Bugis Street is a well known shopping thoroughfare in modern-day Singapore located in the central region. From the 1950s to the mid-1980s, it was a gathering place for members of the male-to-female transgender community. Their presence attracted locals and tourists alike, making it one of Singapore's most well known and lucrative tourist attractions of that era.
- 1 Historical
- 1.1 Location
- 1.2 Etymology
- 1.3 Alternative names
- 1.4 Adjoining lanes
- 1.5 Activities
- 1.6 Sex reassignment surgery
- 1.7 Public toilet
- 1.8 UK naval documents
- 1.9 Urban redevelopment
- 1.10 Attempts at transgender revival
- 1.11 National Heritage Board whitewashes Bugis Street's transgender history
- 1.12 Bugis Street in popular culture
- 1.12.1 Books
- 1.12.2 Movies
- 1.12.3 Music
- 1.12.4 Poetry
- 1.12.5 Scenes in TV serials
- 1.12.6 Photography exhibition and talks
- 1.12.7 Docu-drama
- 2 Contemporary
- 3 See also
- 4 External links and References
- 5 Acknowledgements
Bugis Street lies in an extensive area which was commonly referred to in the past by the Chinese-educated community as Xiao Po (小坡; little slope). The latter stretched all the way from Tanjong Pagar, through Singapore's Chinatown, to Jalan Sultan. The whole vicinity was thriving and crammed with merchants and traders, making it one of the most vibrant economic zones of old Singapore.
Bugis Street runs perpendicular to and stretches from Victoria Street to North Bridge Road. The shopping lane currently known as New Bugis Street within the Bugis Village complex is a relatively recent entity which was formed after the redevelopment of the Bugis area in the mid-1980s. New Bugis Street is actually the renamed terminal portion of the very long, original Albert Street which ran from Queen Street all the way to Victoria Street.
The Bugis or Buginese, who were renowned for their seafaring skills and traded in spices, gold and slaves, played an important part in the political development of the Malay Peninsula in the 18th century. The Bugis were also great warriors and this enabled them to extend their political influence to Kedah and Perak and establish a Bugis sultanate in Selangor. Unfortunately, they also put their sailing prowess to less benign uses and gained a reputation in the region for being a race of bloodthirsty pirates.
At the time of the founding of Singapore by Stamford Raffles in 1819, Bugis traders were already sailing up Singapore's southern waterways, mooring their boats and trading with local merchants. By 1820, the distinctive Bugis schooners called pallari were a familiar sight along the Kallang River. 19th century Bugis maritime contributions (much documented in the street's atrium displays and which are unfortunately being obliterated and lost by vendors) were vital to Singapore's entrepot sophistication. At first, the Bugis intermingled with the aboriginal Orang Laut who had long established settlements along the swampy area of the Kallang River. These Orang Kallang (also called the Orang Biduanda Kallang) lived on boats and sustained a subsistence living by fishing and collecting other materials from the nearby forests. After 1819, the Orang Kallang were relocated by Temenggong Abdul Rahman to the northern Singapore Straits at Sungai Pulau. Tragically, in 1848 the Orang Kallang were wiped out by a smallpox epidemic.
In 1822, about 500 Bugis with their chief, Arong Bilawa, fled from Macassar to Singapore to settle down in the fledgeling British colony. Stamford Raffles, in his 1828 master plan for the settlement which followed a racial approach to allocating residential spaces to the various communities in Singapore, allotted the Bugis the land between Kampong Glam and the Rochor River. This area, on the right bank of the river and originally occupied by the Orang Laut, was logically named Kampong Bugis. The settlement later expanded to the north and left banks of the Rochor River as well as the banks of the Kallang River. With other Malay groups and the Arabs settling in this vicinity, the Bugis area became a Muslim heartland. Notable Arab entrepreneurs developed the shophouses of the area into a multicultural business zone by the late 19th and early 20th century. The intellectual enrichment of the area by pilgrim travellers and Muslim publishing businesses and intellectuals made Singapore circa 1900 one of the great centres of Islamic scholarship and information.
Between the First and Second World Wars, flourishing businesses were established in the area, especially by Japanese proprietors who may have harboured the possible ulterior motive of being an intelligence-gathering source.
In modern day Singapore, "Kampong Bugis" no longer refers to a kampung (Malay hamlet or village in a Malay-speaking country) but is the name of a quiet lane on the left bank of the Rochor River which leads to Kallang Riverside Park. It is home to a scattering of factory buildings, a Hindu temple, a park and a hipster café frequented by teenagers. Up to the late 1990s, an unmistakeable landmark, the cylindrical metal stucture of the old Kallang Gas Works was situated right next to it.
During the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945, a number of Bugis were resettled in Pontian, Johore and others moved out to Beach Road and Arab Street. Today the Bugis have been assimilated into the Malay community, with most living in HDB flats.
It was these people after whom Bugis Street was named. Despite the recognition of 5 distinct genders within Bugis culture, including the non-heteronormative bissu, calabai and calalai (see main article: Gender in Bugis society), the road was not named after the Buginese for this reason. However, it is possible that transgender Singaporeans with a knowledge of this aspect of Bugis society first decided to congregate there in the 1950s because of this association.
- Watch a video segment in Chinese on the history of Bugis Street, excerpted from a documentary produced by Channel 8 in June 2006:
During the early colonial era, there also used to be low mounds of whitish sand in the area, earning the street the familiar Hokkien moniker of Peh Soa Pu or Bai Sha Fu in Mandarin (白沙浮; white sand mounds). The Cantonese, however, referred to the street as Hak Gaai or Hei Jie in Mandarin (黑街; black street) as there were many clubs catering to the Japanese invaders in the 1940s. During the first half of the 20th century, commuters could conveniently travel from Bugis Street to anywhere else in Xiao Po via a tram service which ran along North Bridge Road, which was referred to by the Chinese-educated as Xiao Po Da Ma Lu (小坡大马路; little slope main road).
