Ironically, with the passing of the Singapore of yesteryear, the work that best captures the significant geographical landmarks lost to time is not a local film or documentary, but a Hollywood motion picture – Saint Jack – which was banned for decades, along with most other media that contained any trace of a counter-narrative to Singapore’s official success story.
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There can be no other film like Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack (1979), a cinematic adaptation of Paul Theroux’s 1973 novel of the same name. Not because it is a story about an unassuming American pimp in Singapore, of all places, or that it was once banned in its country of production (there’s plenty of those), or even that it is the only Hollywood film shot entirely on location in Singapore (clandestinely to boot!); rather, Saint Jack is in a league of its own because the lost world it depicts – erased, purposefully, to make room for a cleaner one – has become synonymous with a facet of history that a nation’s government has tried to forget, but its people would not let it. It is fortunate that Saint Jack, unlike the condemned world it dares to present, has not been lost to the jaws of time as, like bottled spirits, viewing it through skeptical modern lenses only adds more meaning and colour to an otherwise brilliantly sensitive film. This judgment is compounded by knowledge of the wild journey embarked on to produce it, knowledge – of the gargantuan obstacles faced, the raunchy details, dramas and controversies — that film historian Ben Slater provides in his 2006 book Kinda Hot: The Making of Saint Jack in Singapore, the source of most of my facts on the film.
As a starting point, consider Vincent Canby’s review of the film in the New York Times:
Saint Jack is a modestly conceived and produced melodrama of the sort that Paramount turned out in the 1940s and 50s, usually with Alan Ladd starring as a free-booting soldier of fortune, a fellow who assumes the white man’s burden in the demimondes of Saigon or Calcutta or Shanghai, cities that then seemed incredibly exotic because they were more than 12 hours away by air.… I find it impossible to be moved or even much interested in this last vestige of a discredited colonialism. Jack Flowers is not only dead. He also represents a kind of fiction that wasn’t all that great when he was alive.
Saint Jack is a film about Jack Flowers (Ben Gazzara), an American washed up on the shores of Singapore and a pimp of local girls who just happens to be the most moral person in all the land. His presence in the more famous Singaporean red-light districts such as Bugis Street and Chinatown, mingling and associating with the prostitutes and transvestites so common in Singapore’s heyday, draws ire from local triads who attempt to constrict his business. Later on he becomes a service provider for American GIs in town for R&R. Already, we see the formula for a subtly imperialist film of yesteryear – exactly the sort to which Canby alludes. But to disparage Saint Jack, which is caught up in the intersection of so many narratives and which takes on the monumental task of disentangling them to attain meaning, and, worse, to brand it “colonialist,” is to reveal a fundamental lack of understanding of the film.
Gazzara plays Jack like an extension of himself – charming, diplomatic, and smooth like good liquor, a man who can tell your innermost desires or create some for you by looking at the shape of your brow. But when there’s no one to face except himself, his eyes betray a yearning for something more; in these moments, you can almost hear the monologues being played in his head. He reluctantly works a day job for a haughty local boss named Hing, but, against local advice, he dreams of starting a full-on brothel and quickly brings this dream into reality, creating a significant bugaboo for Singapore’s triads, which won’t tolerate competition – especially from a Caucasian foreigner.
The triad enforcers – near-caricatures of the infamous Chinese gangster who brandish their flamboyant floral suits as fiercely as the daggers hidden within their coats (they remind me of those bright, poisonous dartfrogs in the jungle) – assassinate Jack’s colleagues and pursue him down crowded streets, all for the sake of sending him a message that negotiates the language barrier with ease: “Fuck off, ang moh lang.” Jack’s debonair coolness can only last so long against a deluge of knives, and both he and his establishment eventually fall prey to the ruining hands of the Singapore triads. These gangsters trash his brothel and leave him in a similarly sorry state; that is, indelibly stained with tattoos of Mandarin profanities like “Red Butt Face,” “Son of Prostitute,” and “Curse of Dog Shit.” One could be forgiven for seeing Saint Jack, with its slick Caucasian protagonist and rampant womanizing, as an Eastern reproduction of James Bond, but this Bond appears to be quite the incapable one indeed.
The diegesis, consciously or not, parallels historical events of the era occurring just a few hundred miles northwards, a judgment best exemplified by Hing’s almost thankful exclamation about it: “Ang moh get shit kicked by Viet Cong.” Just like in the nonfictional world, this is not the story of the white saviour (nor is it that of the oppressor), no, this is the parable of the white man, who, half the world away from home, is absolutely eviscerated by the natives. As mentioned, in the latter half of the film, Jack helms a refuge for American soldiers in Singapore, a designated R&R point for GIs during the Vietnam War. Bogdanovich – whose anti-war sentiments are bolstered not just by hindsight but also through extracts of real banter from American soldiers detailing, nonchalantly, the gruesome, unceremonious ways in which their friends were killed (dialogue that was faithfully incorporated into the Saint Jack script) – surprisingly doesn’t pass too much judgment on the war itself through Jack. The opportunistic pimp doesn’t lambast the soldiers, having been in their shoes a decade and a half earlier in Korea, and instead relishes the opportunity to provide soldiers who come to him with “wine, women, and song.” They know it, Jack knows it, Bogdanovich knows it: this is just how history plays out.
