Paddy Chew was the first Singaporean AIDS victim to come out to the general public, thus giving a face to a hitherto closetted affliction thought to be remote from possible local encounter.
Paddy Chew was born on March 29, 1960. His parents went for a picnic at Katong Beach and he was told and would like to believe the romantic story that his mother gave birth to him by the seaside.
Being the youngest child in the family, with 3 elder sisters and a brother, he was thoroughly spoilt. He attended St. Stephen's Primary School and then St. Patrick's Secondary School, liking the idea of being from Christian brothers' schools, which had a good reputation.
He sat for the GCE 'A' level examination, which he regretted because he did not want to go to university. He was tired of studying and wanted to see the world so he became a flight steward. He worked for Singapore Airlines for a good 13 years, his very first job. After that, he wanted to move on to something very close to his heart - entertainment. He left SIA in 1993 and joined the Boom Boom Room, Singapore's first drag artiste cabaret. He helped to formulate and organise the shows. No one realised that the Boom Boom Room was going to be so successful and famous. He considered having left something he loved (flying), and progressing to some other thing that he also loved as personal successes. He was therefore very happy during that period.
Chew did not know anything about AIDS or HIV prior to the mid-80s when he frequently travelled to Europe and America, so he never used a condom. When he heard about the disease in 1986 or 1987 and started to practise safe sex, he felt it may have been too late. He became very sick in 1995. He went to the hospital where he was first attended to by a young and inexperienced female doctor. She did not know that he had oral thrush (Candidiasis) even after examining at length his tongue and throat, which were covered with whitish particles, so he had to tell her the diagnosis himself. Later, other doctors put him through a barrage of tests- chest X-rays, cardiac assessments, etc., but still could not find out what was wrong with him. Finally, he personally suggested a HIV test, which they were rather reluctant to do. It surprised him, so he said that he would sign whatever documents they wanted him to.
The test results came back positive, which he suspected in the back of his mind because when the doctors could not find out what was wrong with him, he felt that it must have been something very serious.
When asked why the doctors were reluctant to perform a HIV test, he replied that a lot of doctors in Singapore at that time did not want to handle the issue of AIDS. Many are uneasy about it even today. One could not do perform the test without the patient's consent, but Chew could be very pushy when he wanted something done.
Instead of being traumatised after being diagnosed with HIV-AIDS in 1995, Chew actually was relieved because now that he was informed of the problem, he could take charge. Before he knew for certain, he went around wondering if it was cancer or heart disease and and he just lost control, a feeling which he feared and hated. He wanted to know where he stood, and when he found out he was HIV-positive, he knew where he wanted to go, what to do, and where he could seek professional help.
After the diagnosis, he would think of death all the time. Every morning when he woke up, he thought he was going to die. When that happened, he could not breathe or eat properly. Once he fainted in Serangoon Road, which he described as so unglamourous. He recalled that an Indian woman doing her marketing was screaming and a Chinese boy in a Crocodile shirt knelt on the ground to inspect him.
He was a healthy 63kg when he was diagnosed, but a year later when he travelled all the way to Europe for treatment, his weight plummeted to a skin-and-bones 35kg. Singapore did not have the anti-viral cocktail used for treatment at that time and it was rather frightening for him. When he left for Europe, he did not know if he was going to come back or not. He did not know what was in store for him. He journeyed all the way to Brussels. He did not speak French, they did not speak English. He went through it all by himself. He packed a tiny bag and went to the airport. No one said goodbye or sent him off. His sisters were living in Australia and he did not want to bother them. His parents had passed away. He was actually rather glad that his mother had passed away in 1993. He would have preferred to commit suicide than to tell her he was HIV-positive. He said that if she had been alive, he probably would never have come out and would have emigrated to Europe. He adored his mother did not want anything to upset or harm her.
He stopped taking medication for more than a year because he needed a break from it and it took a toll on his health. He admitted that it was really his own fault, promising the doctors that immediately after the play (see below) he would resume his medication and give his health 100% attention. He "hoped it would not be too late", which he described as a recurrent theme in his life. When he took the medication, he could not function and he wanted to do the play and take part in the AIDS candlelight memorial. When he went to Europe, he was pumped with so many drugs that there were days when he got up and and did not know if he was turning left or right, if he was awake or asleep. He had had enough. He wanted to give his body a chance to naturally heal itself. He felt that only when he really needed medication would he take it and not have it pumped into him year in, year out. He felt that his body could not repair itself under the drug barrage, and that it had become weaker than what it was supposed to be. Sometimes he felt that the drug cocktail was actually the cause of death. He observed that some of the patients took the medication until they cried. So he question the whole regimen.
He felt that Singaporean doctors' attitude of "I'm the doctor, you're the patient- I tell you something and you have to do it" was ricidulous. He was of the opinion that they were dealing with people's lives and would not be dictated to by doctors. He would decide if it was good for himself and take it from there. He felt that most patients still had to learn that as many of them were overawed by doctors. He said that American research had shown that a lot of patients were told to take medication when they were at a stage that did not necessitat yet. Taking medication when it was not essential, he felt, could be more damaging than the disease itself. He wanted to empower patients with knowledge, and question when in doubt. Eventually, he felt that they were the ones paying for the medication and the suffering, not the doctors, so they should have been more daring and should have questioned things that were not right.
He believed that with proper medication, and if he were to give up smoking and drinking, he could live longer, but he admitted he was very stubborn. Sometimes it frightened him but he thought that life was so strange- even though it seemed inevitable to others that he would die from the disease, for all they knew, he might not. He philosophised that he might instead get knocked down by a bus, or be involved in a car crash; only heaven knew.
