The Camp of Asian Boys Vol. 1: Dreamplay

To say that Asian Boys Vol 1 is camp would be stating the obvious. The play is inundated with campy tropes – the opening scene after a cryptic, mythological prologue takes place backstage of a drag beauty pageant. The women are heavily and beautifully made up, complete with geographical names with dirty double meaning. Agnes, the goddess daughter of Indra, is the only biological female when she stumbles into the group. Dazzled by their beauty and eager to learn the ways of poise and grace from them, she is shocked when she realises they were born male.

Sexuality is infrangibly linked to gender studies, possibly because our judgements of sexuality are so linked to the physicality that we see on the exterior. Dreamplay is, after all, part of the trilogy titled ‘Asian Boys’; the fact that Agnes is a goddess and all the other cast members play biologically male characters means that the human biological female is a non-entity in this play in particular. But that is merely an invitation to step into the imagination of being a gay man in Singapore.

The camp only continues – the rainbow, as a nod to the Nordic bifrost, functions as the bridge between time and space. Boy is drawn to Agnes’ tiara and is deceived, Sun Wukong style, into wearing a head-constricting device that allows Agnes to control him. His ‘magic staff’ is a gloriously thick yet ordinarily fleshy dildo – which, in the world of the Monkey King, honestly should grow and lengthen every time he blows on it. And every time they travel, they sing a verse and chorus of A Whole New World.

Perhaps it’s just as well that the play doesn’t even take itself seriously – which is a good thing, because anything that takes itself seriously ends up being far too self-absorbed. Director Ivan Heng has said in this run of Dreamplay that it is the first important queer play in Singapore that paved the way for the opening up of liberal sentiment, at least in theatre in Singapore. To have achieved this in 2000, Dreamplay would have had to simultaneously conform to the expectations of the MDA’s censors, while attempting to see just how far out the envelope could be pushed. The ability to laugh at itself and its audience is the well-used trick of satire to push through a message that may be seen as unacceptably subversive.

So what is this message? The meat of Dreamplay lies in Agnes’ attempts to save gay men from themselves. Boy is recruited into her mission, seemingly without her figuring out that he too is as gay as they come, and together they travel back and forth Singapore’s history in an attempt to find the source of divergence. In the first act, they go first to an unnamed bar in Tanjong Pagar, where the politics of body and race play out in the hidden corners of the dance floor. They travel back to the founding of Singapore, where the loneliness of a gay coolie driven out of his village meets the loneliness of a straight-but-possibly-bi coolie who yearns to return home and start a family. Both times, Agnes interferes to restore the heteronormative status quo. But in each, we are left wondering whether the men have found true happiness. Did the awe of religion, in her multi-faceted forms as Guanyin, Saraswati, a melodramatic Malay-Muslim mother in a primetime TV slot help guide them, or did they spin out into further confusion? The longing in the look that the two coolies exchange after being married to samsui women suggest otherwise.

In the second act, Agnes’ compassion develops into sympathy for the men’s situations. Her attempts to rewind and undo the death of either man in the persecution of ‘perversion’ during the time of the Japanese Occupation ultimately fail. Tragedy is not averted, mostly because Boy warns that this will stop neither of them from being a martyr to homosexuals of the future. But the fear of the times is contrasted with the tenderness in the scene; with the calmness of men who live from day to day, they allow themselves a moment to lie on the floor and stare at the stars head-to-head with one another. “Why didn’t you kiss me, even though my hand was already on your shoulder?” “I wanted you to say yes. Every yes is an answer to a question I’ve been asking myself my whole life: why am I this way?”

Why am I this way? The repeated depictions of loneliness and the shallowness of a gay culture that prizes a certain body type and a certain race beg this question over and over again. Yellow is the colour of Grindr, the latest incarnation of gay IRC chat, where the insecurities of men desperate for love have them scrambling and breaking their hearts over the shreds of what passes for intimacy. Boy is upset at Agnes when he finds that his time with the goddess has accelerated his aging process, but he accepts it with a resignation that suggests that he too knows his appeal to other gay men only lasts as long as he remains young and nubile. And at its heart, Dreamplay is a walk downward into the fundamental cracks of the easy gay stereotypes we have come to rely on – the experimenting twink, the gym bunny, the old paedophile – in order to see that the ‘gay agenda’ is not so complicated; after all, its obsession with love and acceptance consumes us all.

