Bugis Street: transgender aspects

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Bugis Street is a well known shopping thoroughfare in the city state of Singapore. From the 1950s to the mid-1980s, it was a gathering place for members of the male-to-female transgender community. Their presence attracted locals and tourists alike, making it one of Singapore's most well known and lucrative tourist attractions of that era.

Contents

Historical

South Sulawesi province in Indonesia, home of the Bugis or Buginese people - expert sailors who put their skills to good use in the past.

Bugis Street lies in an extensive area which was commonly referred to in the past, by the Chinese-educated community, as Xiao Po (小坡; little slope). The latter stretched all the way from Tanjong Pagar, through Singapore's Chinatown, to Jalan Sultan. The whole vicinity was thriving and crammed with merchants and traders, making it one of the most vibrant economic zones of old Singapore.

The original Bugis Street, before it was redeveloped in the mid-1980s into the 2 sections of New Bugis Street and the current Bugis Street, was much longer and incorporated both the contemporary portions. It stretched all the way from Queen Street, through Victoria Street to North Bridge Road.

According to elderly, knowledgeable, long-term residents of the area, before the arrival of the British, there used to be a large canal which ran through the area where the Bugis, a people from Indonesia's South Sulawesi province renowned for their seafaring skills, could sail up, moor their boats and trade with Singaporean merchants.

Archival pictures of a coastal settlement of the Bugis people from South Sulawesi, Indonesia.

It was these people after whom the thoroughfare was named. The Bugis, or Buginese, also put their sailing prowess to less benign uses and gained a reputation in the region as being a race of bloodthirsty pirates. Despite the recognition of 5 distinct genders within Bugis culture, including the non-heteronormative Bissu, Calabai and Calalai, the street was not named after the Buginese for this reason. However, it is possible that transgender Singaporeans with a knowledge of this aspect of Bugis society first decided to congregate there in the 1950s because of this association.

During the early colonial era, there also used to be low mounds of whitish sand in the area, earning the street the familiar Hokkien moniker of Peh Soa Pu or Bai Sha Fu in Mandarin (白沙浮; white sand mounds). The Cantonese, however, referred to the street as Hak Gaai or Hei Jie in Mandarin (黑街; black street) as there were many clubs catering to the Japanese invaders in the 1940s. During the first half of the 20th century, commuters could conveniently travel from Bugis Street to anywhere else in Xiao Po via a tram service which ran along North Bridge Road, which was referred to by the Chinese-educated as Xiao Po Da Ma Lu (小坡大马路; little slope main road).

After World War II, hawkers gathered there to sell food and goods. There was initially also a small number of outdoor bars set up beside rat-infested drains.

Roadside food vendors along the original Bugis Street.

When transvestites began to rendezvous in the area in the 1950s, they attracted increasing numbers of Western tourists who came for the booze, the food, the pasar malam shopping and the "girls". Business boomed and Bugis Street became an extremely lively and bustling area, forming the heart of Xiao Po. It was one of Singapore's most famous tourist meccas from the 1950s to the 1980s, renowned internationally for its nightly parade of flamboyantly-dressed transwomen and attracted hordes of Caucasian gawkers who had never before witnessed Asian queens in full regalia. However, this glittering activity only took place in the section of Bugis Street from Queen Street to Victoria Street. The other half of Bugis Street did not have as much commercial activity such as food vendors and roadside stalls, although transwomen could be found there, mainly indulging in prostitution. The latter activity also spilled out onto the adjoining Hylam Streeet, Malay Street and Malabar Street.

Transwoman sashaying down Bugis Street, being ogled at by tourists, circa the 1960s.

The latter would tease, cajole and sit on visitors' laps or pose for photographs for a fee.

Transwomen posing with Caucasian tourists.

Others would sashay up and down the street looking to hook half-drunk sailors, American GIs and other foreigners on R&R, for an hour of profitable intimacy. Not only would these clients get the thrill of sex with an exotic oriental, there would be the added spice of transgressing gender boundaries in a seamy hovel.

In November 2002, newly declassified UK naval documents revealed that possibly 50% of its servicemen had indulged in homosexual sex at some time in their naval service life and many had visited brothels in Singapore's then legendary Bugis Street in the 1960s as soon as their ship docked. A document written by the navy's medical director general in 1969, described Singapore's transwoman prostitutes as "very beautiful" and who "dress well and smell delicious" He added, "They perfect the female walk, stance and mannerisms and some even undergo surgery to complete the illusion"[1].

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There was an adage amongst Westerners that one could easily tell who was a real female and who was not - the transvestites were drop-dead gorgeous, while the rest were real women. The amount of revenue that the transwomen of Bugis Street raked in was considerable, providing a booster shot in the arm for the tourism industry. Some Americans referred to it as "Boogie Street" in the wake of the 1970s disco craze.

1970s postcard of Bugis Street.

Veterans recall that the notorious drinking section began from Victoria Street west to Queen Street. Halfway between Victoria and Queen Streets, there was an intersecting lane parallel to the main roads, also lined with al fresco bars. There was a well patronised public toilet with a flat roof of which there are archival photos, complete with jubilant rooftop transwomen. This toilet was immortalised in the movie, 'Bugis Street', which contained a scene in which visiting sailors stood in a row and mooned the passers-by below. Cruising by non-cross-dressing gay men also took place in the male half of the loo.

