Intro: An updated trip to this prosperous city-state where the LGBT community has learned well the rules for survival and good business. Today’s gay Singapore is surprisingly active, varied and always pushing the envelop of tolerance.
By Richard Ammon
Updated December 2010
Ventures and Adventures
A week’s crawl through Singapore’s and its emerging gay ‘ghetto’ in the Chinatown district is not just a visual treat, but also a strategic triumph in this city-state famous for repressing ‘alternative’ ideas and risqué behavior. In the course of an evening with Alex Au–businessman, noted activist, prolific author, web site owner (Yawning Bread) I was invited to see and listen to a ‘new’ gay pulse in this prosperous gem of life in southeast Asia.
It was nearly five years since my last visit here, a time when the gay ‘horizon’ was creeping tentatively toward the political-commercial sunlight and testing the climate by having occasional ‘gay’ night at certain discos and bars. Private parties and friendship networks existed, of course, and the community knew each other by face and name but mostly in private. It was a time when activist Au tried to hold a gay symposium and invited presenters to read thoughtful papers on homosexuality, and a time when the government denied him permission. It was a time when the gay group ‘People Like Us’ wanted to register as an official organization but was turned down—on a technicality—but really because they were too controversial.
Fast forward to March 2002. ‘People Like Us’ still cannot get registered and political agitators are held suspect by the authorities. But the winds of change have calmly yet discernibly blown across Singapore. The once taboo homosexual style of life has continued to find increasing vocal and visible presence in the arts, in fashion, in entertainment, nightlife and, importantly, in business. There are now three lesbian bars, gay saunas, several gay massage parlors as well as several gay bars, discos and clubs with lesbian-only-nights around the city with new ones emerging and unpopular ones closing.
As if to tease the authorities while pushing the social envelop, one of the most popular gay bar/discos in Chinatown is deliberately named ‘Taboo’. Situated on a main street, it is no back alley den on a low budget. It’s design is vibrant, hard edged and chic. With the latest high tech lighting, surround-sounds and flashy industrial-tech interior.
This is home, especially on weekends, to hundreds of bare-chested gyrating mostly young (and mostly drug-free) guys carried off by the latest Sing-tech rhythms. Alex and I stopped by early on a Wednesday night when the crowd was sparse; a few friends sipped drinks and no one on the dance floor yet. Things warm up closer to midnight we were told by one of the too-cute waiters.
To Alex Au, this is not just the result of good business acumen, hip design, and sex appeal. It’s also a political process, an evolution of a community that has discerned wiser survival tactics against a very alert and reactive government. At one of our stops, at the upstairs Backstage Bar in Chinatown—a comfortable lounge with outdoor balcony seating and drenched in musicals posters—Au explained himself.
“Opening these new saunas and bars and holding events has become our way of reflecting our Singaporean passion for business discreetly mixed with pleasure; and in the gay business qualitynow goes hand in hand with commerce as people here have come to expect style in their social venues. In the process of doing business, we are also exercising political muscle more than ever before.”
(photo right: Backstage Bar logo)
Such an assertion about gay life hasn’t come suddenly or out of out nowhere. The politics of gay commerce in Singapore have been developing over the years. An example is Vincent’s bar in the Lucky shopping center, the oldest gay venue in Singapore. “The place has never generated controversy, and neither have most gay efforts here. What we noticed eventually was that these places were, in return, undisturbed by the authorities, It took us a while to escape from our own paranoia and self-censorship to realize that we were not under ‘first-strike’ attack,” Au observed insightfully.
“So now, over the past four years we have bars, gyms and clubs like Taboo, Backstage,Orange, double ‘O’. V-club, Why Not, Stroke, the Box and others, plus massage parlors like Luap Luap (all in or near Chinatown), five saunas including sauna One-Seven; and of course we have the people who own and run Fridae.com web site “.
Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
Unlike their neighbors to the north in Kuala Lumpur, the Singapore community doesn’t lack spirited gadflies willing to push to the edge of political tolerance against a willful government. The result in Singapore, especially in the past 4 years of this cat and mouse game has been to clarify what the real (vs. feared) limits are. This strengthening of resolve to play up to but not over those limits has resulted in an energized, commercially active and mostly un-harassed gay business and social community. Although there are still no officially recognized gay-identified organizations there are numerous prospering business ventures that are out and proudly gay in all but name.
(This is not to suggest that Malaysian gays and lesbians have been dormant in their efforts. The local Kuala Lumpur theatre scene–particularly those in the English and Chinese theatre scene–have pushed the social/political boundaries in no small measure in the past 10 years by staging a number of LGBT-themes. The highly feminist New York hit “The Vagina Monologues”, with its very explicit lesbian characters, was recently staged in KL in conjunction with International Women’s Day. See gay Malaysia story.)