In another (less sombre) intersection between film and real events, the Saint Jack production crew weren’t spared from the relentlessness of the locals as well: an infamous – bordering on surreal – sequence involving two high-profile Bugis Street transvestites “performing” cost the production crew a non-negotiable, exorbitant sum of 30,000 Singapore dollars, the bill for star performer Bridgit Ang’s boyfriend’s sex change; cinematographer Robby Miller’s attempts to utilise the existing Bugis Street shophouse lights to construct the mise-en-scène were hampered by the locals’ power supply which, somehow, could only be restarted if their owners were paid; and inquisitive onlookers numbering in the dozens would often manhandle and misplace the equipment on set. It seems that white men who attempt to shoot things in Asia, be it a character study film or the locals themselves, are doomed to be heckled and harassed in some form or another. Thankfully, the most that the former has to contend with are nosy onlookers and demanding transvestites rather than Charlie artillery or MG fire.
Furthermore, an interesting anecdote in Kinda Hot describes how Monika Subramaniam, who plays Jack’s coquettish (at first) Ceylonese love interest named after herself, “baulked” at the possibility of shooting a nude scene in Jack’s apartment, vehemently arguing that “I live in this country … It’s my reputation.” The undressing scene was eventually downscaled to a “hardly visible” shot of her “possibly topless” silhouette, a drastic change to the script that underscores the respect that the crew had to show to the locals to get things done: they had to do it their way, or not at all.
Nevertheless, the premise of Saint Jack inherently exudes an uneasy air of potentially racist undercurrents. Surely a movie about a white man pimping out coloured girls who speak imperfect English, masterminding risqué hook-ups – most of which are between white men and coloured girls (but which dares to portray these women as decent, if improprietous, professionals (how dare they!) and not downtrodden, destitute whores) — surely, such a movie would have to be labelled imperialistic.
And it wouldn’t be a misinformed judgment. The white man rolling into the exotic locale, be it the jungle, the island, or the plains (of which Singapore is two of those) and eventually conquering it despite native resistance is the most overt mask of imperialism, a narrative of the American Dream that is, today at least, recognised and frowned upon by an increasingly progressive people. However, a subtler face of imperialism exists under the mask that is considerably more pernicious than the surface masquerade: that of the white man who, on all accounts, is an ally of coloured folks, smiling, friendly, and helpful; that is, with the unspoken condition that they give their lives for him in times of crisis.
In his essay on the Ethnic Sidekick, Frederick Zackel cites the particularly egregious example of Casablanca (1942), which Ebert notes shares some “kinship” with Saint Jack. Leading man and “classic American hero” Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) closest associate, the one man whom he “shares any of his secrets” with, is Sam (Dooley Wilson), his spirited and loyal piano player who happens to be black. Yet, Sam is, quite simply, forgotten by Rick in German-controlled Casablanca when he obtains crucial documents key to escaping the city, presumably leaving Sam to be tortured/die in the Nazis’ death grip. At least in the previous paragraph’s former scenario, the natives exhibit some form of autonomy by resisting the advance of the white man even if their efforts are doomed by virtue of the medium itself. Unfortunately, at first glance, Saint Jack’s story falls uncannily into the latter, more insidious layer of imperialistic narrative. The most apropos example: Ganapathy, Jack’s Indian security guard whose favourite catchphrase is “I’m a dog, I’m only here to bark.” The fatalism and willing association with a house pet here speaks volumes about the place and position of certain natives in Saint Jack.
However, when we consider Jack’s general position in Singapore society – that of the survivor, rather than the conqueror; the negotiator, rather than the hawk – thankfully, we are relieved of the unfair assumption that under the trademark Batik shirt lies an unapologetic imperialist. Jack, a proud member of the camp that frequents Bugis Street (along with transvestites, hookers, and any mixture of the two) and who is besieged by both the triads and the police, is as much a part of Singapore as the transvestites themselves: the some say “unsavoury,” some say “real” part of Singapore that, today, has been lost to the crushing mouth of history. Jack is an immigrant. An immigrant who has found a living in Singapore, a country that, as Bogdanovich duly points out in the trailer, is like an “Eastern America” in that it is both a land of immigrants and a beautiful cacophony of ethnicities (if we discount the troubling neo-supremacist movement brewing in the US today).
Jack Flowers is right at home – or he acts that way quite convincingly – even if on some days he wistfully dreams of returning to Buffalo, his hometown. Shaking off his mammoth setback with a smile and a cup of spirits, he employs a local tattooist to paint over “Son of Prostitute” and “Curse of Dog Shit,” themselves permanent Asian markings, with images of flowers, embracing his namesake and cementing his place as an unremovable part of Singapore society. His amiable relations with his local family, or substitute thereof, such as with his very convincingly played amah (an elderly maid) who constantly reminds him “If you don’t eat, you die you know!” and his girls, lovingly called his “fruit flies,” serve to elevate and batten down his very special place in Singapore as one of its own, rather than a colonialist.