Closely associated with Bugis Street and which also saw transgender activity were Malabar Street, Hylam Street and Malay Street. However, prior to the 1950s, this network of four streets was well known as a huge red light district serviced by cisgender women sex workers.
As Singapore started to develop around the 1870s, immigrants, mostly men, rushed in from China and India to toil at rubber plantations and tin mines or as rickshaw pullers. To maintain social order, the British colonial authorities tolerated prostitution at designated brothels, bringing in Chinese and Japanese women in droves.
Malabar Street, connecting Middle Road and Malay Street, probably got its name from the Malabar Muslims who settled there. They were Southern Indian Muslims from Kerala who came to Singapore as merchants. They formed their own association and built their own mosque, the Malabar Mosque at the junction of Victoria Street and Jalan Sultan, near Malabar Street.
Malay Street, connecting Victoria Street and New Bridge Road, was at the heart of Singapore's red light area up to the late 1930s after which sexual soliciting by female sex workers was outlawed and stamped out by the British (see below). It was infamous for the Chinese, Japanese and European female sex workers who plied the streets.
Many Japanese women worked in Malay Street as prostitutes called “Karayuki-san” between the late 19th century and early 20th century. They were peasant girls, mostly from the Shimabara Peninsula in Nagasaki Prefecture and Amakusa Islands in Kumamoto Prefecture, who were sold into the flesh trade in colonial Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Japan was a poor country in the 19th century and women were one of its major exports, along with silk and coal. Karayuki-san, together with other Japanese women who served as prostitutes elsewhere, including Siberia, Hawaii, Australia and some parts of India and Africa, were the third-biggest foreign currency earner for Japan at the turn of the 20th century.
The existence of Karayuki-san in Singapore dates back to 1877, when there were two Japanese-owned brothels on Malay Street with 14 Japanese prostitutes. Official records suggest 633 Japanese women were operating in 109 brothels in 1905. The number is believed to have been well over 1,000, if unlicensed prostitutes are included.
From the 1950s onwards, brothels serviced by transwomen sex workers were only authorised by the government to operate along Johore Road. However, soliciting and cruising activity were seen late at night along these streets even though no brothels were located here.
Before World War II, starting from the 1920s onwards, Bugis Street was a more conventional, non-transgender red light district lined with Chinese and Japanese brothels. Noel Coward, in his short story, "Pretty Polly Barlow", described the Bugis Street of the 1930s:
“Every nationality in the world seemed to be represented in the endless procession of tightly packed humanity shuffling slowly along.” Then he disparagingly describes the “ubiquitous whores, none of whom were young or even remotely attractive” (referring to the biological woman sex workers, not the transwomen who would only start to congregate there 2 decades later).
Sexual soliciting by the largely biological female prostitutes was outlawed and stamped out by the colonial authorities in the late 1930s.
After the war, hawkers gathered there to sell sundry goods and cooked food like dim sum, beef noodles and roast meat. Those in the most popular stretch would cover their tables with white table cloth, the only hawkers in Singapore to do so. There was initially also a small number of outdoor bars set up beside rat-infested drains. The street also served as an entertainment area catering to British troops and thereafter, American forces taking an R&R respite from the Vietnam War.
The earliest published description of Bugis Street found by Yawning Bread as a place of great gender diversity and transgender activity was in the book "Eastern Windows" by Francis Downes Ommaney (1960. London:Longmans. pp. 39-45),. Ommaney did not date specifically his description of the street but his book made clear that he was in Singapore from 1955 to 1960. Another first-person account of Bugis Street in the 1950s by Bob, a visiting gay Australian sailor currently residing in Brisbane describes that each bar arranged its tables outside its premises but the usage seemed almost communal and tables and chairs were rearranged many times in the course of an evening.
He did not know how the various bar owners and employees kept track of whose customers were whose but it all seemed to work somehow. The overwhelming impression was that an overall good humour, even bonhomie, prevailed. There were disputes, both between the service staff of the various bars and within each bar itself but an all-out brawl was rare. More serious were occasional quarrels between the biological girls and the cross-dressers as to who owned which patch or which serviceman. The transwomen were in the minority but were nonetheless aggressive in promoting their wares and protecting their turf. They definitely had the edge in repartees. Policing was done by locals under European direction, and seemed to have a light hand unless a brawl, threatening property damage, started in which case the police and the shore patrol/MPs rushed there in force.
When transgender women or transwomen (formerly derogatorily but popularly referred to as transvestites) began to rendezvous in the area in the 1950s, they attracted increasing numbers of Western tourists who came for the booze, the food, the pasar malam shopping and the "girls". Business boomed and Bugis Street became an extremely lively and bustling area, forming the heart of Xiao Po. It was one of Singapore's most famous tourist meccas from the 1950s to the 1980s, renowned internationally for its nightly parade of flamboyantly dressed transwomen and attracted hordes of Caucasian gawkers who had never before witnessed Asian "queens" in full regalia. A 20-year old visiting British soldier in 1965 recalled that it was "pretty wild...and such a culture shock for an English lad. The smell of Tilley lamps, the smell of hawker food, the perfume of young 'ladies'."
