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Location of Hong Lim Park on the map.

Hong Lim Park has played an important role in Singapore's history. However, unbeknownst to many in mainstream society, it also occupies a seminal and iconic position in Singapore gay history.

The park was the first local gay venue to be listed in the premier international LGBT tourist reference, the Spartacus International Gay Guide. Formerly known as Hong Lim Green, it probably gained its reputation as a cruising ground for homosexual men since the early 1960s. Beginning in 2009, it has also become the stage for Singapore's annual outdoor LGBT pride event, Pink Dot. The latter has established an unbroken record for drawing the greatest number of participants to Speakers' Corner.

Reasons for popularity[edit]

Hong Lim Park is the most centrally located public park in Singapore. It lies very close to the traditional economic lifeline of the island republic, the Singapore River and especially Boat Quay, the historical hub of her entrepot trade. This popular rendezvous was affectionately code named “Honolulu” or “Hollywood” by some English-educated gay men so that outsiders would have no idea which place they were referring to.

From the early part of the 20th century to the mid-1980s, there used to be a very cruisy public toilet nearby which lay smack in the middle of North and South Canal Roads at their junction with Chulia Street (see main article: Public toilets in Singapore: gay aspects). It was an integral part of the Hock Lee Bus Terminus where buses from all over Singapore would end their journey. Gay passengers who alighted and loitered at this public convenience at night would yearn to adjourn to Hong Lim Park for a breath of fresh air after they were done. This accounted partly for the park's allure.

The layout of the structures and foliage in Hong Lim Park during the 1960s to the 1980s was made it very conducive for gay men to meet nocturnally and indulge in light sexual activities such as petting and perhaps even discreet oral sex. There were no lampposts along the periphery of the park as one finds today, so the entire area was very dim at night. The presence of large rectangular flower pots in which were grown dense shrubbery also facilitated cruising. Gay visitors to the park, the majority of whom were Chinese-educated, could sit on the ledges of these plant receptacles facing inwards towards the grass and be shielded from external view by the bushes. They would chat up strangers and if both showed mutual interest, some would fondle each other there and then or perhaps even indulge in fellatio. The presence of shady trees with long, dependent, overhanging foliage helped to conceal their activities from passers-by just outside the park.

Hong Lim Park in the early 1960s showing the plant receptacles in which shrubs were grown. The foliage was still rather sparse during this period. Another view of Hong Lim Park in the early 1960s. Hong Lim Park in the early 1980s when the bushes in the plant receptacles were luxuriant and dense enough to shield anyone who was was sitting on the ledge from the view of pedestrians outside the park. The now-demolished two-storey Hong Lim Shopping Centre which was very cruisy at night, especially on the second level.

Nightly cruising and sex also took place in a small two-storey shopping centre eponymously named Hong Lim Shopping Centre. The building was demolished in the mid-1980s and replaced by the present car park just next to the police post. The second level of the structure was teeming with cruisers especially after 10pm on a Saturday night. What was performed on this floor was entirely blocked from the view of anyone outside the building.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, homosexual taxi drivers, most of whom were married, would station their taxis along the periphery of the park after their shift was over and go cruising around the vicinity. This was at a time when nocturnal traffic was sparse enough for a car parked along any of the roads bordering Hong Lim Park not to cause any obstruction or to attract a fine from the traffic police. Indeed, even in the city area, one could station one's vehicle along any main road after 10pm at night with impunity.

The demographics of the gay patronage to the park changed over the decades. The crowd in the early years was much younger. When these people learned that there was more raw action to be had in the neighbouring back alleys of Boat Quay and OCBC building from the late 1970s onwards, they gravitated there for more excitement as there was a limit as to what one could do in a space as open as Hong Lim Park. This left the elderly gay men still roaming around the park and it gradually gained a reputation as a haunt for old folks.

Satellite view of Hong Lim Park. View of one of Hong Lim Park's signboards with the fountain on the right View of the Speakers' Corner signboard with the Clarke Quay MRT station exit visible in the background. A close-up of the MRT station exit conveniently located next to Hong Lim Park. A park signboard with the Kreta Ayer Neighbourhood Police Post visible in the background. The perimeter footpath with Furama Hotel visible in the background. The car park next to the park where a 2-level shopping centre used to stand prior to the 1980s. Wooden benches strewn along the periphery of the park make ideal resting spots to chat up other men. A close-up of the Speakers' Corner signboard next to the police station. A warning agaist instrument-augmented commotion.

Complaints[edit]

Occasionally, heterosexual members of the public would stroll into the park and be shocked to see young men holding hands. Some wrote letters to the newspapers in the 1970s and early 1980s to complain. In spite of several police patrols in which these boys were questioned, no one was charged as nobody was caught in flagrante delicto.

Anecdotes[edit]

Among the interesting anecdotes connected with Hong Lim Park during that era was one concerning a famous businessman known as the Abalone King who had monopolised the local abalone market. His shop was located along a road very near the park. Although he was married family man, he used to go cruising at Hong Lim Park where he frequently picked up younger men for sex. His inclinations were an open secret amongst his employees. Off and on, one of the boys would venture into his shop to look for him, whereupon he would instruct his employees to give the lad a drink or some pocket money. It is rumoured that he emigrated to Taiwan.