However, there remains the unsolved conundrum of Ganapathy’s problematic presentation as a native lapdog; if Saint Jack isn’t blatantly imperialistic, then why does a perfectly sane coloured individual willingly put himself on a much lower rung than a white foreigner? We need only look at his reaction to Jack’s abduction by the triads to deduce the solution: he doesn’t, it only looks that way at first. Ganapathy, frightened still by the knife-wielding, slithering mafioso, can only offer Jack a broken expression evincing both guilt and a “you knew this day was coming” vibe, as well as a perfunctory repetition of his catchphrase but with a little bit more solemnness this time around: “I’m a dog, only here to bark.” Clearly, Ganapathy is not Sam from Casablanca but a complete inversion of the “conditional ally” trope: an ethnic “sidekick” who, when things go sideways, puts his own life before that of his white “master.”
What this is, apart from a purposeful bait-and-switch, is a realistic, contemporary portrayal of a native under a foreigner’s employment, an antithesis to Casablanca’s “all-strings attached” subconsciously racist portrayal of the white-coloured relationship. Unlike Sam, who is indebted to Rick for no other reason than the colour of his skin, the locals working for Jack are neither slaves nor servants, and it is clear that they do so only because (1) they enjoy it, and (2) it pays well. Perhaps more surprising is how, in a later scene, we see Ganapathy again under Jack’s employment guarding his next whorehouse, a scene that alludes to Jack’s capacity for forgiveness and also his professionalism as a manager – no hard feelings, he never expected anything more.
The understanding of oriental culture on display in Saint Jack is raw, to say the least, but within reason: to spare the nuance would be to disgrace Theroux’s writing, whose trenchant analysis of local philosophy – the likes of which can only come from an outsider – stabs deep into its core like a butcher presenting prime cuts of meat. Of Hing, for example, Theroux writes,
His smile was anger. He was angry half the time, with the Chinese agony, an impulsive bellyaching Yin swimming against a cowardly Yang; the personality in deadlock. So the Chinese may gaze with waxen placidity into your face, or refuse to reply, or snort and fart when you want a word of encouragement.
What enables such observations to be made is the compromising position of Jack Flowers (and, to an extent, Theroux himself) as the white man who happens to be living (and not vacationing) amongst locals; the white man who, at once, employs and is employed by locals and who doesn’t spend most of his time with other white folk in a gated compound in the outskirts of the city.
Further exemplifying the mashup of culture is the prominence of red in the film, a visual device that boils down what we (East and West alike) know about the colour to freshly form a meaning specific to the story. Red, like most colours, possesses different contexts when represented in media of different cultures: the unmistakable colour of blood, red is most commonly used to signify danger or something crucial to note in Western visual art (for a relevant example, look at Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense); yet in the East, red takes on the opposite meaning as the harbinger of bliss, good fortune, and – most importantly — prosperity and wealth. The dress of a brothel matriarch, the glow of a Buddhist altar in a whorehouse, lanterns hovering above loitering gangsters, slot machines in a hotel compound – these lingering images and their associated redness provide a visual metaphor for the unique blend of pleasure and danger, Western and Oriental, that characterises the story of Saint Jack.
Equally as important to the argument against Saint Jack’s supposed imperialism is the ruthless pillorying on the white man in Singapore, most notably the vestiges of the British colonialists who spend most of their time idling and sleeping around in Jack-managed bars and brothels, enclaves where they cling to their lost reputation and history as the once-masters of the island. A cohort of middle-aged English bastards, perpetually drunk (both in front of and behind the camera, their actors more than once causing trouble on set by showing up wasted), appear on occasion in Saint Jack to reminisce about Britain’s glory days and supplant their ego by bedding local women, oblivious to the fact that they are being played for their money. The final nail that affirms their status as parody is the scene in which gang ringleader Frogget (James Villiers) castigates the local barman, Willy, for not being “grateful” that the British returned Singapore to the native population, to which a laconic and slightly bemused Willy simply serves them their drinks. There’s no comeuppance for them, no gratuitous sequence where a local slaps, yells, or denounces them for their antiquated imperialism; the meaninglessness of their lives is enough for us to commiserate with them.
Not all the Englishmen are cunts, however. William Leigh (Denholm Elliot), a visiting accountant from Hong Kong (or as he misspeaks, “Kong Hong”), is one such edifying persona; someone who is, according to Ebert, that “rare thing”: a “decent” individual, a “good man,” qualities that, in Jack Flowers’s Singapore, are in dangerously short supply. Leigh, a happily married man, is flown over from the still-British-owned Pearl of the Orient to audit Hing’s documents and is in Singapore solely for that purpose, actively choosing not to engage in the promiscuous side activities that Jack presides over. It is clear as the Singapore day that Jack and Leigh are from two different worlds – planes, even – of propriety, but Leigh is the closest thing Jack can get to a kindred soul. The blossoming brotherhood between the two men – born on opposing shores of the Atlantic but both white men away from home – thus provides the film a solid emotional core and rewards both men with some respite from the predators of Singapore.