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Rape Culture in Singapore

I want to talk a little bit about something that’s been bothering me for a while. It’s something which a lot of people think – or pretend, sometimes it’s hard to tell which it is – doesn’t exist in Singapore: rape culture. If I had to make an educated guess, I would say that this perception is the result of a number of reasons – firstly, our media doesn’t publicise rape cases as virulently as American media does; secondly, we live in a bubble of public safety that constructs a myth of immunity from the ‘bad’ things that happen in the world. I am going to try to argue a little bit that the perception that rape culture doesn’t exist in Singapore is not true.

I want, also, to respond a little bit to this fantastic article about Steubenville. Laurie Penny draws a strong comparison between the media coverage of Steubenville with Abu Ghraib from a decade ago; she notes that Susan Sontag herself drew a comparison between Abu Ghraib and public lynching of black people from the 1880s to 1930s. The key link between these three, she suggests, is the fact that the photographs and the images cannot be divorced from the fact that the photographs even exist in the first place. The images “were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done.”

So that’s the first idea I want to pull out, and bear in mind a little bit. That idea of “perfectly justified”, of entitlement, of – for all intents and purposes – an innocence about what was really going on with their actions and laughter.

The next idea I want to pull out of context for a little bit is the idea of internalised assumptions that Penny talks quite vehemently about. She argues that this innocence and naivety is only plausible in a culture where “the assumption that women are not real human beings, just bodies to be manipulated with or without consent” is internalised. 

I say that I’m pulling this out of context because Penny is talking about the act of rape, whereas what I am about to talk about has very little to do with the act of rape. Penny is concerned with the violent act of rape, of actually sticking appendages into another person without their consent. I am ordinarily concerned with this, but there is more to rape culture than thinking it’s okay, that you have the right to do something to a person without their consent, without them even being able to give consent. This is also not the part that bothers me because, for the afore-mentioned reasons, actual cases of rape don’t get a lot of airtime in our media. It’s not something that’s on our consciousness, it’s not even something we even see very commonly, it’s not something that’s all around us.

This, however, is.

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Oh my god, whatever did she say to warrant being called a fucking whore?

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Penny calls rape culture a culture where “one group of people sees another as less than human and insists on its right to hurt and humiliate them for fun”. She calls this ‘evil’.

My only problem with Penny’s article is the fact that she fixates on the physical violence that rape culture perpetuates. She is, of course, right to point out that rape culture encourages, well, rape. However, a lot of rape culture is also in the language of rape. It is also in the cheapening of women, in ascribing all their mistakes to sins of the flesh. (Okay, there’s also a problem with the words slut and whore and sexual double standards, but that’s an issue to be tackled elsewhere.) Whatever did this Confessor do to warrant being called a slut and a whore? Sure, her preferences are awfully materialistic, but it’s a fairly distant leap to suggest that these preferences are an indication of her sexual behaviour. She could, actually, be a very monogamous materialistic woman – but that’s besides the point.

The point here is that we think that in Singapore we’re so safe from the physical violence of rape, and that means we don’t have a culture that views women as cheap. But we do. We clearly have a culture that thinks it’s okay to insult a woman based on her sex. We have a culture that thinks it’s okay to call a woman a slut or a whore just for her selfish choices which have nothing to do with sex. We have a culture that thinks it’s okay to slut-shame a woman just because she is a woman.

But wait – what is the violence that is done to a woman who is called a slut or a whore? Well, just imagine if your mother, sister, aunt, or daughter were called a slut or a whore. It’s demeaning. It rips away the dignity. What it does is that it reduces the female body to an object, to a sex toy, a sex doll – to be “flung in and out of cars like a deflated sex-dolly”. It’s verbally violent. It calls to mind all the sexual violences that can be done to a person. It reduces a full human being to her sex. It’s essentialising. It makes her only about sex. What was it that Penny said? Right – “the assumption that women are not real human beings, just bodies to be manipulated with or without consent.”