He decided to leave his job because he could not function properly. Moreover, he did not want to jeapordise the people working at the Boom Boom Room, which he felt could happen if the public weree were to find out he was HIV-positive. The Boom Boom Room was already infamous for drag shows and the like, not exactly moral, in some people's eyes. He felt that if he were to stay on, people would associate everyone around him with an immoral lifestyle and tarnish them with the same brush.
His colleagues did not want him to leave but he felt that if he drew a salary and could not contribute, he would be abusing their kindness. He did it for Kumar, the drag queen star of the performances, and all the rest of the troupe. He missed the Boom Boom Room dearly- the thrill of creating new shows and costumes, the music, and making people laugh and be happy. But he had no regrets and would not go back. He always believed that when one left something, one did it for good- no turning back, look forward.
Chew became the first Singaporean AIDS victim to publicly declare his HIV-positive status, thus giving a face to a hitherto anonymous affliction which mainstream society considered remote from possible encounter.
He came out with his condition on 12 Dec 1998 during the First National AIDS Conference in Singapore held at the Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre, 4 years after he was diagnosed with HIV. (Read the script of his plenary lecture: ) Explaining why, he once said, "Frankly, I am fed up of waiting for someone else to come out." He publicly declared his sexual orientation as bisexual.
His life changed dramatically thereafter. He became a public figure overnight, giving countless interviews and inviting stares and comments everywhere he went.
His face as well as his thoughts on AIDS in Singapore were highlighted in local and foreign newspapers and magazines. Many admired and applauded Chew's courage but the praise was not unanimous. A columnist in the Chinese-language daily Lian He Zao Bao criticised him for being a promiscuous bisexual while others considered him a publicity-seeker.
Responding to the allegations, Chew would retort, "I don't mind being famous for winning the Miss Universe crown, or as a singer, or a beautiful face, you know? Who wants to be famous for having AIDS? For goodness sake!...I have seen too many AIDS patients die. Most die alone. There is no warmth, no care for them. They are not ready to die- you can see it in their eyes. I told myself I had to do something worthwhile for myself and for the cause- to clear the path for future patients, so that they will not die like that."
He decided to dramatise the plight of Singaporean AIDS patients in a one-man autobiographical play called "Completely With/Out Character", his debut effort. It was conceived and collaborated on since June 1998. The final version was produced by The Necessary Stage, written by Haresh Sharma, directed by Alvin Tan and staged at The Drama Centre from 10-17 May 1999.
Paddy Chew onstage in his one-man play, "Completely With/Out Character".
At the end of each performance, Chew would strip to his shorts and raise his arms to allow the audience to take in his emaciated frame. This was followed by a frank question and answer session. All proceeds from the play were donated to the charity organisation for which he was an outspoken volunteer, Action for AIDS (AfA).
Chew dreamed aloud of writing a book and taking a last holiday in Europe, but his last wishes were not to be. His health deteriorated rapidly, necessitating his admission to the Communicable Disease Centre (CDC) in Moulmein Road in June 1999, 2 months before his death.
He passed away at the CDC from complications of HIV infection at 6:15am on 21 Aug 1999, 3 months after his play's run ended.
Chew's sister, who declined to be named, and Alvin Tan, the Artistic Director of The Necessary Stage were by his bedside. Tan called the press to request for help in informing Chew's friends about his funeral service at 3:45pm at the Mount Vernon Crematorium, Hall 2. Chew's family requested that there be "no wreaths, no sad tears, no black attire and for everybody to dress glam".
Chew's distraught sister declined to give any information about his death or his final days, saying that she wanted to mourn her brother privately and with dignity. She told the press not to send any photographers or reporters as she did not want to mourn her brother amid flashing light bulbs.
Tan and 2 volunteers from Action for Aids also declined to talk, saying that they respected the wishes of Chew's sister. Tan did not even want to talk about directing Chew's groundbreaking play.
Dance music played at Mount Vernon Crematorium's Hall Two and the mourners came dressed in red, blue, pink and orange. "The Boss", a disco hit by Diana Ross was heard. It would have made Chew happy as it was his favourite song and he loved to sing and dance. People with AIDS (PWA) must be buried or cremated within 24 hours in Singapore, so his funeral was held that very afternoon, with about 80 people present.
Chew's sister, who was now willing to be identified as Jessie, 37, said in her short eulogy, "He wanted everyone to come, preferably in red, and party with him." She said that her brother remained full of spirit and fought all the way to the end.
There also were 2 older siblings present, Shirley, 53 and Edwin, 52. Another sister, Joanne, 41, was living abroad. 2 others, the managing director of Boom Boom Room, Alan Koh and an old friend, Audrey Fegen, gave additional eulogies.
The service, led by Roman Catholic priest Augustine, lasted less than half-an-hour. Calvin Tan, 38, a friend of Chew's since Primary 1, said: "He was in critical condition at 8pm on Friday, but he was a fighter. He fought from 8pm to 6 this morning. He refused to give up."
Action for Aids president, Assoc. Prof. Roy Chan, who knew Chew since he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1995 and who worked closely with him on several AIDS awareness projects, said: "Paddy was a very outspoken person. He had a lot of guts to do what he did. He was selfless and courageous. He didn't do it for himself, but for society."
References and External Links
- A Google-cached archive of Sintercom's interview with Chew just before the opening of his play "Completely With/Out Character":
- An archive of the Asiaweek article dated 21 May 1999 on Chew's final months of health: 
- An article entitled "Portraits of AIDS" by Roger Winder in the Action for AIDS (AfA) periodical, "The Act". It ends with a poignant eulogy by Assoc. Prof. Roy Chan, president of AFA: 
- Another article on Chew's swansong performance written by Caroline Fernandez in "The Act": 
This article was written by Roy Tan.