It is significant, then, that Leigh absolutely despises the company of his fellow countrymen – the rambunctious gang who frequent Jack’s businesses – not only because he rarely gets the chance to talk without being ridiculed and his responses moulded into petty jokes, but more pointedly because of the vital differences between the worlds they inhabit. Leigh’s moral straightness – not as a hero, but as a normal person who’s trying to live – leads him to eschew the gang’s amorality and unabashed sense of superiority over the locals, instead favouring Jack’s company as a friend who simply doesn’t judge.
By the early 1970s, the era in which Saint Jack takes place, the British Empire was well on its way to crumbling as the indigenous peoples of the colonies started to rebel and demand independence, peacefully or otherwise. Singapore was no different: first-hand witnesses to how easily their colonial masters succumbed to Japanese aggression during the Battle of Singapore, they, like many other territories, figured that relying on anyone but themselves for defence or anything at all was a very bad idea. In 1963, Singapore had leapt out of British hands, merging with already independent Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia (thus the “si”) but was promptly expelled in 1965.
In the 1970s, as the unmistakable, grandiose outlines of high-rise buildings began filling the Singapore skyline, it was clear that Singapore’s development – financially, at least – was copacetic. All this accomplished without the pallid interference of the British. (Can you imagine Singapore today with it?) Just like in the rest of the world, the tentacles of the Empire had uncurled around Singapore and were retreating back to Buckingham Palace at an exceptional pace, finalising Yeats’s prophecy half a decade earlier in “The Second Coming” that “the centre cannot hold.” Unlike Frogget and crew, the meek and humble Leigh recognises this, and, when poked by Jack for apologising too much (in his words, the “fucking English national pastime”), self-effacingly explains, “it’s all we’ve got left.”
In Leigh’s final meeting with Jack, an exhausted Leigh flirts with the existential, sighing to Jack, “You’ve seen what can happen out here? These old ang mohs, drifting from day to day, no job, no visas, I mean the coolies know it better … Best to know when to quit.”
A few minutes later, Leigh promptly drops dead. The cause of death is unclear (in Theroux’s novel it was a heart attack), but his paling lips and increasingly twisted expressions as time goes on – in his last scene, his face is practically frozen – should have been adequate markers of how close he was to the spectre of death. His passing is a major source of ontological worry for poor Jack, the last face Leigh sees before he dies. Consider again Leigh’s last words, this time in Jack’s sobering perspective: both men are very much bricks chiselled out of the same, beat-up wall: “ang mohs,” white men – ghosts – “drifting” from port to port like slicks of oil, willingly entangling themselves in whatever turbine or exhaust pipe is willing to accommodate them; men who are desperately seeking their place in an increasingly international world. Leigh’s death – sudden, untimely, and in a foreign place – sows in Jack’s mind a very disturbing and very real possibility: dying without a home.
In the film, it is never stated why Jack has fled from America and never returned (though it is implied that it is because he has no money to return), and the breadcrumbs of history granted to us in the form of little asides are inadequate in painting a wholesome picture of Jack’s past; in the book, however, Jack Flowers is away because of a drug charge. Nevertheless, even if he’s unable to return home to America, a fortuitous sleight of hand played by history soon causes America to catch up to him. In the third act of the film, Jack is approached by shadowy CIA spook Eddie Schuman (played by Bogdanovich himself) to kick-start a local brothel for American GIs in town for R&R just before they are flung back to the napalm-ridden jungles of Vietnam, a request that Jack accedes to quite enthusiastically.
The bordello project turns out exceptionally fine for a while, until tensions between Jack’s born-home and found-home inevitably display themselves. In a carefully managed sequence (perhaps, another analog to the ongoing war), the camera gently pans from the sparseness and clinicality of a hotel corridor to a room, and, as if anticipated and inevitable, one of Jack’s working girls, fully nude, storms out in fear, followed by a similarly naked GI who brusquely slaps her. Jack and crew quickly arrive to comfort the girl, and, as the other girls bring the assaulted girl away, he returns to the room and deals with the brutish GI by simply giving him a forlorn stare, then walking away.
A pattern of non-action — in Slater’s words, “the usual Bogdanovich avoidance of the obvious” – even in the face of callous acts is thus evincible from Saint Jack, something attributable not just to Jack’s tendency to not judge people for their actions (cowardice?) but also to his internal conflict in choosing between America, which he still hopes to go back to one day, and Singapore, the home he has grown to be a part of. This sequence presents a significant moral quandary for Jack: punish the unruly soldier and risk alienating the American crowd, or do nothing and make his girls feel unsafe? The tightrope between the two that Jack finds himself balancing on is clearly running out of wire, and he is all the more pained by it. Consider, too, the eerily germane soundtrack that plays in this sequence: Johnny Cash’s rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” which Cash introduces as a song, to him, about lost freight workers during the Great Depression: “drifters” who “have found themselves no closer to peace of mind than a dingy backroom, on some lonely Sunday morning, with it comin’ down all around you.”
Is Jack Flowers not a “drifter” as well, but on a more international scale?