And this sort of language is all around us, thanks to the Internet. This is just one instance, but you don’t have to look too far for more. Just take this for instance – a bunch of men who were apparently pillars of Singaporean society finding it completely alright to ask if women on the Internet were prostitutes and ask to sleep with them, as if they were entitled to. That’s it, the entitlement word, of seeing themselves as “perfectly justified”. It’s the idea that they can say all these things, treat women like they are objects to stick their cocks into, and be completely in the right for doing so, and do it all so very publicly. And there’s way, way more out there – on our forums, on Twitter, on Facebook. So is Steubenville a problem that doesn’t concern us? Hell no. Rape culture is very much in our bubble of imagined public safety, and the worst thing is that nobody seems to find it a problem, which makes it nigh impossible for us to inoculate against it. It’ll be far too late to on the day something like that does happen here.

Gilbert Koh’s “In Our Schools”

A friend of mine who reads this blog liked this poem and decided to share it after we talked about it. This was from September 2011, but better late than never right?

Perhaps someday I’ll talk about my experiences in the education system. It won’t be anything new but it may be a voice from the other side of the fence, as it were.

IN OUR SCHOOLS

Some are Special,
or Express. A few are
Gifted. The others
are merely Normal
(a polite life).

All are classifiable,
like chemical compounds,
lists of Chinese
proverbs,
or lab specimens of dead insects –

preserved, labelled,
pinned by a cold
needle
through the
unfeeling thorax.

Where is the space for evangelical Christians in a multi-cultural society

like Singapore?, as one friend of mine asked.

It’s a good question. And it’s funny that it sounds okay in my head when I include ‘like Singapore’, but then it doesn’t make sense when I drop ‘like Singapore’ and just ask, ‘where is the space for evangelical Christians in a multi-cultural society?’ This is partly because, of course, there is so much truck placed on ‘tolerance’ and inter-religious sensitivity and harmony in Singapore, and it is certainly institutionalised and actively promoted to a greater extent than in most other countries and societies.

But at the same time it’s a ridiculous question, because we have to accept evangelical Christians on an ideological basis if we’re going to have a truly multi-cultural society, otherwise we are going to be hypocrites. But then the problem is that evangelists of any religion can be out of odds in a multi-cultural society, especially if they are the sort who are going to be very loud and insensitive about their evangelism. But then, at the same time, it’s unfair to say that all evangelical religious people are like that – for every mistake that we hear about, there is another person who says, “My religion teaches me to spread the word, but it doesn’t teach me to force it down another’s throat. I can lead you to the door, but I am not going to push you through it for the sake of evangelism, because that isn’t the point of religion – you have to accept it yourself.” Well, certainly from a multi-culturalist’s perspective we can say, yeah, sure you sound great and reasonable, have a seat with us at our table.

And then the question becomes – as multi-culturalists, do we ostracise the people who aren’t sensitive about their religion’s position vis-a-vis others’, in favour of those who are sensitive? That doesn’t seem fair, given that multi-culturalism is about dealing with a diversity of cultural practices. But then, is multi-culturalism the same as cultural relativism? If it is, then we might just have to accept the fact that insensitive evangelists are always going to be amongst us, and there’s just going to be a never-ending tussle between the secularists and this brand of evangelists. But if multi-culturalism is about dealing with diversity, then maybe there is some space for social norms suggesting that evangelism is well within your rights to practice your religious beliefs, but it has to be tempered with sensitivity for everyone else. In other words, perhaps in a multi-cultural society there simply has to be some give and take – multi-culturalists have to accept that the religious have the right to their beliefs and that the religious will be very angry if you curtail that right, but the religious also have to accept that they don’t exist in a vacuum consisting only of other people who think the same way they do, and that society will be very angry if they behave like they do.

Then the question becomes: how do you get multi-culturalists and insensitive evangelists to sit down at the same table to work out their differences? How do you persuade either side with further estranging them from the wider society, who are precisely at work trying to hash out these norms?

OccupySG

Yesterday I had a very nice lunch + chat with our Writer-in-Residence. She comes from London, is being hosted by a certain faculty in NUS and The Arts House, and she’ll be here for a year.

Our conversation topics, quite invariably, implicitly hovered around the differences between Singapore and London. It started when she re-enacted for my benefit her confusion at BooksActually’s zine party; “Where were all the zines?” she exclaimed, “There were like, 3!”