Anti-cruising measures[edit]

First wave[edit]

The emergence of the first case of HIV infection in Singapore in 1985 and the bad rap that the Chinese tabloid press had been giving Hong Lim Park regarding homosexual activity spurred the police to institute anti-cruising measures in the late 1980s.

Structural modifications[edit]

To deter cruisers from sitting on the edges of the plant receptacles and indulging in hanky-panky while being shielded from the view of pedestrians perambulating outside the park, the surrounding trees were pruned so that their dependent foliage no longer hung down low enough to conceal the men. The rectangular receptacles themselves in which dense shrubbery grew to provide excellent cover were later demolished and replaced by wooden slotted park benches. Bright street lamps were installed to light up the park after sundown.

Police station[edit]

The setting-up of the Kreta Ayer Neighbourhood Police Post in an old building which formerly housed the North Canal Post Office was considered an additional measure to curb nocturnal cruising.

A close-up of the Kreta Ayer Neighbourhood Police Post viewed from the main road. A visiting patrol car viewed from the car park next to Hong Lim Park. Policemen used to patrol the whole Boat Quay area on bicycles in the 1980s and early 1990s in an attempt to deter nighttime cruisers.

Uniformed policemen would ride out on their bicycles in the 1990s to comb the entire Boat Quay-OCBC building area at night to scare away thrillseekers. The stationing of a police car next to the post was indeed an intimidating sight. It sporadically patrolled the surrounding area and policemen would emerge from it and approach gay men loitering around the environs to take down their identity card numbers.

The level of cruising activity diminished considerably after that and it was mainly the elderly gay men that continued to venture there because of nostalgia and the lack of alternative spaces. Hong Lim Park then became known in the gay community as a haunt for old men, a far cry from its heyday.

Police raids[edit]

In addition to the above measures, the police also conducted raids and made arrests in 1989 and 1990 in an attempt to stamp out cruising. In some cases, plainclothes decoys were used. These raids were not only conducted at Hong Lim Park and its environs but also at Fort Road beach (see main article: Fort Road beach: gay aspects) and at discos that held Sunday gay nights like Rascals (see main article: Rascals incident).

These police entrapment operations caused an outrage in the gay community and spurred the beginning of a Singaporean gay rights movement, the most visible manifestation of which was the formation of People Like Us.

Newspaper reports[edit]

July 1989[edit]

Police raid three transvestite and homosexual areas

25 July 1989

Straits Times

Marina Park, Elizabeth Walk and Hong Lim Park belong to the tourists, office workers and strollers by day. But come sundown, homosexuals and transvestites have turned these places into their haunts.

Their growing numbers and increased activities at the three locations led to police taking action against them over the weekend.

In swoops which began on Saturday and which ended yesterday, more than 120 people were taken to the Central Police Station for questioning before being released.

Police said the majority of transvestites and homosexuals moved to Hong Lim Park and other parks in the Central Business District after owners of nightclubs, lounges and other establishments were warned in February last year that they could lose their public entertainment licences if they continued to admit such groups of people as patrons.

This resulted in an exodus of homosexuals and transvestites from their haunts in the Orchard Road area, especially near Orchard Towers and Forum Galleria.

Sources said police would continue monitoring the areas within the Central Business District to ensure that such places were not used for immoral activities.

Police warned that those found repeatedly loitering or soliciting for business would be brought to book.

Under the Miscellaneous Offences Act, any person who persistently loiters or solicits for the purpose of prostitution or for any immoral purpose in any public road or place faces a maximum fine of $1,000.

Second and subsequent offenders face a maximum fine of $2,000, a jail sentence not more than six months, or both.

In the past, people have complained about being harassed by transvestites and homosexuals at Hong Lim Park.

But of more concern to the police is the possibility that these haunts could become venues for criminal activities, namely thefts and drugs.

April 1990[edit]
Nine held in police raid to curb homosexual activities[edit]

9 April 1990

Straits Times

In a surprise raid early yesterday morning, police arrested nine men for alleged homosexual activities in the Hong Lim area.

Two of them, aged 30 and 36, were caught performing an obscene act on each other in a back lane near Boat Quay.

The other seven, aged between 27 and 52, were picked up for soliciting at Hong Lim Park and South Canal Road.

Plainclothes officers from Central police station met with no resistance from the men during the 50-minute raid, which started at 1 am.

A police spokesman said the authorities were aware of the homosexual activities in the area.

A report in Lianhe Wanbao on Dec 28 last year said the area around Boat Quay was "fast becoming a gay paradise".

It said that after 8 pm, homosexuals could be seen meeting and lingering there.

Under the law, any male who commits an indecent act with another male in public or private can be jailed up to two years.

A person who solicits in public can be fined up to $1,000.

Repeat offenders can be fined up to $2,000 or jailed up to six months, or both.

Seven men fined $500 each for soliciting in public[edit]

10 April 1990

Straits Times

Seven men made advances - but to the wrong people.