Like history, the GIs soon disappear from Singapore, shipped off to potential death in Vietnam in an imperialistic war that they themselves never asked for. Thereafter, Schuman, the scheming CIA agent, gives Jack one last paying task that can fund his return to America. As part of a CIA plot to silence an “opinionated” senator, played by George Lazenby (the second film Bond; no wonder Bogdanovich called Saint Jack the anti-Bond film!), Jack is to obtain incriminating photos of the senator, who happens to be queer, in bed with another man. With great reluctance, Jack, desperate for cash but, more importantly, home, accepts the job despite the fact that “It stinks.”
One scene in particular whilst Jack is waiting for the senator at the lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel – incidentally, the venue for an annual conference between important leaders from both East and West – sheds some much-needed light on Jack’s clouded state of mind, where several digital clocks populating a globe drawn on the wall concurrently show the timings of a few important world cities. Scenes like this in the movie, silent with thought and truth, are what replace the literary experimentalisms and philosophical monologues of Theroux’s novel, conveying the same conflicted thoughts but in a manner palatable to the medium. The camera, manifesting Jack’s conflicts through mimicking his vision, saunters first from Singapore, then to London, then to New York, where it lingers, and then the sequence cuts. Home, it seems, feels so close even if on a globe. With this inspiration, he sets out on his quest to ruin another man’s life.
The senator emerges soon enough, exiting his official residence in the Shangri-La in the dead of night to prowl the ominously empty streets of Singapore as if in search of prey. Similarly, Jack, whom we see shrouded from the lights of the city by cover and foliage, shadows him determinedly, stalking his target like the Singapore predators who have been hunting him since the start of the film. The whole sequence is reminiscent of an earlier chase scene between Jack and a group of triad mafioso in Chinatown, only this time it is quieter, emptier and even more morally vacuous with our supposedly saint-like protagonist doing the chasing.
Long story short, the senator finds a local young man to be his partner for that night’s assignation, a young man who Jack then bribes to leave the door open for him to snap some dirty pictures. Evidence in hand, Jack goes to see Schuman – but not before dropping off Leigh’s ashes at the General Post Office to be shipped off to his wife – and, surprisingly, or perhaps, unsurprisingly, proclaims to Schuman from across the street, “Fuck it!” before throwing the camera with the pictures into the river, his chances of going home sinking along with it.
With that, Jack Flowers’s story comes to an end as he vanishes into the crowd, leaving him to craft his own home in whichever port is willing to accept him. For now, it is the increasingly cosmopolitan and international city of Singapore. Gone, for the foreseeable future, are all remaining links to his original home; and so, with his American identity more or less worthless, he fuses with the hodgepodge multiculture of Singapore as if returning to a mother’s womb, wearing his whiteness like camouflage in the ocean of all the colours that make up man’s skin. Life goes on, and so does the story of Jack Flowers, but his story is now synonymous with that of Singapore.
The setting of the ending – the Read Bridge overlooking the Singapore River – thus gains pertinence when we consider Jack’s position as the matchmaker between Caucasians (mostly) foreigners looking for a good time and the natives (the girls under his charge). Of course, this all smells suspiciously like the perfume of local exploitation, but considering Jack’s courteous and fair employment standards and his amicable relationships with the locals as elaborated before, Jack is not so much an exploiter as a social entrepreneur. The film itself displays an acute awareness of a very real obsession with Asian women amongst Westerners, a knowledge that it then wields to riposte the cultural reduction of Asian women to just that – a fetish, to be used and then thoughtlessly discarded. Here, Jack Flowers’s girls – playing the fetish to their benefit — are like female counterparts to James Bond, and the white boys seeking thrills are a dime a dozen, coming and going like the girls in a Bond film marathon. Incidentally, both have something that the other wants, so why not make it a trade? Jack’s middleman philosophy becomes strikingly clear upon reflection, and it is neither imperialistic nor exploitative – just simple business.
With this in mind, Singapore is thus the ideal setting for Jack to, in Slater’s terms, “reinvent himself” and to “disintegrate.” Historically, Singapore, like a national Jack Flowers, has always played middleman in the Asia-Pacific, always shimmying into comfortable positions to appease the larger powers vying against each other for political control in the region, most notably China, India, and the United States. Certainly, I don’t mean to disparage Singapore in this regard: getting into this sweet spot is a matter of national survival for the country lest they be crushed by one superpower or the other, of which there are many in the Asia-Pacific. Thankfully, this harrowing task is made easier due to Singapore’s paradoxical status not only as an English-speaking country but also with high densities of ethnic Chinese, Malays, and Indians also speaking their mother tongues.
Singapore’s nature as a stratified yet united country, a by-product of state-sponsored desegregation of the races through its public housing policy (purposefully lumping all of them together in Singapore’s iconic high-rise apartment complexes), is a prime example of how government intervention can foster a climate of racial and religious tolerance; a living Mecca, presumably, for progressives in America, a country currently ravaged by identity politics and partisan hooliganism on both sides of the red-blue divide.
Parenthetically, recall the “all-in-one,” heavily globalised societies of such legendary sci-fi franchises as Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Cowboy Bebop; is Singapore not a forerunner to such multicultural worlds? Also of interest is how the creator of Cowboy Bebop, Shinichiro Watanabe, received his inspiration for Bepop’s pluralistic world from a visit to Singapore, whose cosmopolitanism and diversity not only awed him but inspired in him a vision of the future. Saint Jack, despite being a film about white folks in Singapore, does justice to the country and its palette of races through its supporting characters, who, as manifestations of Singapore society, shape the diegesis as much as Jack himself.
