Since Tanjong Rhu will be showing publicly in Singapore for the first time this Saturday, I thought it would be timely to share the post script of the thesis paper that was supposed to accompany the film. Titled Coming Out At A Screen Near You: Queer Representation in Singapore Cinema, the paper was the dissertation I had written for my BA at LASALLE. I sought to examine the cause of the rise in queer representation in Singapore Cinema by identifying its actors – namely state regulation of the media and the arts, audience consumption and identification, and the authorial intentionality and identity politics of the filmmakers. I am unwilling to publish the paper as yet because I believe there were many points in the paper that can be explored further. I hope to complete it in due time.
For now, here’s the post script written in mid-2008 when Tanjong Rhu was in post production. It was meant to be a reflection of my thoughts on making the film.
The gay community in Singapore is one which has not experienced overtly significant milestones in its history. Such moments, which often involve a traumatic episode, have formed the basis of identity formation and consciousness in various other countries. For example, the Stonewall Riots in New York City where police confronted a group of homosexuals and transgender people protesting against harassment of gay venues, is widely credited as the originary point of the gay liberation movement in the United States. The Holocaust, the infamous Nazi-sponsored pogrom where gay inmates in concentration camps were tagged with pink triangles, was also another moment which highlighted the inhuman persecution of gay people.
As I was reflecting on the issue of gay historiography in Singapore, I tried to locate a particular episode in the community’s history that could serve as a defining moment. When I was in Secondary One, I recalled my moral education teacher mentioning in class an incident which had been reported in the papers. She had warned the boys in the class against carrying water bottles when visiting East Coast Park. It left an impression on me because she had used the Chinese word for ‘pervert’ to describe the men who frequented the space, apparently for sexual gratification.
In 2004, I attended a performance of Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol. 2, written by Alfian Sa’at, and was reminded of the incident, previously mentioned so casually in class. The final play in the production, The Widow of Fort Road, was a fictionalized treatment of an entrapment operation that was conducted by the police in 1993. Undercover policemen had infiltrated the popular gay cruising ground at Tanjong Rhu (or Fort Road in the play) for the express purpose of arresting ‘cruisers’. As a result, twelve men were charged with outrage of modesty and had their names and particulars published in the national newspapers. Six of them pleaded guilty and were sentenced to jail sentences ranging from two to six months, and three strokes of the cane each.
The play’s protagonist, Kelvin, was one of the victims of the entrapment exercise. In the play, he visits his ex-colleague, Sandra, who had once fallen in love with him, unaware of his sexual orientation. He gives an account of his difficulty in repressing memories of the event, despite having relocated to Amsterdam. The play ends with Kelvin telling Sandra that he has taken his own life, obviously still affected by the public humiliation.
The Fort Road Arrests: Three Artistic Responses
I was intrigued by the blending of the political and the personal in the play, and I started to speculate about the respective lives of the twelve men. I knew there was a story that I wanted to tell, but I was cautious about turning it into a politically charged polemic. The event had been appropriated by some to highlight the brutality of state persecution of homosexuals in Singapore. One of the most significant responses to this event was Brother Cane by Josef Ng, where the performance artist staged a ritualistic series of actions, including the smashing of twelve blocks of tofu with a rattan cane, as well as the snipping of his pubic hair (Lee 67, 69). The controversy that erupted over his performance eventually led to the de facto banning of performance art in Singapore for a period of almost ten years.
Alfian’s play, despite rooting the event in the character’s personal narrative, was also politically angled at some points. For example, during a re-enactment of the arrests, the actors on stage shone flashlights directly at the audience’s faces, effectively implicating them as the ones arrested. In retrospect, I saw my film as engaging in a dialogue with both Brother Cane and Widow. We were all referencing the same incident, but through different mediums. Brother Cane, employing the shock tactics of performance art, attempted to reproduce the violence of the episode. The splattering of tofu and the stubbing out of a cigarette on the artist’s bare shoulder were designed to provoke a visceral reaction from the audience.