For KL and Singapore, both vying for commercial leadership in southeast Asia, an important difference is the influence of religion. Malaysia and Singapore have been democracies since independence in the 1950’s (Malaysia gained its independence in 1957 and Singapore in 1965), Both governments have been technically secular and independent of religious affiliation. But Malaysia is nearly 50% Muslim and is clearly under Islamic influence which this makes a difference for the LGBT community: gays remain fairly static, invisible and inhibited. On the other hand, Singapore’s religion is commerce and enterprise: gay life here is energetic, infused with new ideas, daring and exploring new opportunities.
A Vibrant Community
Over the course of a few nights, in Singapore, I went to a lesbian play, visited a Singaporean based gay web site, stopped at two (out of half a dozen) popular full-time gay bars, browsed among dozens, even hundreds, of lesbigay/feminist gender study books offered at Border’s Books on Orchard Road, almost visited one of five saunas for men, watched the cruising scene near Orchard Tower along upscale Orchard Road, lunched with a transsexual hooker (whom I met along with her tranny friends in an Internet shop), bicycled past the ‘gay’ dunes near Fort Road on the east coast sea front, and entered the high dungeon cabaret called Igor’s for an evening of drag, song and dance.
Of course the government is very aware of the presence of this lively gay community and their quiet insistence for breathing space. Yet the authorities, steeped in ancient Chinese Confucian (i.e. conformist) traditions, are not culturally prepared to openly endorse rights and privileges for an “alternative” lifestyle. Although Singapore prides itself on progressive democratic ideas and high standards of fairness and cleanliness—in politics and law as well as business–the government denied the 2005 Nation party permission to hold Asia’s biggest gay party. Instead, it was moved to Phuket in Thailand where it was a big success. In October 2006 Nation will again be held in Phuket.
The New Way
The way out of this seeming impasse was suggested by a newspaper editor (in good Confucian style) who opined that in modern Singapore “things are allowed to change—without publicity.” This has been taken, by Alex Au and others, as a useful signal and strategy for moving the ‘gay agenda’ forward. “The key idea here is ‘evolution’ over publicity. “So now we simply don’t’ advertise our activities as ‘gay’ but more as enterprise and business, noted Au.”
Indeed, Au thinks there are three ‘G’s’ that will become important growth factors in Singapore’s future economy and political policy-making: green, gray and gay. Green for money, as always; Gray for services and goods for senior citizens; (cognizant of it’s aging population, Singapore now gives tax breaks to couples with a third child); and, thirdly, Gay for the relative prosperous presence of the lesbigay community with its increasingly expendable incomes. Au sees more people coming out of the closet as more gay-theme and gay-owned businesses emerge to spread the message that being gay is slowly but surely losing its stigma.
Evidence for this can be seen and felt in the sexual energy in Singapore’s cinemas, playhouses, clubs, fashion, media advertising. A major annual event is the Mister Singapore contest which, although not promoited as a gay event, offers handsome and hunky contestants vying for the title by showing off their various talents (singing and dancing usually), as well as modeling casual clothes, formal wear and, of course, ever popular swim wear outfits—to the usual hoots, howls and whistles from the admiring audience. It’s produced and held at a ‘local’ venue, the Boom Boom Room (gay) bar along with sponsorship from hair and beauty salons, clothing stores, alternative ‘Juice’ magazine and a language institute.
But in none of the advertising, promotional material or venue decorations is the word ‘gay’ mentioned. “That’s the line we stay back from, sort of. The word appears in news reports but not in our headings,” said Dr. Stuart Koe, one of the city-state’s more articulate and engaging entrepreneurs.
His attractive and popular web site Fridae.com is pure Singapore class and style. It’s an interactive sight with news, a calendar of events, bulletin board, photos, chat rooms, dating services as well as thoughtful features storie about gay life in Asia. It sponsors and advertises dances, parties. special events and merchandise. Nearly as important as the content is the fact that it recently celebrated its second anniversary of being out and proud—while cleverly avoiding controversial labels such as ‘rainbow community’, ‘pride power’, or ‘gay and lesbian’.
“It’s a matter of practicality,” explained Koe. “This government is pragmatic above all and it succeeds in its policies because it imposes strictures on people who then develop their own self-censorship. I’m no exception to this, except that I know the difference between excessive self-censorship and good business acumen. If you know the rules here you don’t break them, but it doesn’t mean you can’t play right up to that limit, to be on the cutting edge.”