Veterans recall that the notorious drinking section with its glittering activity only took place in Bugis Street proper, stretching from Victoria Street to North Bridge Road, which today is completely engulfed by the Bugis Junction complex. New Bugis Street, despite having a similar name and the current presence of a shimmering, touristy sign at both entrances reading only "Bugis Street") was actually the terminal portion of Albert Street and did not have as much commercial activity such as food vendors and roadside stalls, although transwomen could be found there, mainly indulging in sex work (a more politically correct term to use nowadays than "prostitution").
Almost halfway along Bugis Street between Victoria Street and North Bridge Road, there was an intersecting lane called Malabar Street which ran parallel to the main roads, also lined with al fresco bars.
Transwomen started to congregate at Bugis Street and indulge in sex work from the 1950s onwards. An article published in The Singapore Free Press on 1 August 1957 noted that Bugis Street was "perhaps the worst area in Singapore" affected by prostitution. Since the latter was one of the most lucrative sources of income, gangsters' protection societies and the sites of gang clashes had almost invariably been in the vicinities where sex work was rampant. The article stated that although prostitution was not carried on in Bugis Street itself, it was the location of the largest "pick-up" site" in the British colony. There, secret societies known as the "08 gang" and the "329 gang" were constantly vying for protection services. Despite liquor licencing laws, it was possible to get a drink at Bugis Street at an hour as early as 5am.
During the Vietnam War which stretched from 1955 to 1975, American servicemen and sailors thronged Bugis Street to sit, chat with and ogle at the transwomen. As a result, the area was listed as one of the must-see places by international tourist magazines. The transwomen give character to Bugis Street. It was not uncommon during its heyday to find 30 to 40 transwomen gathered there on any one night. In the well lit and bustling street after around 11pm, cross-dressers would start to appear and tease, cajole and sit on visitors' laps or pose for photographs for a fee.
Others would sashay up and down the street looking to hook half-drunk sailors, American GIs and other foreigners on R&R, for an hour of profitable intimacy. Not only would these clients get the thrill of sex with an exotic oriental, there would be the added spice of transgressing gender boundaries in a seamy hovel. Occasionally, some transwomen would do a striptease standing on a chair by the roadside and this inevitably attracted a large crowd of onlookers. The street would remain alive until dawn.
Although prostitution is not illegal in Singapore, soliciting to provide sexual services is and the vice squad periodically arrested transwomen for sexual solicitation. On 1 June 1981, The Straits Times reported that a 19-year-old youth, Ariffin bin Othman, was fined $250 by a magistrate on Friday, 29 May 1981, after he admitted soliciting for "an immoral purpose" in Bugis Street on 15 May 1981 at 2:50am. The court heard that Ariffin, dressed in women's clothes, was seen approaching male tourists from table to table.
The transwoman sex workers of Bugis Street worked independently. They were not under the control of any pimps. Their clientele was almost exclusively Westerners whom they preferred as these foreigners could presumably afford to pay better than most locals and possessed the allure of coming from more advanced societies compared to the Singapore of that era. However, the surrounding areas up to Sungei Road were under the control of pimps, as well as gangsters.
Once their clients had indicated their interest in having sex, they would adjourn to private apartments or even rooms in landed property which some transgender sex workers were well off enough to afford, on account of their relatively lucrative occupation. The less economically privileged ones brought their tricks to one-room HDB flats which they shared with other transgender sex workers. This was to avoid the possibility of being cheated or beaten up by their clients. Some Western military and naval personnel who stumbled upon Bugis Street without knowing its transgender reputation would pick up transwoman sex workers for a night of carnal pleasure only to wake up the following morning and be shocked to find out that they had slept with a biological male, assuming they only had oral sex.
There were no brothels located along Bugis Street itself or the adjoining lanes, as romantically depicted in the movie "Bugis Street" (see below). The single-storey brothels were located farther away, at Johore Road and around the intersection of Sungei Road and Rochor Road, on the left bank of Rochor Canal.
From 1980 onwards, the authorities came down hard on transwomen after a spate of robberies and street brawls. On 10 June 1984, The Singapore Monitor reported that a Bugis Street transwoman named Amil who pickpocketed a tourist under the guise of a loving embrace was fined $l,000 the previous day by a magistrate’s court. The court heard that at about 2.45am on Friday, 8 June 1984, the "freelance transvestite", as she was described in the charge sheet, approached Australian tourist Randall Peter MacArthur, 27, while he was having a drink in Bugis Street and embraced him from the back. MacArthur, who did not take too kindly to the gesture, told her to go away. Fifteen minutes later, be found that the $60 he had in his shirt pocket was missing. After a quick search, be spotted Amil and informed a policeman who detained her. They found $60 in Amil's handbag.
Transwomen were increasing disallowed from entering Bugis Street. "Ever since we moved out, we’ve been having a hard time", said one of them in a Straits Times article dated 11 October 1985. "We used to earn about $300 a night, now we're lucky to get $50. Bugis Street is our only home." The newspaper article also noted at the time that "only three or four could be seen after midnight, dressed in tightly cut clothes, often with their cleavages showing."
In 1972, The first detailed "exposé" of the sex work done by Bugis Street's transwomen was published by the evening tabloid of the day, the New Nation, in a groundbreaking 4-part feature on Singapore's LGBT community entitled "They are different...".
"The transvestites who have become prostitutes frequent Bugis Street where they usually solicit after midnight and Johore Road, in foul-smelling, oppressive hovels, honeycombed with box-like cubicles big enough only for a double bed and standing space for one or two. At these places, they ply their trade at prices ranging from $3 to $20 or more for a quick time, often fleecing European tourists or resident expatriates. Their clients: Male homosexuals as well as men who also enjoy normal heterosexual relationships and do not regard themselves as homosexuals. The Bugis Street homosexuals often cater for Europeans or tourists, and the Johore Road group for the locals. Such male prostitutes find it extremely difficult to rent accommodation from decent, normal people."
