restricted access 7. Photo Essay: A Brief History of Early Gay Venues in Singapore
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7 Photo Essay A Brief History of Early Gay Venues in Singapore Roy Tan Where could a young gay adult go to meet like-minded people in Singapore in the 1970s? This was the predicament the author of this chapter found himself in, in an era when there was no ready information available on the subject. The situation may have been vastly different for his street-savvy counterpart who lived in the vicinity of an area where homosexual men would congregate nocturnally for social, as well as sexual, intercourse; or another gay person who had already built up a nexus of friends who could clue him in on the hotspots where such activities took place. But the social isolation and heart-wrenching loneliness that a typical English or Chinese-educated school graduate experienced with respect to his homosexual orientation was a major life issue at that time. One could read up about the topic of homosexuality in popular psychology treatises such as the acclaimed bestseller, The Hite Report on Male Sexuality (Hite, 1981). Books like these were available at the larger book stores, the best known of which was the MPH (Malaysian Publishing House) located on Stamford Road. However, these tomes dealt with studies on homosexuality in the West, specifically in America, and gave a local person no inkling as to where he could meet gay people in Singapore. In addition, more often than not, when the word ‘gay’ was mentioned in the press, it conjured up the image of a man dressed in women’s clothing. In the consciousness of mainstream Singaporeans, ‘gay’ still retained its traditional meaning of ‘happy’, as evidenced by the name of one of the most popular entertainment centres, Gay World (where no homosexual activities were to be found) and the captions of photographs in the media. One prominent example is a framed collage of photographs on display at the National Museum entitled, ‘Singapore goes gay for Malaysia Day’. There were, no doubt, sporadic reports in the press that attempted to tackle the local gay subculture, the most widely read of which was the four-part series by tabloid newspaper The New Nation called ‘They are different’ published in July 1972. 118 Roy Tan It should be noted that in the 1970s, the definition of ‘gay’ as a socially constructed identity of the self was not widely know. Therefore, the terms ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ are used interchangeably in this chapter. Through the form of a photo essay, this chapter provides a cultural history of early gay venues based on the author’s personal experiences and oral histories provided by members of the gay community, including his ex-partner and friends. Figure 7.1 A transvestite, dressed to the nines, sashaying down Bugis Street, enjoying the attention from gawking tourists and locals alike in the 1970s (see Tangawizi, 2009). Figure 7.2 Cross-dressing male street walkers posing at the seedier Malabar Street, a short distance away from Bugis Street in the 1960s (see Tangawizi, 2009). Photo Essay 119 In view of the mainstream public’s misconceptions of gay men being transgender women, a gay person with absolutely no information about where to meet other homosexuals would have ventured into Bugis Street to try his luck. He probably would have found a few gay men with the same purpose there. However, if he were to wander around the vicinity, he may have chanced upon the seedier lanes around Bugis Street, such as Malabar Street, Malay Street and Hailam Street, where the less glamorous and aged transwomen plied their trade or offered free sex to the men they fancy. The chances of meeting other gay men looking for sex along these lanes were higher. Some would spill into the Sungei Road area as well. Figure 7.3 The Muslim cemetery at Jalan Kubor as it exists today. Other men would go to the disused Muslim cemetery at Jalan Kubor. It became known as one of the more popular cruising grounds. People would walk around the periphery of the cemetery next to the main road and retreat further into the area shielded by trees with luscious foliage for sexual activity. In the 1970s, the area was patronised mainly by local Chinese but as Singapore’s South Indian foreign worker population swelled, the racial character of the patrons of the Jalan Kubor cemetery changed. In 2010, after a lapse of almost two decades, a police entrapment operation was carried out there and an unfortunate Malaysian Indian foreign worker was...


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