Yet, in the cautious eyes of the Singapore government, Bogdanovich committed an act of national appropriation through the production and distribution of Saint Jack. Today, there exists the popular image of Singapore as a world-class financial hub; the Singapore that prides itself on efficiency, absence of corruption, and general cleanliness in appearance as well as culture; the Singapore that is, presumably, free of gum. What this is, is the phenomenal success of a government-led international marketing campaign designed to curate the global perspective on Singapore, a portrait of the country that was, at the nation’s conception in the ’60s, more Romantic than Realist. As cynically as I present it to be, this campaign was started with the best of intentions: to attract the foreign companies and investors vital in bridging the crevasse separating third- and first-world economic status. Saint Jack, with its unflinching portrayal of hookers and triads and alleys, thus tramples all over this carefully designed image of Singapore put forth by the government, painting over its luxurious, rounded shapes with raw, sharp edges, depicting a Singapore that was exotic, dangerous, untamed. It’s no wonder, then, that Saint Jack was banned in Singapore. One can only imagine the government’s desire to ban it everywhere else.
How then, was the film – entirely shot in Singapore – even greenlighted for production by the authorities? The way that the Saint Jack crew got through, by lying to the government, was but another spur to the government’s opprobrium to Saint Jack. Bogdanovich, along with a few key team members, Macgyvered an ersatz script for another much less inflammatory (and much more imaginary) movie titled Jack of Hearts, an insultingly tame romance flick that included many crucial scenes in Saint Jack, doubling it off as their working treatment, which the government felt was safe enough to accept. The government’s tolerance for the film even extended to providing auxiliary security forces during production, even if, as Slater notes, they were hardly adequate in shielding the crew from the locals.
The title of the working script, Jack of Hearts, is decidedly neutral, especially when compared to Saint Jack, which, when stripped bare of context, evokes the deleterious image of a holy Caucasian who comes from across the sea or perhaps floats down from the sky to educate the locals and accept them as his burden. But the implications of the lie extend far beyond a simple title switch.
Consider the locals involved in the production process, and the possibility of them being put on a list of some sort by the government (which actually happened during the production process, even if, according to Slater, it was for a different reason and only amounted to paranoia in the end), and also the reservation of important economic institutions, such as the General Post Office and the airport, for the sake of filming falsified scenes in a farcical movie. All of this screams of real, contemporary imperialism behind and beyond the screen, a cut above the mostly theoretical dialectics of cultural imperialism exported by Hollywood. This was a nation and its hardworking people played like instruments by a major Hollywood director and production company, exacerbated by Bogdanovich’s seeming alacrity to boast about his deception of the Singapore government during an interview with the Los Angeles Times in which he proclaimed that he had “just lied: lied about everything.”
It should be no wonder, then, that Edgar Koh, reporting for The New Nation – a sister newspaper of The Straits Times, which was and still is the largest newspaper in Singapore and which maintains close relations with the government – accosted Bogdanovich about his “lack of sensitivity to Singaporeans, some of whom unknowingly helped him and his crew,” going further to scorn Saint Jack as a film made by “those whose views are clouded by the unmistakable signs of degeneration – their own degeneration – they so vividly portray.” In response to another scathing article by The New Nation about the Los Angeles Times interview, a penitent Bogdanovich, as a Pavlovian form of damage control, sent over a statement of contrition to The Straits Times in which he says, “I regret that the impression has been given that I gloat over this omission (of the actual plot of Saint Jack).” But by then, the thread had been long burnt; in late January 1980, Saint Jack was banned in Singapore, and with it the only vivid cinematic portrayal of the seamier side of the port city.
Yet, is the alternative portrait of Singapore preferred by the government, so spotless and drenched in cultural antiseptic, a true reflection of Singapore society? In sanitising Singapore to appeal to international investors, the government has perhaps committed the total effacement of an irreplaceable side of Singaporean culture, the extent of which can never be committed by an alien force. In Robby Muller’s words, more than two decades after the making of Saint Jack, “They took all the adventure out of Singapore.”
Gone are the halcyon eras where the less-than-savoury elements of Singapore culture intermingled with the high-rise office buildings of the financial sector, both of which were complementary testaments to the spirit of capitalism and enterprise governing the nation. Today, the former has vanished and the latter has risen many stories higher, as if all the life force was siphoned from one element to be given to the other. Interestingly, Singapore’s late Minister Mentor, the venerable Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, was well aware of the dual importance of these two sectors. In response to the contemporaneous Minister of Home Affairs’ desire to eliminate the seedier factors in ’70s Singapore, he said, in a speech in 2005, “I reminded him that from the founding of Singapore in 1819, seamen from the world over looked for creature comforts when their ships were in Singapore harbour. So we left these red light districts be.”
