Note: This article contains adult themes and references
If you’re wondering what exactly the ‘Singapore Grip’ is, you’re not the only one. In ITV’s The Singapore Grip, it’s a question which perplexes our protagonist Matthew Webb (Luke Treadaway) since the moment he first hears the phrase. What is the Singapore Grip? Why does everyone keep giving him such different answers, and why does the solution seem to always be just out of his grasp?
The ITV drama is based on JG Farrell’s 1978 novel The Singapore Grip, in which Matthew’s quest to pin down a definition of the ‘Singapore Grip’ becomes a running joke.
Finally, just before the end of the book, he is told the true meaning of the term: it is the name of a very specific sexual technique (Look away now if you don’t want to know, but: the technique, also known as “pompoir” or the “Singapore Kiss”, involves the woman using her vaginal muscles to stimulate the man’s penis while both remain stationary. And now you know.)
However, the novel also suggests some alternative definitions for “The Singapore Grip”, including the ‘grip’ or ‘stranglehold’ of the British Empire and Western economies on the so-called “Far East”.
So, what is the Singapore Grip – really?
In the novel, the first mention comes when Matthew steps out of the aeroplane that has brought him to the British colony for the first time in his life. “Don’t forget to watch out for the Singapore Grip!” shouts a crew member after him as he clambers out onto the tarmac.
On the way from the airport to the Mayfair (the home belonging to his father, played by Charles Dance), he tries to find out what the man had meant. Addressing his new companions Joan Blackett (Georgia Blizzard), Monty Blackett (Luke Newberry) and his old friend Jim Ehrendorf (Bart Edwards), he enquires: “Does anyone happen to know what the Singapore Grip is? The RAF blokes in the plane kept telling me to watch out for it but they wouldn’t tell me what it actually was!” However, we are told, “as a conversational gambit this proved a failure.”
Matthew is not to be deterred. Next he tries Frenchman Francois Dupigny (Christophe Guybet), who tells him: “I believe it is what they call here a certain tropical fever, very grave. Certainly, you must watch out for it.” Though it’s tricky to tell when Dupigny is being facetious, this seems to be what he genuinely thinks it is; “flu” is, after all, “grippe” in French. (Later, after Matthew collapses with a fever – of which more later – Dupigny remarks: “C’est la grippe de Singapour si je ne me trompe pas” – “it is the Singapore flu if I am not mistaken”.)
However, even Matthew is dubious: “But why, wondered Matthew, would the RAF men have found it so amusing if it was a serious illness? This was a mystery.”
We get more of a hint about the phrase’s real meaning when Matthew and Monty are surrounded by pimps and desperate sex workers, one of whom asks if either of them would like to try the Singapore Grip. But Matthew is too stunned by the scene to “make head nor tail” of what’s going on.
As the night wears on, Matthew becomes dizzier and sicker and more confused, at one point suddenly demanding of Joan and Ehrendorf “if, by the way, either of them happened to know what a Singapore Grip might be, was it a fever of some sort?”
At this, “Ehrendorf seemed taken aback by this question: after a moment’s consideration he said he thought it was a suitcase made of rattan, like a Shanghai Basket, as they were called, only smaller.
“Joan, however, said no. In an authoritative tone she declared it to be a patent double-bladed hairpin which some women used to curl their hair after they had washed it.”
But Matthew defaults back to Dupigny’s definition: the Singapore Grip must, after all, be an illness. And he must have caught it. Swaying terribly and trying to hold himself upright, he tells his surprise visitor Vera Chiang (Elizabeth Tan): “As a matter of fact, I’m not feeling very well. I seem to be having an attack of the Singapore Grip, or whatever it’s called.”
Then, Farrell writes, “It was Miss Chiang’s turn to look surprised at this information and she even went a little pink about the cheeks, which made her, thought Matthew, look prettier than ever. For a moment she appeared nonplussed, though.”
After Matthew’s recovery, no one talks about the Singapore Grip for a few hundred pages. But then suddenly it crops again when Matthew and Vera pull back a curtain and stumble upon “two startled Chinese men giving each other a rather peculiar handshake. What were they doing? he asked Vera.” Vera says she doesn’t know, but that perhaps it’s a “secret society”.
“D’you think that was the Singapore Grip?” asks Matthew, and “Vera shook her head, smiling” – finding this question “entertaining”.
But then, finally, Matthew gets his answer from his friend Ehrendorf, who no longer thinks that a Singapore Grip is a rattan suitcase: “It seems that the expression ‘the Singapore Grip’ refers to the ability acquired by certain ladies of Singapore to control their autonomous vaginal muscles, apparently with delightful results.”
The girls staying at the Mayfair during the attack on the city had agreed to tell him what it was for a dollar, and “hinted that for ten dollars it might be possible to arrange a demonstration.”
Matthew, however, refuses to accept this definition.
“‘No, Jim, that’s not what the Singapore Grip is,’ cried Matthew, his eyes flashing more than ever. ‘I know what it is! It’s the grip of our Western culture and economy on the Far East… it’s the stranglehold of capital on the traditional cultures of Malaya, China, Burma, Java, Indo-China and even India herself! It’s the doing of things our way – I mean, it’s the pursuit of self-interest rather than of the common interest!”
As Matthew continues, American soldier Ehrendorf reflects “that in any case the Singapore Grip was about to be pried loose, if that was what it was.” Shortly afterwards, Singapore falls to the Japanese.