Even though much has been written about Bugis Street, documented first-person accounts by transwomen who actually worked there are few and far between.
- The first was found in the 1972 New Nation article mentioned above:
"Most of the 'sisters' start the same way. In school they realise that they are different. The boys tease them, then they start seeking the companionship of their own kind. Paradoxically they discover that they like boys. Then they start hanging around places where homosexual contacts are made. They experience sex and like it. Then they get more daring, dressing in women's clothes, the first few times in borrowed dresses and with haphazardly applied make up.
Later they get bolder, and dress more stylishly, and accompany men on dates to nightclubs and cinemas. The men give them presents, and from there it is only one step towards accepting money. By this time the 'sister' will have left school, and will experience difficulty getting a job. He will start loitering around Bugis Street and Johore Road more frequently, becoming semi-professional. His family will grow suspicious of his staying out at night. One day he will be caught in the act of soliciting. There will be terrible quarrels at home, and a promise to behave more like a man in future.
This promise will be almost impossible to keep, because he feels that he is a woman at heart. He will persist in behaving like one. Family disapproval will grow stronger. He will either leave home or be thrown out. He has to live, so he will turn to prostitution. Since he does not care about his family any more he will try to become fully a woman. He will take hormone pills and undergo plastic surgery and soon will have a female figure. It will now be impossible for him to live the life of a man.
Then boyfriend trouble, gangster trouble, and with the police will start. Gangsters tend to leave most male prostitutes alone, but those who look like women and who have nowhere to turn to are victims of the gangs. Such male prostitutes find it extremely difficult to rent accommodation from decent, normal people, "So they stay in brothels, and pay exorbitant rents ($130 a month for an unfurnished cubicle 10 ft. square) and pay the gangsters $3 to $5 per day in 'protection money' and give the gangsters sexual pleasure too. They also run the constant risk of being arrested by the police for soliciting or for picking pockets. I know that some of us sometimes steal from our customers, but can you blame us when we are desperate? Then there will be trouble with boyfriends. Living such lonely lives female impersonators are desperate for real love and sometimes fall victim to conmen. Anyone who shows signs of love can have a transvestite wrapped around his little finger.
One 'sister' lost her life savings of over $7,000 to a conman, and now she is almost 30, with very few years left In this business, and with a curvaceous figure which would bar her from taking any normal job.There will also be trouble with honest boyfriends. Some boys do fall in love with transvestites and treat them as girls, but many transvestites are so insecure and possessive that they make jealous wives seem mild in comparison.Sometimes the boys just give up because of the constant naggings they get. In other cases social disapproval and family quarrels force the boy to give up his transvestite girlfriend, leaving her heartbroken.
Of course there are some transvestites who have established fairly long lasting relationships with their boyfriends for four or five years. But in their cases, they are still pretty. I have not known any of the old transvestites to have boyfriends. In yet other cases we meet very nice boys, very independent, who do not care what society thinks and they date us, and treat us well, and we enjoy ourselves tremendously when we go dancing, water skiing and shopping with them.
But such boys are always terrible flirts, and even real girls cannot tie them down. We know that they visit us merely for a thrill, and for a bit of spicy variation. So we enjoy them when we can, but dare not let ourselves fall in love with them because they have reputations as heartbreakers. Many of us hope to change sex, but still we have this fear that we will not be accepted by society. Besides, most of us have no skills to hold down a woman's job, like being a secretary, though two of those who changed sex recently are doing well as fashion models.
For the rest, we live from day to day, organising frantic parantic parties, going shopping, sightseeing and to the cinema, trying to push the thought of growing old to the back of our minds. In our way of life we are over the hill once we pass 30, and every morning we look into our mirrors, trying to ignore the increasing wrinkles, and wondering what tomorrow will bring."
- Another account by a 60-year old transwoman named Tina Lee who was a sex worker for two-thirds of her life is found in Russell Heng's article:
"...after she was too old and ugly to have any market value, she worked as a dish washer but lost the job when employer found out she was once a transvestite, fearing she had Aids. Remember Aids came on to the Singapore scene in 1984 with the first reported HIV positive case. She then lived in a rented room on her savings. She said: "no matter what they do, the government should realize there will always be places like Bugis Street. They should help us by giving us a place to stay and ICs so that they will know who we are and we are not criminals. We don't want sympathy nor do we want to be ignored. We just want understanding."
- In 2010, The New Paper published an article which also dealt with aging transwomen who used to do sex work at Bugis Street.
One of them was Georgie, whom the tabloid described as "without make-up, and save for his effeminate gestures, the stocky Georgie looks every bit like a man". Georgie said, "My glorious days are over. Money used to be pretty good then and, depending on where I was, I could easily earn a few thousand dollars a month if I worked hard." But after the authorities cleaned up the grimy backlanes in the 1980s, the "spotlight went poof into the air."
Georgie went on to lament how she was cheated by her philandering Malaysian lover whom she moved in with after retiring in 1995. After breaking up with the man, she ran a stall selling nasi lemak in the mornings. By about 2pm, she would return home for a short nap before heading out 3 hours later to Orchard Road where she freelanced as a masseuse. She spent about half of her monthly earnings of between $1,800 and $2,000 on beauty products such as cleansers and moisturisers.