Sadly, this was not the case in reality. Although a sizable prostitution industry still operates in certain back alleys in Singapore, still perfectly and discreetly legal, the government’s chokehold on the more established brothel strongholds such as the infamous Bugis Street in the ’60s and ’70s inevitably caused the vacation of such “professionals” from the area into the more remote districts, places where only keen and purposeful souls would venture into. Bugis Street and some other colourful locations captured in Saint Jack were eventually remodelled to become vast, air-conditioned shopping complexes, the transactions occurring in their premises becoming far more proper but also infinitely more boring.
It is with good reason, then, that Theroux hurried the production crew to start work on Saint Jack because the buildings of the old Singapore, so prevalent and so central in Saint Jack, were due to be chewed up, digested, and their contents transfused to the apparition of the new Singapore whose outline was materialising at a preternatural pace. The places at risk of being pounded to dust weren’t just Bugis Street and other seamy areas: important cultural grounds, too, were to be evacuated in order to make space for the new, challenging the government’s spoken desire to preserve the vestiges of culture in Singapore. Bidadari Christian Cemetery, for example, the location of Leigh’s sombre funeral scene, simply isn’t there anymore. Indeed, the debate over cultural heritage versus pragmatic concerns lives on even in modern times: most recently, a brouhaha was raised over the exhumation of the Bukit Brown cemetery in 2014 to fashion space for a highway and residences, proving that the dialectic has been fanned – not doused – by hindsight.
Ironically, with the passing of the Singapore of yesteryear, the work that best captures the significant geographical landmarks lost to time is not a local film or documentary, but a Hollywood motion picture – Saint Jack – which was banned for decades, along with most other media that contained any trace of a counter-narrative to Singapore’s official success story. Another of the late Minister Mentor’s quotes, this time from 1969, when the nation had just shown its head to the world, seems apropos: “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.”
Understandable, given the necessities of nation-building. But is history, too, a commodity the fledgling state can do without?
Case in point: the portrayal of LGBT folk in Saint Jack. The transvestite prostitutes of Bugis Street were real and celebrated people. When the stunning transvestite star Bridgit Ang “performed” for the camera with her companion, they didn’t pull the number out of thin air – it was a routine. Another bracing movie that dramatized the lives of transvestites, Yonfan’s brilliant Bugis Street (1995), was banned for 20 years in Singapore despite good receptions overseas and despite being made a decade and a half later than Saint Jack. It, unlike Bogdanovich’s deceptions, was an honest production, even if its Bugis Street was but a re-creation, the real one having been eradicated long ago.
Why? Why blindfold local Singaporeans to such an exciting product of their culture when the rest of the world can admire it in full view?
Japan has its gay samurai whose brooding, lovesick image has been romanticised to the 17 levels of hell and back; China has its legendary imperial orgies, many of which included eunuchs in their ranks (though how did they take part?); Rome had its pedophilic senators and, on the other end, the concomitant pure, youthful, and reciprocating boys – all salacious bits of history that their modern descendants never tried to forget, instead employing them to promote the eccentricities of their ancient histories and emperors. What little rainbow-coloured histories bred between those erect buildings in Singapore, Singapore should thus treasure, cherish and build monuments to.
However, it is crucial to note that not all the members of the LGBT subgroups are flamboyant with their sexuality, and that most queer folk are normal, clothed people who look uncannily like you and me. Perhaps this inconspicuous fact is why Bogdanovich and crew rewrote the plot of Saint Jack to have the Senator’s one-night lover be a young local man – a bystander on the streets – instead of the woman of the night in the book, in the first instance of male full-frontal nudity to be captured in a Hollywood film in Singapore. The message is poignant and thematically resonant with Saint Jack: everyone has their own sexual demons, regardless of status and including desires for people of the same gender, which are, themselves, perfectly fine.
But place yourself in the wide shoes of the Singapore government; would you not interpret this action as a middle finger – if subtle – pointed straight at you? After all, the lack of legal rights for same-sex couples (same-sex marriage, adoption by same-sex couples, and sexual activity between males are all illegal by law), along with other miscellaneous laws like the illegality of gum, harsh drug laws, and usage of capital punishment and caning, forms the global perspective of Singapore as a draconian society. The change in plot was deliberate and the casting of a local boy even more so, giving the impression that under Singapore’s façade of conservatism lies an urge to indulge in all the moral decadences of the West – reasonable cause, you would think, for the government to be apoplectic.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that, today, the curtain in Singapore has been raised on both Saint Jack and Bugis Street, decades after they were released in the wider world. Both were first screened at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) – Saint Jack in 1997 (just once though), Bugis Street much more recently in 2015 as Bugis Street Redux – with the official ban on Saint Jack lifted in 2006. With regard to the unbanning of Bugis Street, a spokesperson from Singapore’s Media Development Authority had this to say: “Bugis Street Redux passed clean for SGIFF (with an R21 rating). It was once banned in the 90s, but is permissible under today’s standards.”
This revelation, the admittance that things – societies and expectations – change over time, appears to be a monumental shift in perspective, but further probing reveals it to be simply an adherence to the line of official thinking with respect to LGBT rights, a signpost of gradual transition that awards more cautious relief than quixotic joy. When questioned by a Filipino journalist in 2015, the current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, gave telling answers on the government’s de facto position on gay rights:
There is space for the gay community but they should not push the agenda too hard, there will be a very strong pushback.… And this is not an issue where there is a possibility that the two sides can discuss and eventually come to a consensus. Now, these are very entrenched views and the more you discuss, the angrier people get.