One of the "hallowed traditions" bestowed upon the area by sojourning sailors, eg. from Australia, was the ritualistic "Dance Of The Flamers" or "Dance Of The Flaming Arseholes" on the roof of the infamous toilet. Compatriots on the ground would chant the signature "Haul 'em down you Zulu Warrior" song whilst the matelots performed their act.
Western servicemen called "flamers" dancing stark naked above the public toilet.

Over the years this became almost a mandatory excercise and although it may seem to many to be a gross act of indecency, it was generally well received by the sometimes up to 100s of tourists and locals. The Kai Tais or Beanie Boys, as the transwomen were referred to by Anglophone white visitors, certainly did not mind either. By the mid-70s Singapore started a crackdown on this type of lewd behaviour and sailors were arrested at gunpoint by the local authorities for upholding the tradition. By this time those sailors brave enough to try it were dealt with severely and even shipped home in disgrace.

The earliest published description of Bugis Street found by Yawning Bread as a place of great gender diversity was in the book "Eastern Windows" by Ommaney, F.D. (1960. London:Longmans. pp. 39-45). Ommaney did not date specifically his description of the street but his book made clear that he was in Singapore from 1955 to 1960. Read a first-person account of Bugis Street in the 1950s by Bob, a visiting Australian sailor:[2]

Transwoman group photos.

From October 1985 onwards, Bugis Street underwent major urban redevelopment into a retail complex of modern shopping malls, restaurants and nightspots mixed with regulated back-alley roadside vendors. Underground digging to construct the Bugis MRT Station prior to that also caused the upheaval and termination of nightly transgender sex bazaar culture, marking the end of a colourful and unique era in Singapore's history.

1970s Bugis Street souvenir postcards featuring well-dressed transwomen.

Tourist and local lamentation of the loss sparked attempts by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) to attempt to recreate some of the old sleazy splendour by staging contrived "Ah Kua shows" on wooden platforms, but these artificial performances fell flat on their faces and failed to pull in the crowds. They were abandoned after a short time.

The Movie

Main article: Bugis Street (the movie)

BugisStreetMovie001.jpg BugisStreetMovie002.jpg
The transwomen of Bugis Street were immortalised in an English-language film made, ironically, by a Hong Kong film company which did employ some local talent in its production.

Contemporary

The fame of the original Bugis Street has spawned a slew of namesakes eager to capitalise on the brand, even though many tourists, including some young Singaporeans, have no inkling as to the reasons for its erstwhile 'glamour'.

Amongst the new places, buildings and companies which carry the name of 'Bugis' are New Bugis Street, Bugis Square, Bugis Village, Bugis Junction, Parco Bugis Junction, Bugis Junction Towers, Bugis Cineplex, Bugis MRT Station, Bugis Pasar Malam, New Bugis Food Village, Bugis Music World, Bugis Money Changer, Bugis City Holdings, Bugis Health Centre, Bugis Store Trading, Bugis Backpackers, and Bugis Street Development.

This cacophony of 'Bugis'es clamouring for a spot in the limelight, reminiscent of the transwomen who gave the original its glory, leads to great confusion when trying to locate Bugis Street itself.

Bugis Street

The section of the original, longer Bugis Street presently named simply "Bugis Street" is a cobblestoned, relatively wide avenue sandwiched between the buildings of Bugis Junction. Midway through its length is the new entity of Bugis Square, a granite-tiled plaza containing a dancing fountain and surrounded by the food, shopping and entertainment outlets of the Bugis Junction complex on all sides.

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New Bugis Street

The lane presently touted as 'Bugis Street' by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board and advertised from August 2005 onwards with an enormous light bulb-studded sign at night, actually developed from New Bugis Street, which is a truncated version of the section of the original, longer Bugis Street from Queen Street to Victoria Street. New Bugis Street, which has the sign saying so only at the Victoria Street end, was created after the whole area was redeveloped in the mid-1980s. New Bugis Street is a maze of lanes lined with stalls selling pasar malam goods. It stretches from its entrance along Victoria Street facing the new Bugis Street and Bugis Junction to its other entrance along Queen Street facing the entrance to Albert Street. This was where the touristy portion of Bugis Street with all the glamourous transgender activity and food vending took place.

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Bugis Square

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Bugis Junction

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Bugis Junction Towers

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Bugis Village

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Bugis MRT Station

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External links and References

  • Roy Tan, "Photo Essay: A Brief History of Early Gay Venues in Singapore"[3] in the book "Queer Singapore - Illiberal Citizenship and Mediated Cultures" edited by Audrey Yue and Jun Zubillaga-Pow, Hong Kong University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-988-8139-34-7[4],[5],[6],[7],[8],[9],[10].
  • Dr. Russell Heng's article on Yawning Bread, "Where queens ruled! - a history of gay venues in Singapore", August 2005. [11]
  • Dr. Russell Heng's article archived on Yawning Bread, "Tiptoe out of the closet: the before and after of the increasingly visible gay community in Singapore", June 2001.[12]. This paper was originally published in the Journal of Homosexuality Vol 40 Numbers 3/4 2001 Special Issue - Gay and Lesbian Asia: Culture, Identity and Community, edited by Gerard Sullivan and Peter Jackson, pp 81 – 97.
  • Tourist guide to the Bugis area on Wikitravel:[14].

Acknowledgements

This article was written by Roy Tan based on his personal experiences, verbal accounts by friends and information on Yawning Bread, Fridae, SiGNeL and other Internet sources.