Many of her Bugis Street friends had opted to go overseas in search of love. "It's easier to find acceptance - and thus, love - especially in Europe," she added. This was the case with one of her friends, a transsexual in her 50s. Georgie said, "The last I heard, she is happily married to a European man 20 years younger. They live in Denmark with two adopted children. But those who do that are mostly the ones who have gone for a sex operation and become a woman. The rest of us (who didn't) end up struggling to stay happy and alive here."
Georgie stretched out both hands in a gesture to include her friends, paused for dramatic effect, then said, "What you see here are the 'chao Ah Kua' who have now become the 'lao Ah Kua'." Georgie's gang - she is quick to add that they're not gangsters - is a curious mix. Cross-dressers Lina, 58, and King, 50, were in black dresses and tights, complete with heavy make-up. The other four were, in their own words, "the result of sound investment" meaning that they had undergone a sex-change operation.
Russell Heng's article also recounts the story of Eugene (a pseudonym), a gay man who frequented Bugis Street. It sheds light on the sexual ethos and professional code of conduct among those who worked at Bugis Street as well as the mindset of certain gay men during that era. In the 1970s and 80s, the butch he-man type, many of whom were of working class background, could be found buying sex on Bugis Street and not in gay bars.
Eugene had a crush on a char kway teow hawker in his neighbourhood. The kway teow seller was also one of the local samsengs with tattoos on his body, which drove Eugene wild with lust. Eugene was prepared to pay him for sex but to no avail. Subsequently, Eugene wised up to the fact that the only way to hook local butch men was to go in drag and seduce them at Bugis Street. One night, Eugene in his wig and dress serendipitously met the kway teow seller on the street and the tables were turned. He was prepared to pay Eugene for sex. In those years, many butch men could only bring themselves to have sex with another man if the latter turned himself into a surrogate woman by going in drag. It probably lessened the guilt for them and preserved their insecure sense of masculinity.
Eugene held an executive position in a mulitinational company and was freelancing on Bugis Street. He did not need the money but he had to charge. One could not give sex for free and spoil the market for others. If word got around that one was providing it for free, one would be beaten up by those who really needed to earn a living.
Foreign photographers would sometimes pay the transwomen to take topless or nude photos of them. Some local shutterbugs like See Mun Wah,, who is in his eighties in the 2010s, also have an extensive collection of photos of the transwomen of that era, as well as of the sailors who were preparing for the "Dance of the Flaming Arseholes" (see below). See, who is a lifetime member of the Singapore Photographic Society, used to shoot with a Polaroid as well as SLR cameras and develop his own darkroom prints. He is a polite and well spoken elderly man with many stories to tell and who used to sell the photos for several decades at Sungei Road and also in his home, at prices ranging from 50 cents to $2 each.
Another photographer who has shot a large collection of photos of the transwomen of Bugis Street is KF Wong from Sarawak. However, these subjects do not form the main focus of the work of both Wong and See.
The latter were dimly lit and had no drinking sections. Much less glamorous prostitution by older transwomen past their prime took place in the much seedier, no longer extant Johore Road located further away on the other side of Rochor Road, next to the Queen Street bus terminus which served as a landmark and was sporadically found all the way to Sungei Road. There were brothels located at Johore Road and more housed in the single-storey buildings around Sungei Road. The brothels of Sungei Road were set up much like those in the back alley of Desker Road today, but with a considerable proportion of transwoman sex workers as compared with the predominantly biological woman sex workers of Desker Road. Men, mainly working class local Chinese (there were very few South Asian foreign workers in Singapore from the 1950s to the 1980s), would mill around in large crowds outside the brothels whose doors were wide open to display the girls lounging around on sofas. One could enter the living room, chat with the girls and then, if interested, proceed to a bedroom in the unit for sex.
Gangsters ran protection rackets in this entire area as well as guarded the "girls" from harassment. They would not hesitate to beat up or even stab anyone who disturbed the transwomen excessively. Occasional police raids by the vice squad, who would momentarily detain transwomen as well as passers-by on-the-spot for their particulars to be recorded, were part and parcel of nightlife during that time.
- Main article: Sex reassignment surgery in Singapore
Prior to the 1970s, almost all transwomen at Bugis Street were cross-dressers and pre-operative transsexuals. Only those wealthy enough to travel to the West and afford exorbitant surgical fees could undergo a sex change. As Singaporean surgeons became more skillful, some like Prof. S Shan Ratnam were authorised to perform male-to-female sex reassignment surgery at Kandang Kerbau Hospital from 1971 onwards. However, before hopeful transsexuals-to-be could go under the knife, they first had to subject themselves to an exhaustive battery of tests and be given a clean psychological bill of health by chief academic psychiatrist Prof. Tsoi Wing Foo. Later, the more technically demanding female-to-male variety was also offered there and at Alexandra Hospital, performed by gynaecologists such as Ratnam's nephew Dr. C Anandakumar and his other protegé, Dr. Arunachalam Ilancheran. A Gender Identity Clinic and Gender Reassignment Surgery Clinic were set up at the National University Hospital two decades later. In fact, for thirty years, Singapore was one of the world leaders in gender reassignment surgery. This gave a new lease of life to the many transsexuals who felt trapped in bodies of the wrong sex. Thus, Bugis Street started to become populated with a range of transgender people from cross-dressers to iatrogenic, physically intersex individuals to fully transitioned women.
There was a well patronised public toilet with a flat roof located at the intersection of a T-junction. A member of the Intelligence Corps in Singapore described the condition of the loo in the 1960s and early 1970s:
"The place stank to high heaven. When you urinated it went onto the floor. You had no choice but to walk in the urine. The stench of ammonia was unbelievable. If you wanted a crap, well that was even worse. You would have to put up one hand against the door to stop any Kai Tai's fom coming in while the other hand was over your nose to stop the smell of the crap already filling the bowl. If you were smart you had your own paper, if not, well...!"