The late Minister Mentor, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, spoke more unequivocally about the issue in his 2011 book Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, saying – truthfully – that being gay was a “genetic difference,” the cause being “something in the genetic makeup” rather than social conditioning or a personal choice. Having earlier remarked that “It’s only a matter of time before it is accepted here,” a relievingly contrarian perspective compared to the more ambiguous opinions of his colleagues, he also empathised with the government’s reluctance to push through with gay rights reform, explaining,
If I were the prime minister, I would hesitate to push it against the prevailing sentiment, against the prevailing values of society. You’re going against the current of the people, the underlying feeling. What’s the point of that, you know, breaking new ground and taking unnecessary risk? It will evolve over time, as so many things have, because after a while my own sort of maturing process will take place with other people.… I think society, their own experiences, their own reading, their own observations, will bring about the change despite their innate biases.
It seems that, in the true spirit of East Asian pragmatism – the kind of practicality emphasised by Deng Xiaoping in his adage “cross the river by feeling the stones” – the Singapore government’s position on gay rights appears to be “wait and see.” Of course, arguments for democracy, to willingly bring the incensing topic of gay rights into public discourse, can definitely be made, but those are for other essays on other days. In the meantime, by widening the filter ever so slightly, landmark films depicting LGBT people in Singapore like Saint Jack and Bugis Street can be released to the public, accelerating, hopefully, the acceptance of queer folk in society, in a way reversing the imperialist attitudes and prejudice of a nation toward a group of people whose lives should be celebrated instead.
Curiously, Jack Flowers’s brief dalliance with and subsequent rejection of Schuman, the CIA operative, share some similarity with Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s own unpleasant brush with Langley back in the sixties. A congressional report details how, in 1960, the United States, after having realised that a CIA agent had been caught red-handed “trying to buy intelligence from Singapore intelligence officials,” attempted to bribe the Lee administration with several million dollars, which he refused and asked for ten times that value in “formal economic development aid for Singapore.”
In 1965, just months after Singapore’s independence, Lee, then the Prime Minister, mentioned this case in an interview, which both the US Ambassador to Malaysia and the State Department denied. A furious Lee then produced a formal letter of apology from Secretary of State Dean Rusk (“produced” is a gross understatement, as Lee reportedly shoved it in the face of an American correspondent), irrefutable evidence that such an incident had happened and was not the product of the overactive imagination of some surly, anti-American leader. Thoroughly shamed, the State Department soon retracted their denials.
Of course, no mention of this incident would be complete without the reproduction of several Lee quotes about it:
The Americans should know the character of the men they are dealing with in Singapore and not get themselves further dragged into calumn. They are not dealing with Ngo Dinh Diem or Syngman Rhee. You do not buy and sell this Government.
If the Americans go on denying, I will have to disclose further details, which may sound like James Bond and Goldfinger, only not as good but putrid and grotesque enough.…
Is it not a stretch, then, to claim that Saint Jack, with its antipathy towards the sliminess of the CIA, should not have been treated by Singapore like another Western product to be purged, and instead as a counter-imperialist ally? Langley, considered by many to be the surgical periscope operated on developing nations by imperialist hands to further certain nefarious ends, equally repulses Jack Flowers and the Singapore government. The obvious similarity, then, would be that both manage to salvage their dignity and free will in the face of more powerful actors who would pay handsomely for those very things, even if Jack was surely tempted at first.
However, a deeper affiliation lies in how the relatively stable and forward-looking veneers carefully maintained by both individual and country hide thunderclouds of volatility: for Jack, it is the existential maelstrom that comes with middle age, the ductility of “home” and the looming threat of death; for Singapore, it is the perpetual search for a national identity that is compact enough to last yet sufficiently pliable to accommodate all the different narratives. The true commonality, then, is the increasingly impossible quest to find a place in a world that’s changing at an exponential pace, and that sees its use for you dwindling ever so quickly. Jack Flowers’s story is strangely reminiscent of Singapore’s at independence, when it was forcefully aborted out of Malaysia, the federation which it always saw itself a part of – torn, alone, and grasping, fruitlessly, for any sorts of roots to hold onto – the solution for both being not to return to a past home, but to build a new one where each stood.
There can be no doubt that Saint Jack, released in 1979, is a historical film, depicting the tumultuous early years of its nascent decade (a shot at the airport focuses on a news column heralding Nixon’s visit to China), and, as its world has been lost to time, the label has fit even more snugly. Yet the feeling that Saint Jack emanates is eternal – “a sense of regret and longing countered by a smiling acceptance of all of life’s absurdities”; how Slater manages to describe it on the nose is beyond me. But perhaps the most salient truism comes from Philip Cheah, former director of the SGIFF, who, upon first viewing Saint Jack, remarked, “You saw all these places that exist in your memory, but which you cannot see anymore. This makes it a Singapore film.” It is commonly said that to build the future, you need the past; Saint Jack is significant for Singapore in that it provides exactly that.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the film.