“Well, maybe 10,” I amended. “And well, Singapore just doesn’t have a zine culture.” Yet, I mentally amended, and verbally explained how the arts scene has been on a slow but steady rise. Compared to how it was 6 years ago when I first started taking interest in it, there’s a lot more diversity, and the individual skills of artists have become a lot more polished.

And then we started talking about politics, and especially about the current Occupy saga. With a wince, I acknowledged that OccupySG (or OccupyRafflesPlace, it’s other, chunkier moniker) had been a complete fiasco. But even as I said that, I realised that if it had worked out, it would’ve been a farce.

To me, the primary thing that differentiated OccupySG from every other Occupy movement is the fact that we just don’t have that kind of 1%-99% disparity. Compared to the people in the United States, our middle class isn’t working our asses off to pay off our undergraduate debt. Furthermore there just aren’t ways in which the rich can lock in their means of getting or staying wealthy – we don’t have that kind of political system, for instance, where the rich can influence the government by sponsoring them, thereby ensuring their interests will get protected. We also rarely have rich people who go into politics for the sake of their private interests, although we do have politicians who have links to the private sector.

So to a certain extent, the rich in Singapore are teethless. Yes, they’re richer than most of us, but they don’t flaunt it. They don’t piss off the 99% by trying to influence the way this country is run, by meddling in the system by which our lives run, and thereby indirectly meddling in our lives. So if OccupySG didn’t work out, it’s simply because the 99% just isn’t riled up about the 1%. And I think that’s a good thing, because compared to the mess that’s been deliberately created by the obscenely rich in other countries, we really have nothing to complain about. And if people had really Occupied Raffles Place in an attempt to emulate the other Occupy movements, it would only have been a farce, a pale mockery of the real problems the other Occupy movements are trying to represent.

my country, my city, my home – Reading Lolita in Tehran

One of the things that struck me while reading Reading Lolita in Tehran is the idea of home. No matter how crazy her country was becoming, no matter how good life in America was being to her, Nafisi still desired to go home.

The idea of ‘home’ is a powerful one. When life’s journeys take one out of the country of one’s birth, ‘home’ becomes tied to the idea of ‘country’, and inevitably, ‘nation’.

What really intrigued me, though, is how anybody can muster up so much feeling for their country? When I read about the revolutions in the Middle East, or listen to the students’ lyrics in Les Miserables[1], a shiver runs up my spine for the sheer recklessness of their loyalty to their nation and beliefs; the faith that they are worth laying down their lives for. Enough to die for their country, and for the trajectory they believe their country should take? What is it about these ideals that make people so convinced about them, and how does anybody feel so strongly about their ideals for their country that they are quite literally willing to die for them, even as they acknowledge that their death may ultimately be ineffectual? What is it about the notion of home and country that inspires people to create these ideals in the first place?

Singapore is home, but I don’t quite know why. It’s not just because my family and most of my friends are here, which is the fickle reason we learn in primary school. After spending three months overseas, there was a familiarity in coming back to Singapore. My first night back felt very much like a slow sinking, or an easing into a bath tub; comfortable, but with the uncomfortable feeling that you might drown in it. But it felt good, being able to walk around and know exactly where you were going, being able to mentally map out the roads sprawling out from where I live with absolute certainty about where they would end up for the next few kilometres or so.

Yet the ability to navigate a place speaks more about how long you’ve stayed there and how many times you’ve walked its roads than your feelings about them. Navigation is a mechanical thing. Home is an emotional thing. Maybe that’s the answer, then; maybe ‘home’ is an impossibly inexplicable as ‘love’ is – because for all that we try to talk about it, love is really just a feeling you get, unknowable unless you’ve experienced it yourself.

And maybe it’s the same thing about ‘home’ and ‘love’ that inspires people toward sacrifice.

[1] Selected lyrics sung by the revolutionary students in Les Miserables:

But now there is a higher call.
Who cares about your lonely soul?
We strive toward a larger goal
Our little lives don’t count at all!

*

Let us die facing our foes
Make them bleed while we can
Make them pay through the nose
Make them pay for every man
Let others rise to take our place
Until the earth is free!