“At Fridae.com we don’t create controversy. We’ll never succeed if we go head on with the authorities. We can’t afford to forget that, so instead we move ahead with our business or agendas and remove any activity or words that might generate fireworks. No one ever said you can’t have fun, just don’t be controversial. ‘Being’ gay here is not a big problem. We’ve almost never been chased down the streets or rounded up. There haven’t been any busts in recent years, mostly because of this self-censorship atmosphere.”
“The new approach is: we don’t’ have to be authorized or certified or acknowledged officially. To push for that is to invite confrontation. What we want instead is to prove ourselves as a viable and respectful community who deserve to have anti-gay laws removed from the books. As long as they’re there, they remain a threat even though there’s little obvious homophobia, no persecution or bashing. It also doesn’t help that the Anglican church hierarchy won’t relent from its self-righteous homophobic policies.”
Speaking with the confidence of any efficient businessman, Koe explained, “in reality there is no reason to be afraid. We can be as gay as we want—just don’t have sex in inappropriate places or show it online or in print. That’s not hard to do. In fact, Fridae’s next step is to apply to do a film festival. It will screen alternative films, some with gay themes—but we’ve have these already and the censors let them by. We’ll try to bring in some films that may cross the line, but if we don’t try we won’t know how much the censorship board’s thinking has changed. And, again, an important detail is that we won’t call this a ‘gay and lesbian’ film festival. We won’t go that route, but we do ‘push’ within the allowable system. This is a crucial difference for the Asian model of the gay movement—more moderate, less rebellious. More Confucian.” Then with an enigmatic yet charming smile he was off to another business meeting.
Igor’s on Wednesdays
The place looks as if it were designed by Charles Adams, the cartoonist with a cast of ghouls and haunting characters. Inside, this popular cabaret on the fringe of Singapore’s trendy downtown, there are ghosts and gremlins painted on the walls. The bartenders wear dungeon rags with smeared make-up. Eerie creaks and groans moan from speakers in the background as customers, some dressed in suitable Rocky Horror outfits, climb the steps to the main hall where the show is about to start.
It’s Wednesdays at Igor’s and for a few weeks three of Singapore’s most popular drag entertainers (Kumar, Irene Ang and Norleena Salim) hit the limelight with dancing, lip-synch and comedy. The cavernous hall, complete with gargoyles and cobwebs, is packed with hip young folks, gay and straight, in jeans and black T’s stretching and craning to see the campy and witty threesome outdo each other with putdowns about each other and Singapore life. “Darlings, we can’t talk about sex in front of all these people—this is vanilla Singapore!” (The three then huddle close gossiping privately about sex, gesturing madly and pointing to various body parts.)
Over the next hour and a half, they exchange more barbs and jokes between spirited choreographed dance routines featuring half a dozen lithesome young men backing up one, two or three lip-synchers. The energy is intense, upbeat and raucous—not what many outsiders would consider part of Singapore’s staid reputation and starched lifestyle.
Neither is ‘Sunshine’, a transsexual woman in her forties whom I met chatting on a computer next to me one night in an Internet shop. Born a male who grew up feeling more like a female, he underwent the therapy and surgery over twenty years ago. “I was so confused about who I was until I met some transvestites who helped straighten me out, so to speak. I went to the promenade one night dressed as a guy just to cruise and this one transvestite took one look at me and said ‘darling why are you dressed like that—don’t you know you are one of us!’ She introduced me to some others and they took me under their wing and from then on I felt at home.”
As we walked along the beach promenade on Singapore’s east coast, a few days later, Sunshine described, in her husky voice, the life she leads in Singapore as a prostitute, a daughter, a sister and as a former lover. Prostitution is discreetly legal in Singapore, she said. Although there is no such thing as a license, each girl carries a health card that attests to a recent medical examination. “Actually I don’t mind; it’s free health care,” she explained.
But the hard part is protecting her heart. Over the years, having worked abroad and at home, she has been with countless ‘Johns’ who have ranged from indifferent strangers to affectionate and gentle suitors who wanted to keep her as a mate. “But that never works out. I let it happen a couple of times, and I was the fool. Men change. They’re not honest. They think they are in love but they can’t tell the difference between lust and love. They get what they want, or what they imagine they want, and then they change. So many are like little boys who don’t know how to grow up,” she lamented with bittersweet memories of having tried one relationship for six years. “I was such an idiot, but I suppose I had to learn the hard way. He really didn’t care about who I was inside. He pretended and so I pretended he cared. In the end I left and I’ll never do that to myself again.” (photo right, Drag Performer: Kumar)
Tears moistened around her eyes as she betrayed her own efforts at steeling herself against the slings and arrows of intimate affairs. (The moment reminded of a teenagers’ T-shirt I saw the day before with the words –in the shape of a heart: ‘I never knew love could be so much trouble.’)
