She was born in Singapore in 1974. During her youth she spent three years in the Netherlands. At first she studied English Literature at the University of East Anglia, from which she graduated with honours. Tan also holds a Master's Degree in English Studies (1500-1660) from the University of Oxford. After winning the New York Times Fellowship in 1997 she studied creative writing at New York University. She has since received her MFA in Creative Writing at New York University. She has published various short stories before, at the age of 22, she got her first book, Foreign Bodies (1997), to print. Her second novel, Mammon Inc (2001), was adapted for the stage during the 2002 Singapore Arts Festival and won the 2004 Singapore Literature Prize. Furthermore she has received awards from the National Arts Council, the National University of Singapore, the New York Times Foundation and the British Broadcasting Corporation.
She currently resides in New York and visits Singapore and Europe frequently.