A bittersweet look at the daily lives of the tranny whores of a legendary red-light district of 1960s Singapore – with free make-up tips!
This sweet, sad sketch of a film is a rarity indeed; not only the first major commercial movie made in Singapore, but an exceedingly gay one from a culture not known to tolerate chewing gum, much less the parade of drag queens,prostitutes, and naked hunks who populate the insular world of Bugis Street. Surprisingly, the film was passed by the country’s board of censors in spite of its casual nudity (including full frontal male), its focus on the lurid details of a “deviant” subculture, and its sympathetic treatment of an infamous red-light district that modern Singaporeans would probably prefer to forget.
Set in the mid-1960s, the film opens at an outdoor club crawling with horny, drunken American sailors and their dates, the drag and tranny whores of the Sin Sin Hotel. In a thrilling inversion of decades of clichés about military men whose late-night trysts with “faggots” are followed by guilty fits and violence, these “fake women” are willing to be fucked, but not fucked with. Early on, Lola (Ernest) brings a besotted hunk to her room (“three dollars per hour… or per day”). She valiantly does her part, blowing him and letting him fuck her vigorously on a window sill, with a steady tropical rain pouring behind them. The next morning he angrily refuses to pay, complaining he was duped. “My pussy is as good as any other!” she screams, and calls “the police” – a mini-mob of jeering locals who arrive quickly and force him to pay up.
Writer-director Yonfan’s painterly lighting and contemplative camera lovingly evoke the pleasures of Bugis Street as a kind of sacred drag space that allows the “girls” to survive and to some extent flourish in otherwise hostile terrain. Into this space steps a naïf in the form of a 16-year-old country girl – “a real girl!” as one of the queens says – named Lien (Hiep Thi Le). She’s come from the provinces to work as a maid at the Sin Hotel. At first shocked and disgusted by what she sees – stumbling into a room where one of the drags is stretched out naked with her trick – she comes to see the humanity behind the towering hair-dos, arched eyebrows, and screaming dish, in an awakening that neatly parallels the viewer’s experience with the film.
Lien’s confusion about her new life provides much of the humor here. In a letter to a friend back home, she wistfully states “I witnessed the sad departure of an American gentleman and his Chinese girl” – in reality, the “girl” is a man and the sailor her trick, and their “sad departure” is the end of a nasty fight. “It’s just like The World of Suzie Wong!” she says. Still, she shows a refreshingly feisty side of her personality early. When one of the drags patronizes her, she curses under her breath, “Cocky bitch! Bless you to be a whore the rest of your life!” Eventually she becomes comfortable enough to mock them to their faces, at one point shocking them by predicting that someday “I’ll hire all of you to be my maids and do my dirty laundry!” She’s fussed over, made up, and loved by her “sisters” in spite of such comments, particularly at a soiree that’s disrupted by her first period: “Your big auntie has just arrived today!” one of them reassures her as she lies screaming in a pool of blood.
Among the other exotics she meets is Meng (Michael Lam), Lola’s sexy, self-entranced trade boyfriend who wanders around in bikini briefs, rubbing himself and tantalizing Lien. More significant is Drago, a slinky Singaporean queen living in Paris who comes to the hotel to sell beauty products. Dressed in heavenly haute couture, and armed with an arsenal of stylized gestures, she arrives to redeem her “backward” Singapore sisters: “Hello, beauties! More beauty tips for you!” Drago takes Lien under her wing, advising her about the perils and pleasures of men, and of course how to look beautiful. Lien in turn comes to rely on the emotional support of Drago, whose eventual return to Paris teaches Lien that pleasure is brief and relationships must end.
Director Yonfan’s narrative style is loose and elliptical, more a series of bittersweet sketches than a full-blown melodrama. The pleasure of the party represented by Bugis Street is temporary, always under threat. The fragility of the scene is hinted at in the opening scene, when a tropical storm suddenly sweeps away the partygoers. Yonfan explores this theme throughout in beautiful shots of passing clouds and cleansing rain that suggest the cycle of nature must soon sweep away these lively creatures. In Bugis Street, even drag is malleable; when Drago visits his dying mother’s bedside, he appears as a man. Typical of the film’s sweet sensibility, the mother is puzzled but accepting: “I got used to having a daughter; now you come here as a son.”