“Look at me. I haven’t felt this way for a long time,” she laughed wiping her eyes and looking out among the gently swaying palms to the sea beyond (loaded with dozens of huge cargo ships waiting to load or unload at the giant harbor nearby).
Her most constant heartache, however, comes not from fickle men, but rather from the indifference and partial love she feels from her family. Although her father was surprisingly supportive when she had her surgery, her mother took several years to come around and accept her youngest son as the youngest daughter. Now they are warmer but there is still a certain gap she feels in her mother’s affection.
Sunshine’s sister cut the deepest years ago when she asked Sunshine not to attend her child’s birthday party because her in-laws would be there. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe this from my own flesh and blood. We didn’t’ speak for twenty years after that. I should know better. I know how people are, but when it’s your own family, it still hurts terribly.”
Sunshine lives in her own government subsidized flat, a few minutes walk from the beach, that costs her less than US$100 a month. Her life in Singapore is “okay, but not as I would like it.” She claims she is not harassed or discriminated against, at least not overtly. Her ‘farm’ where she works is one of Singapore’s most fashionable areas, along Orchard Road (“oh my dear, everyone cruises there…”).
I wondered where Singapore’s lesbian community was until I went to a production of ‘Stop Kiss’, a lesbian coming out story produced by the Toy Factory Theatre in Chinatown. This pint-size theatre, seating about 75, offers a variety of socially relevant productions throughout the year including gay and lesbian and feminist themes. The previous month ‘A Beautiful Thing’, a British play about two young working class boys exploring their mutual feelings was presented.The audience for ‘Stop Kiss’ was 95% lesbian with a mere half dozen guys. The outfit of choice was clearly jeans and T-shirts, short black hair, definitely no make up.
The plays’ themes covered the usual range of ideas and feelings that surround dating, intimacy, sexuality separating and friendhsip. A couple of scenes involved live kissing which were explicit and tastefully performed. The script was somewhat uneven but the show did hold together enough to engage viewers (which was not hard to do with that evening’s audience).
The lesbian scene in Singapore is much less visible and daring than the men’s scene. There are currently no full time lesbian bars or clubs, although one young partner told me there are monthly parties at the Zouk club, one of the more popular gay venues in town. (Her partner was either too shy or unfriendly as she turned away after I asked them which club was the most popular.) She also mentioned Mad Monks as an occasional gathering place for lesbians.
According to two men I spoke to in Back Stage later that evening after the performance, there was a full time lesbian bar called Moon Dance. Although it was not originally a lesbian bar, it became popular with women. But it closed, rumor has it, because straight men, who continued to go there, were leering at the lesbian women. (What could they have been thinking!?)
(Just before the start of ‘Stop Kiss’, I chatted with a young man sitting next to me in the theatre. He said he never goes to bars or clubs. He didn’t know how many or the names of the gay places in town, and didn’t care. He lived a private life, worked, stayed at home a lot, enjoyed reading and went to good movies and plays with friends, although he was alone that night at the theatre. It was a good reminder that, despite the focus of this story, not all gay and lesbian folks habituate lesbigay haunts or choose to be on the cutting edge.
A Bit of Frosting
As a reminder of the ‘edge’ of sexuality that throbing, secular, sensual, youthful Singapore permits comes from a memory of the Japanese cinematic hit titled ‘Waterboys’ of 2001. It’s a slightly gender-bending comedy about high school ‘losers’ who form a boys synchronized swim team against all odds and go on to become heros.
The poignant and playful story involves issues of masculine identity, gay and straight limerence (both treated sympathetically), athletic discipline and sensuality. The boys, dressed in bikini swim suits, perform the final show with an impressive synchronized routine that gives the sport a strong boost and shows that masculinity can involve beauty and sensitivity. Images from the film.
So the scene here has its natural range of life from the restless activists to quiet isolationists, as perhaps it always has. But the difference in this season of 2002 is the apparent stronger courage of the movers and shakers who have opened the Singapore gay world to a wider range of choices. Emerging from the daring and clever ventures, the current LGBT alternatives are courageously obvious and exciting, including those created by a stalwart and earthy transsexual survivor and her computer-literate transvestite friends. From street-smarts to high tech ingenuity to crafty politics: gay Singapore is on the move.