminism, isn’t that a good thing to know your worth and refusing to stand for anything less?

Having said that, there is probably more than one category of ah lians. There’s the xiao lians, who are usually only around 13-years old and just beginning to realise their potential for more. These xiao lians usually have their fringe in their face – breaking school rules about hair regulation – and graphic t-shirts. Then there is the generic ah lian, usually a few years into it and around 16 to 20-years old, normally with hair in every colour imaginable because they’re finally done with secondary school and can dye their hair to their heart’s content. Next we have the reformed ah lians like me, who have long since given up the brightly coloured hair and too-tight clothes but will still stare you down if you offend me

Be nice to the Ah Lian you know – she’s as essential to Singapore as Chap Chye Peng and sheltered walkways.





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