Yonfan’s ‘Bugis Street’: A Touchstone in Singapore’s Search for a National Identity in an Era of Queer Uprising7 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
Almost three decades on, Yonfan’s Bugis Street (1995) continues to leave a mark on Singaporean audiences, and remains an important touchstone in the never-ending discourse on conservatism, liberalism and queer rights in our short national history.
The film centres around Lien (Vietnamese actress Hiep Thi Le), a fresh-faced 16-year old arriving in Singapore from her hometown Malacca for the first time to take up a job as a receptionist at Sin Sin Hotel on the titular Bugis Street. Young and naive, what Lien unwittingly stumbles into is a well-known enclave for transsexual prostitution — an unorthodox and perhaps inappropriate setting for what will be her coming-of-age story. Although frightened when she first discovers the biological gender of the hotel’s denizens, she eventually forms a strong friendship and understanding with the glamorous Queens, and finds herself maturing as she navigates their chaotic world.
When it was released, Bugis Street was already an ode to a lost world. In its heyday, Bugis Street was a Mecca for nightlife and all the vices it entailed. The nightly procession of drag queens was internationally renowned and, particularly enticing to onlookers of the West, Bugis Street appealed to a distinctly Caucasian, male clientele.
In the 60s and 70s, the milieu evolved into a playground attracting an entanglement of visitors looking for a good time — in whatever sense the word. In the mid-80s, as gentrification and cultural sanitation swept the island, then-named Singapore Tourist Promotion Board elected to build Bugis MRT Station (as we know it today) over the area, washing out the once intoxicating atmosphere and displacing an entire subculture from its home.
Premiering in 1995, the film’s release incited media uproar. And it’s no surprise, too — Yonfan created a subversive nightmare, amalgamating everything the nanny state hides from its citizens for fear of moral corruption. Sex, full-frontal nudity and non-heteronormative sexuality galore, the film was condemned for its material and was slapped with an R(A) rating that confined its screening to select cinemas in central Singapore — away from the young and impressionable of the heartlands — and completely banned its distribution on DVD and VHS. Such a reaction is nothing unexpected of the state, which maintains a staunchly conservative social and political stance and continues to champion traditional Asian values to this day.
But it’s 2021. In light of the recent years’ queer uprising and the ongoing coming-of-age of a generation that is increasingly liberal and increasingly vocal about it, how do the messages and themes manifested in Bugis Street continue to fit into our maturing national identity?
In the years following Bugis Street, Yonfan showed his propensity for telling queer stories — see Bishonen (1998), starring Stephen Fung and Peony Pavilion (2001), starring Joey Wang. And it doesn’t take a deep analysis of Bugis Street to see that Yonfan is fighting hard for his queer characters. The inhabitants of Sin Sin Hotel are a rambunctious, over-the-top bunch that is seemingly intimidating and unapproachable, but as the film progresses, both Lien and the audience grow to empathise with them.
We are introduced to Lola (Ernest Seah) in the back of a trishaw, in the arms of an American sailor, en route to Sin Sin Hotel. The next morning, the sailor refuses to pay for her services after discovering that she is transsexual, only relenting when threatened by a triad gang that Lola is forced to call upon. I personally loved this prologue. It perfectly contextualised the main characters and their plight in the 60s’ political and sociocultural setting. There is also something very satisfying about watching Lola, in all her morning-after, dishevelled elegance, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette while taunting a befuddled sailor throwing a tantrum.
The hypocrisy of queer people’s ostracisation from society is made obnoxiously distinct. Even as she maintains a relatively cool facade, we are immediately prompted to sympathise with Lola and her vulnerability as a prostitute as well as someone who identifies as transsexual. Men jump at the chance to enjoy the queens for their bodies, as a means to satiate one’s sexual appetite, but can’t wait to dispose of them afterwards. This opening scene thus cements the queens’ position as mere objects of desire even by those who buy their services, who are undeserving even of the respect owed to a person simply doing their job.
Yonfan’s critique of society’s undue hostility towards these characters, both in the film and in real life, is also apparent in the film’s Chinese title, 《妖街皇后》 — translating to ‘Queens of Monster Street’. The use of the word ‘monster’ comes from a Chinese slur used to describe transsexuals as half-human, half-monster.
When Lien flees the hotel, traumatised from her unpleasant surprise after walking in on one of the queens with her male genitals exposed, Lola runs after her to convince her to stay. “You know, some people are not the same as others. And I promise they’re harmless.” As the audience continues deeper into this underground world from Lien’s perspective, we see that Lola is right. Lien, the virginal and morally unblemished protagonist becomes the viewer’s surrogate and the queens of Sin Sin come to represent the queer community. Not knowing any better, Lien is cautious at first — like many of us are — but she grows not only to accept but love them as people.
The way the film tracks Lien’s assimilation into this world feels warm and authentic and invites the audience to reminisce about the lost world. As they take her under their wings, dressing her up, giving her boy advice, bringing her to wild parties, we can’t help but feel tantalised by this era in Singaporean history. As the Bugis Street in the film lures Lien in, this filmic reconstruction of the old street and its people also calls out to us as viewers, sparking our imagination and thus allowing us to feel a sense of nostalgia for a time that (most of us) have never even experienced.
So where does that leave us now? In a time where Singapore is more stable, politically and culturally, than the chaos of the 1960s, and looking to be less reserved about art and sex than in the 1990s, Bugis Street remains an emblem of these intracultural divisions that continue to plague our tiny island’s search for an ideological identity.
The film ties three very different eras in our short history together, and one cannot watch it without wondering, ‘What has changed? What hasn’t?’ This is especially apt in light of the resurgence of the LGBTQ+ discourse in recent years, most famously in the three attempts to call for the repeal of section 377A of the penal code of Singapore (criminalising sexual intercourse between men) that were all dismissed in late 2020.
In an evolving world with many countries legalising same-sex marriage, a growing openly queer local community, and a population of young people armed with social media ready to call out anything they deem unjust, politics are growing further and further out of touch with society’s maturing ideology. Questions of censorship also arise in events like the protest against transphobia at the MOE building early this year, resulting in the arrest of three protestors. Bugis Street is just as relevant now than it was three decades ago.
In 2015, the film was restored and screened at the Singapore International Film Festival under the title Bugis Street Redux. This marks a definitive shift, although perhaps a small one for 20 years, in Singapore’s censorship policies that are, even if just by a hair, starting to loosen up. Who knew it would take the authorities only 20 years to warm to the idea of screening a film glorifying queerness, prostitution and sexuality to their impressionable citizens?