Widow moved the exploration towards a more textual realm, where the use of a narrative structure allowed for audience identification and even empathy. Both Brother Cane and Widow were live performances that portrayed the event at different levels of abstraction. How would I situate my film against these two prior models of representations? How is a cinematic treatment of the event different from that of live performance? What other issues regarding the event had been excluded or were under-explored? What story was I going to tell?
As I had explored in the main paper, one of the advantages of the film medium was its accessibility, on both a material as well as textual level. Live performance is often site-specific and can be prohibitive for those who cannot afford ticket prices, are unfamiliar with the medium, or are intimidated by the social norms associated with a ‘theatre-going’ culture. A film’s mobility allows it to travel from an exhibition space to a living room, allowing for both collective as well as private modes of spectatorship.
I also believe that an audience conditioned to the language of film would rank a film higher in terms of realism than live performance. The reason for this is quite obvious: for example, a film is able to reproduce a setting with greater fidelity than a theatrical event, because of its ability to photographically ‘document’ spaces. As Tanjong Rhu/Fort Road was an important backdrop to my story, it was essential for me to portray on screen the casuarinas trees, the silhouettes and the forlorn seascape where gay men sought furtive encounters.
Tanjong Rhu: Between Fiction and Documentary
Of the twelve men whose names were published in the papers, I only had remote access to one of them. I decided against seeking him for the purpose of research due to ethical concerns. I did not want any part of my film to be exploitative of someone else’s true-life experiences, especially when I imagined those to be the kind one would choose to forget. I also feared that basing the film on one man’s story would subject him once again to media scrutiny.
Hence, I decided to create a character and his life purely from imagination, and based only the premise of the film on the actual events that took place in September 1993. I have also chosen to reproduce the newspaper article in the media collaterals of the film with the names of the victims blacked-out. Even if there might be those curious enough to seek out the original article, I believe that the gesture would represent a desire on my part to guard their privacy.
However, to speak on behalf of the other is always a process that runs the risk of misrepresentation. One of the assumptions that I had started with was that the arrests were traumatic for those involved, and had scarred them psychologically. Apart from the experience of incarceration, I was certain that the very public disclosure of their identities had profound repercussions on their social relationships. I was also very conscious of the fact that to portray them as ‘victims’ could be an act of oversimplification.
Two significant liberties I took with the story dealt with the class and language background of the main character, and also the reconfiguration of the cruising area as a space where it was possible to form lasting, instead of merely transient relationships. Unlike Widow, the protagonist in Tanjong Rhu is a working-class, Mandarin-speaking youth. I wanted to explore something different from local representations of queer experience (which tended to be middle-class and English-speaking). It was also important for me to rehabilitate Tanjong Rhu from its media-constructed reputation as a ‘public sex environment’, especially given the limited spaces for gay men to meet and interact with each other in early-90’s Singapore.
Making Tanjong Rhu: Funding Obstacles
The preproduction of Tanjong Rhu accelerated into full speed in early 2008. The shoot took place between 28th February and 4th March. One of the most significant obstacles of the production occurred when the application for the Singapore Film Commission’s (SFC) Short Film Grant was rejected. This funding assistance programme, aimed “to help develop budding local filmmaking talents” , allows filmmakers to apply for an amount up to S$10,000, if their overall budgets are above S$20,000.
I have enjoyed very healthy support and working relations with the SFC for my past works. Short films that have been submitted for the same grant – The Changi Murals, Katong Fugue and Keluar Baris – have been granted S$12,000 , S$8000 and S$10,000 respectively. It was anticipated that there would be some resistance in offering Tanjong Rhu the full grant due to its subject matter, but an outright rejection was a first and very unexpected. It should also be noted that out of all the scripts that I had submitted for the Short Film Grant, it was a common feedback that Tanjong Rhu was the most compellingly written and accessibly structured.