There exist archival photos, complete with jubilant rooftop transwomen who were wont to give impromptu theatrical performances in drag on the flat toilet roof to the delight of the crowds and the occasional fury of the police. This toilet was immortalised in the movie, 'Bugis Street', which contained a scene in which visiting sailors stood in a row and mooned the passers-by below.
Cruising by non-cross-dressing gay men also took place in the male half of the loo. From the mid-20th century onwards, homosexual men who were ignorant of cruising areas patronised solely by men-who-have-sex-with-men would venture into Bugis Street in an attempt to look for other MSMs because of the confusion in that era between transwomen and gay men. This signature fallacy, held by many Singaporeans from the mainstream community even today, was astonishingly made despite months of research by the investigative reporters behind Singapore's first newspaper articles on the LGBT community published in 1972 which lumped gay men together with transgender women into the same category.
The location of the infamous public toilet has been speculated on and researched by Icemoon in the blog "Second Shot" on Blogspot and later greatly expanded on by Toh Hun Ping in his Wordpress blog article, "'Round About Midnight, Bugis Street."
Today the site of the toilet is occupied by the open space in front of the ticketing counter at Bugis Junction.
Dance of the Flaming Arseholes
One of the "hallowed traditions" bestowed upon the area by sojourning sailors, eg. from Australia and New Zealand, was the ritualistic "Dance Of The Flamers" or "Dance of the Flaming Arseholes" on the roof of the infamous toilet. Compatriots on the ground would chant the signature "Haul 'em down, you Zulu Warrior" song for "musical accompaniment" whilst the matelots performed their act either completely naked or with their trousers and underwear removed. The dance was performed after stuffing one end of a length of toilet or any rolled-up piece of paper into the dancer's anus while the other end was set aflame (see videos of modern iterations:,,,,).
Over the years this became almost a mandatory exercise and although it may seem to many to be a gross act of indecency, it was generally well received by the throng of sometimes up to hundreds of tourists and locals who crowded outside the toilet to witness it. The kai tais or beanie boys, as the transwomen were referred to by Anglophone white visitors, certainly did not mind either. By the mid-1970s, Singapore started a crackdown on this type of lewd behaviour and sailors were arrested at gunpoint by the local authorities for upholding the tradition. By this time those sailors brave enough to try it were dealt with severely and even shipped home in disgrace.
Recreation of dance in Bugis Street (the movie)
Yonfan, the Hong Kong director of the movie Bugis Street, attempted to recreate the iconic Dance of the Flaming Arseholes in his film. However, since the original toilet had been demolished during the redevelopment of Bugis Street in the mid-1980s, he used a contemporary building at New Bugis Street as a substitute. Unfortunately, the building was not an exact replica of the original and the Caucasian actors merely mooned at the audience in the movie instead of actually inserting a roll of paper into their anuses and setting it alight.
In November 2002, newly declassified UK naval documents revealed that possibly 50% of its servicemen had indulged in homosexual sex at some time in their naval service life and many had visited brothels in Singapore's then legendary Bugis Street in the 1960s as soon as their ship docked. A document written by the navy's medical director general in 1969, described Singapore's transwoman prostitutes as "very beautiful" and who "dress well and smell delicious" He added, "They perfect the female walk, stance and mannerisms and some even undergo surgery to complete the illusion".
There was an adage amongst Westerners that one could easily tell who was a real female and who was not - the transvestites were drop-dead gorgeous, while the rest were real women. The amount of revenue that the transwomen of Bugis Street raked in was considerable, providing a booster shot in the arm for the tourism industry. Some Americans referred to it as "Boogie Street" following the resurgence in popularity of the word in the wake of the 1970s disco craze. In 2001, Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen wrote a song entitled "Boogie Street" (see below).
- Main article: Redevelopment of Bugis Street
From October 1985 to the early 1990s, Bugis Street underwent major urban redevelopment into a retail complex of modern shopping malls, restaurants and nightspots mixed with regulated back-alley roadside vendors. Underground digging to construct the Bugis MRT station prior to that also caused the upheaval and termination of the nightly transgender sex bazaar culture as well as the disappearance of traditional trades practised for generations. This marked the end of a colourful and unique era in Singapore's history.
Attempts at transgender revival
Tourist and local lamentation of the loss sparked attempts by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) to recreate some of the old sleazy splendour by staging contrived "Ah Kua shows" on wooden platforms, but these artificial performances fell flat on their faces and failed to pull in the crowds. They were abandoned after a short time.
The Ah Kua show tradition was revived indoors in later decades at the Boom Boom Room by Kumar, by transwoman activist Leona Lo in her play "The Ah Kua Show" and by Eugene Tan a.k.a. Becca D'Bus in the drag revue "Riot!" which debuted at TAB along Orchard Road in 2015.
National Heritage Board whitewashes Bugis Street's transgender history
“While the bazaar atmosphere of Bugis Street continues today, the night bazaars of the 1950s to 1980s along the area dazzled a different way..."
However, the Board neglected to mention anything about the transgender activity for which Bugis Street was world-renowned.
In reaction to this, Facebook user and writer Ng Yi-Sheng on 17 June 2016 commented under the post, "Stop erasing our LGBT history. If you don’t dare to say anything about the transgender women that Bugis was famous for, then don’t talk about it all."
Bugis Street in popular culture
All books on Singapore's transgender community inevitably mention Bugis Street in one way or another. The following are works which deal predominantly, if not exclusively, with the subject.