The letter of rejection was received at a very late stage during preproduction. No reason for the rejection was stated in the letter. As there were adequate funds from the school and corporate sponsorship to commence production, an appeal against the decision was not sought. An official reason for the rejection was also not obtained due to the lack of time.
Upon learning about the rejection, a filmmaker-friend revealed that she was one of the external script readers assigned by the SFC to assess my application proposal. She communicated to me that she had actually highly-recommended the script to the SFC’s internal assessor. Even though she was only one of five script readers who would have evaluated the Tanjong Rhu script, and it was possible that the others had graded the script unfavourably, it gave more reason to believe that the rejection was a bureaucratic decision rather than one based on merit.
Another incident also strengthened my belief that the SFC had unwritten guidelines for handling gay issues. Local filmmaker Victric Thng’s entire collection of short films was selected for a retrospective showcased at the Q! Film Festival in Indonesia last year. Q! Film Festival is one of the most prominent LGBT film festivals in Asia. Thng shared with me that his application for the SFC’s Overseas Travel Grant to attend the festival was rejected. It was the first time that this had happened to him. Upon further inquiry, the SFC revealed that they cannot be seen as supporting such an “alternative lifestyle” .
The rejection of Tanjong Rhu’s short film grant was disheartening, but it also prompted my desire to make it better. There were already talks with online gay portal company Fridae.com for sponsorship possibilities. SFC’s rejection legitimised the anti-establishment nature of the film and seemed to have acted as a catalyst for Fridae’s decision to fund this project.
Nick Shen as Kelvin: Challenging the Stereotype
Casting for the lead character, Kelvin (incidentally named after Widow’s main character as a form of homage on my part) also provided some interesting insights into the perception of queer subject matters by local media practitioners. While it was not an active decision to cast a straight man for the role, I felt that Kelvin’s mannerisms in Tanjong Rhu had to challenge the effeminate caricatures that have commonly portrayed gay men in the local media. Mediacorp artiste Nick Shen’s good-boy-next-door appeal offered another dimension to Kelvin’s character, which contradicted what my moral education teacher had labeled as ‘perverted’. The roles that he had taken on previously in Mediacorp’s Chinese drama serials have given him a public persona that is very endearing especially to viewers of the older generation.
It was the first time that a Mediacorp artiste would attempt to play a gay person’s character in a leading role. Shen was very attracted to the complexity of the character, but was anticipating some resistance from the Artiste Management Department at Mediacorp. There was a genuine concern that such uncharted territory for an actor under the employment of a media corporation could result in negative repercussions. However, Shen took a leap of faith and committed to the role.
The Next Stage: Public Reaction to the Film
The film is currently in the final stages of postproduction. Largely due to its subject matter and the involvement of local celebrities in its cast, the film has already generated a significant amount of interest from the media. Feedbacks from focus-group screenings have been very positive.
It remains to be seen whether the film will succeed more in raising public awareness to the injustices of September 1993, or in defining the Fort Road/Tanjong Rhu Incident as a cause for identity formation and consciousness within the gay community. My biggest satisfaction with the responses so far is that the potentially controversial subject matter has not upstaged what is essentially, for me, a fascinating story about human resilience and hope.
1. Arguably, another literary response was enacted by Alfian Sa’at in his poem ‘We Are Not Yet Free: A Poem in 12 Strokes’. The most explicit mention to the Fort Road arrests was in poem number V (An Article By Another Newspaper). See Sa’at, Alfian. A History of Amnesia. Ethos Books: Singapore, 2001.
2. Cited from the website of the Singapore Film Commission (www.sfc.org.sg).
3. I tried my luck and applied for S$20,000 for The Changi Murals, citing the film’s period setting as a reason for its huge budget.
4. Victric Thng also shared this information at Short Circuit 2, the second edition of a queer short film showcase, which I helped to curate at the Substation in December 2008.