Bugis street blues: a sentimental guide to Singapore
Singapore girl: A true story of sex, drugs and love on the wild side in 1970s Bugis Street
Synopsis: "This is the true story of a long-vanished Singapore and the dangerous carnival known as Bugis Street.
After four years of romping around West Africa and the Brazilian Amazon, James Eckardt cut a raffish figure as he stepped off a sailboat at Clifford Pier in Singapore on March 30, 1975, en route from Manila to Jakarta. Little did he know that he would become enchanted by a fun-loving Singaporean nymph named Milly who would take him in hand to explore the exotic wonders of her city.
The fun would turn into hopeless love, one Eckardt would desperately chronicle in a 36-hour, drug-laced writing spree and entitle “Singapore Girl”. The yellowing carbon copy would sit in an envelope for thirty years as the author went on to become Thailand’s most famous expat writer.
And then on December 19, 2004, an email arrived that would lead Eckardt to discover what had happened to the Singapore girl, who, at the time he had loved her, had not technically been female."
Read a review by J. Lundberg:.
Bugis Street: the novel
Bugis Street: the novel is a 164-page book written by Koh Buck Song in collaboration with Tan Hwee Hua and published by Pacific Theatricals in 1994,. Abstract from the back cover: "A world-famous street is about to be demolished. An architect falls in love with a hawker. A star transvestite longs for a new life in a new body. The novel is a story of fate. Of how a place determines the destiny of the people who inhabit it. Of how a Singapore girl, Mei-li, returns after 20 years in Britain and America, in search of her family and her roots. She arrives in Bugis Street, the place of her childhood, but finds herself involved in its very destruction. Of how the values of different social classes, from gangsters to graduates, are reflected in a changing Singapore of the ‘60s and ‘80s. And of how the street’s transvestites seek acceptance in a hostile world. Told, in turn, in the individual voices of several characters, the novel relives the last days of a street, once the life of Singapore after dark, as it dies into memory."
Pretty Polly, also known as "A Matter of Innocence", was a 1967 British film, directed by Guy Green and based on the short story, Pretty Polly Barlow, by Noël Coward. It starred Hayley Mills, Shashi Kapoor, Trevor Howard, and Brenda De Banzie. The film was largely set in Singapore and featured a night scene at Bugis Street, complete with transwomen soliciting and performing in an impromptu cabaret show, street vendors and a tic-tac-toe scam perpetrated by a little boy.
- Read a detailed blog post about the film by Benjamin Slater and an amazing visual journey into the locations and the colonial mindset of Pretty Polly by Toh Hun Ping which traces exactly where the film was shot and how those places have evolved or been demolished over the years.
- Main article: Saint Jack
In 1979, Saint Jack, the first Hollywood movie to be filmed entirely on location in Singapore, contained a scene of a dazzling transwoman named Bridgit Ang, playing herself, in a platinum blonde Afro chatting up a table of Western expatriates at Bugis Street. Watch a video of the scene:
Bugis Street (the movie)
- Main article: Bugis Street (the movie)
The transwomen of Bugis Street were immortalised in an English-language film made, ironically, by a Hong Kong and not a Singaporean film company. However, it did employ some local talent in the production.
- The entire movie was formerly available for viewing on YouTube but was removed in 2015 because of copyright issues: :
- Main article: Boogie Street
Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen wrote a song entitled "Boogie Street", published on his album Ten New Songs (2001). He purportedly composed it after a visit to Singapore's Bugis Street where a vendor offered to sell him a complete collection of Leonard Cohen bootleg CDs!
Scenes in TV serials
One episode of the Mandarin TV serial entitled "当我们同在一起" (Dang wo men tong zai yi qi; translated by Channel 8 as "Together") broadcast in 2009 contained a scene set at Bugis Street which featured transwoman sex workers.
Photography exhibition and talks
From 3 February to 14 March 2014, an exhibition eponymously entitled, "Bugis Street", open to the public, was held by French photographer, Alain Soldeville at the gallery of Objectifs - Centre for Photography and Filmmaking, 56A Arab Street, tel. 6293 9782.
In the early 1980s, Soldeville came to Singapore, visited Bugis Street and started a photography project he did not specifically plan for. He started photographing the transgender community there and today, his photos, shot from 1981 to 1984, show a side of Singapore history that many may not be familiar with.
Taken mainly at night, the photos show the girls on the streets as well as in their apartments. Explaining the shots, Soldeville said, “Looking back, I believe I meant those photos to be portraits of these people I had come to consider friends, wishing to show their fragility, their humanity rather than documenting a situation, news style.”
On Wednesday, 3 December 2014, Soldeville gave an "Artist Talk" on his Bugis Street photography project at 7:30pm at Objectifs. Admission was free but pre-registration was required. Soldeville spoke about his project, his experiences and the process of creating this piece of history.
On Tuesday, 9 December 2014, Soldeville gave another talk on the subject during an event initiated and moderated by Zhuang Wubin and hosted by Marcel Heijnen called, "imag(in)e sea #004: Alain Soldeville. From Bugis to Bangkok: A Farang in Southeast Asia" held 7:30pm at Artistry, 17 Jalan Pinang. Special guests were Sean Lee and transwoman Amy Tashiana. As an interjection to Soldeville's talk, Lee introduced "Shauna" (2007-09), a performative piece in which he tried to imagine himself as a transgender character living between Siem Reap and Singapore. Transwoman Nicole Tulsi also contributed substantially to the discussion which followed.
In mid-2014, Linda Agahari, researcher and producer at Ochre Pictures Pte Ltd, a Singapore-based film company, sourced material on Bugis Street for a sequel to the film company's award-winning series, "There Was A Time", which aired in November 2013 on Mediacorp's Channel 5. "There Was A Time" was a 6-part documentary-drama series that chronicled personal stories about Singapore's history. Some notable profiles featured in Season One included Othman Wok, Prof. Tommy Koh, Bill Teoh and Prof. Wang Gungwu.
For the second season, the company intended to focus on the development of Singapore as an independent nation from 1965-1985. Bugis street was one important aspect of the follow-up series as the producers aimed to highlight the changes in Singapore now and then, the many struggles of various communities, causes and consequences of government policies and most importantly, the human stories or personal recollection of certain experiences and events in the 1970s/80s era. An interview was arranged with a transwoman from SgButterfly who actually worked at Bugis Street during its heyday. The production of the docu-drama, which is intended to be aired on Channel 5 in a prime time slot, is currently in progress.
The fame of the original Bugis Street has spawned a slew of namesakes eager to capitalise on the brand, even though many tourists, including some young Singaporeans, have no inkling as to the reasons for its erstwhile 'glamour'.
Amongst the new places, buildings and companies which carry the name of 'Bugis' are New Bugis Street, Bugis Square, Bugis Village, Bugis Junction, Parco Bugis Junction, Bugis Junction Towers, Bugis Cineplex, Bugis MRT station, Bugis Pasar Malam, New Bugis Food Village, Bugis Music World, Bugis Money Changer, Bugis City Holdings, Bugis Health Centre, Bugis Store Trading, Bugis Backpackers, and Bugis Street Development.
This cacophony of 'Bugis'es clamouring for a spot in the limelight, reminiscent of the transwomen who gave the original its glory, leads to great confusion when trying to locate Bugis Street itself.
The current Bugis Street
The section of the original, longer Bugis Street presently named simply "Bugis Street" is a cobblestoned, relatively wide avenue sandwiched between the buildings of Bugis Junction. Midway through its length is the new entity of Bugis Square, a granite-tiled plaza containing a dancing fountain and surrounded by the food, shopping and entertainment outlets of the Bugis Junction complex on all sides.
This was where the touristy portion of Bugis Street with all the glamorous transgender activity and food vending took place.
New Bugis Street
The lane presently touted as 'Bugis Street' by the Singapore Tourism Board and advertised from August 2005 onwards with an enormous light bulb-studded sign at night, actually developed from New Bugis Street, which is a truncated version of the section of the original, longer Bugis Street from Queen Street to Victoria Street. New Bugis Street, which has the sign saying so only at the Victoria Street end, was created after the whole area was redeveloped in the mid-1980s. New Bugis Street is a maze of lanes lined with stalls selling pasar malam goods. It stretches from its entrance along Victoria Street facing the new Bugis Street and Bugis Junction to its other entrance along Queen Street facing the entrance to Albert Street.
Bugis Junction Towers
Bugis MRT station
- Transgender people in Singapore
- Bugis Street (the movie)
- Bugis in Singapore
- Kampong Bugis
- Gender in Bugis society
- "National Heritage Board criticised for ‘whitewashing’ history of Bugis Street", The Independent, 19 June 2016.
- "The transgender women of Singapore's 'Boogie Street'", article in "Dangerous Minds" blog, 28 January 2015.
- Toh Hun Ping, article in Wordpress blog, "The Hunter: Location scouting in Singapore's filmic history", "‘Round About Midnight, Bugis Street.", 14 November 2013.
- Roy Tan, "Photo Essay: A Brief History of Early Gay Venues in Singapore" in the book "Queer Singapore - Illiberal Citizenship and Mediated Cultures" edited by Audrey Yue and Jun Zubillaga-Pow, Hong Kong University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-988-8139-34-7,,,,,,.
- Yeo Hong Eng, "Singapore's Bugis Street of Old", 1 June 2013.
- Icemoon's article in his blog "Second Shot" on Blogspot, "Where exactly was the infamous toilet in Bugis Street", 3 July 2010.
- Dr. Russell Heng's article on Yawning Bread, "Where queens ruled! - a history of gay venues in Singapore", August 2005. 
- Dr. Russell Heng's article archived on Yawning Bread, "Tiptoe out of the closet: the before and after of the increasingly visible gay community in Singapore", June 2001.. This paper was originally published in the Journal of Homosexuality Vol 40 Numbers 3/4 2001 Special Issue - Gay and Lesbian Asia: Culture, Identity and Community, edited by Gerard Sullivan and Peter Jackson, pp 81 – 97.
- Yawning Bread's account of Singapore's transgender and sex-change history:
- Thimbuktu's article in his blog "Blog To Express" on Blogspot, "3D Blog: Bugis Street (People) - Then", 29 December 2010
- Alain Soldeville's photos of Bugis Street in the early 1980s:. Soldeville held an exhibition of them in Singapore in 2014.
- Zeesleepvaart.com, "Reis met de "Oostzee" deel 2 : The Bugis Street ".
- Tourist guide to the Bugis area on Wikitravel:.
- Dazzled, "History of Bugis street and Bugis Junction", Blogspot, 19 April 2012.
- Takehiko Kajita, "Singapore’s Japanese prostitute era paved over", The Japan Times, 18 June 2005.
- Faridah Ibrahim, "BUGIS STREET’S NOTORIOUS PAST WAS ONCE WORLD FAMOUS?", s.u.r.e., 2016.
- Maureen Koh, "Old Bugis St Queen ravaged by age, savaged by time", The New Paper, 7 December 2010.