The men the seven approached turned out to be undercover policemen.

The seven - P.T., 27, a senior accounts executive; C.C.M., 37, an odd-job labourer; S.M.K., 37, unemployed; N.S.A., 40, a book-keeper; T.T.H., 41, an accounts clerk; T.P.H., 27, a machine operator; and S.S.H., 52, a hospital attendant were fined $500 each by a district court yesterday.

They admitted to soliciting for immoral purposes in a public place. The seven, all first offenders, were arrested on Sunday between 1 am and 1.50 am in a surprise police raid on homosexual activities in the Hong Lim and South Canal Road areas.

Two other men were also charged in the same court with performing an obscene act in a public place.

H.L., 30, an export manager, and L.C.H., also 30, a purchaser, are alleged to have committed the offence in a backlane of Collyer Quay on the same day at about 1.20 am.

Both men yesterday claimed trial and they will appear in court again on April 21.

Bail was set at $3,000 each.

Under the law, any male who commits an indecent act with another male in public or private can be jailed up to two years.

A person who solicits in public can be fined up to $1,000.

Repeat offenders can be fined up to $2,000 or jailed up to six months, or both.

File:NewPaper900429.jpg
The New Paper, 29 April 1990.


August 1990[edit]

Grossly indecent act lands two in court

14 August 1990

Straits Times

Two men were yesterday sentenced to two months' jail each for gross indecency at Hong Lim Park.

T.T.K., 49, a marketing executive, and N.B.H., 26, a restaurant captain from Malaysia, were found hugging each other at 11.20 pm on Friday by Police Constable Seow Seng Cheong. T. was masturbating N. PC Seow arrested them.

They were separately charged in a district court yesterday.

Both men pleaded guilty.

In the afternoon, T.'s family engaged a lawyer who applied to retract T.'s guilty plea. District Judge Hamzah Moosa disallowed the application.

T.'s lawyer filed notice of appeal against the sentence.

Tan was offered $5,000 bail pending the appeal. He is a first offender while N. has a previous conviction for theft.

A person can be jailed up to two years on a gross indecency charge. Nine men were arrested by police for alleged homosexual activities in the Hong Lim area in early April this year.

Second wave[edit]

When Wikipedia was still in its infancy in 2005, Roy Tan saw the potential of the nascent platform in educating the world about Singapore LGBT history and culture. He penned an article (later deleted by homophobic editors) entitled Singapore gay venues in which he mentioned Hong Lim Park as a gay cruising spot and the first Singaporean one to be listed in the Spartacus International Gay Guide.

This article was probably read by authorities from the National Parks Board who were shocked at the revelation. In reaction, a second wave of anti-cruising measures was implemented in which the table and seats just next to the police post where elderly gay men would sit around and chat the whole night long were removed. Other structures where homosexuals could rest for long periods and watch passers-by like the sit-up benches in the exercise station were taken away.

The stone table and benches where young boys and other gays used to gather and chat especially in the 1980s. The wooden exercise station with a sit-up bench where cruisers could sit and watch passers-by or other men exercising.

Two closed-circuit television cameras were installed on either side of the Kreta Ayer Community Centre stage. A Chinese caretaker was employed and provided with lodging in a small room next to the stage. From here, he could monitor what was going on outside, 24 hours a day. Anyone who tried to lie down on the stage could be observed on the television monitor in his room and he would come out immediately to shoo them away. A locked metal gate was also placed at the foot of the stairs leading up to the stage.

With all these deterrents, cruising almost died out at Hong Lim Park completely from the mid-2000s onwards. Today, one can only find the rare elderly gay man walking around wistfully reminiscing at night and others sporadically cruising in the public toilet next to the community centre.

The newly-constructed toilets next to the community centre.

Pink Dot[edit]

File:PinkDot2009.jpg
Aerial photograph of the inaugural Pink Dot event held on Saturday, 16 May 2009 at Hong Lim Park.

Since 2009, Hong Lim Park has been the venue for the annual, massively attended public LGBT-supportive event organised by Pink Dot SG. This was possible after the government legalised the holding of demonstrations at Speakers' Corner on 1 September 2008.

Roy Tan decided to take advantage of this opportunity to organise Singapore's first gay pride parade and actually registered with NParks for it to be held in November 2008. However, the response from the LGBT community was unenthusiastic. Dominic Chua helped Tan rally a group of stakeholders to brainstorm how a successful event could be organised. Out of these discussions emerged the concept of Pink Dot (see main article: Sequence of events leading to Pink Dot).

Prior to 1 September 2008, Pink Dot would have been an illegal gathering, with the police regarding it a form of demonstration in violation of the rules governing the use of the Speakers' Corner. For 8 years since its inception in 2000, users of Speakers' Corner were required to register themselves at the police post and were prohibited from employing any audio amplification equipment or conducting themselves in a manner which may be deemed a public protest or demonstration.

The status quo changed on 1 September 2008, when the Government decided to relax the rules to allow for protests, demonstrations and self-powered sound systems, all made permissible by just a simple online registration with the National Parks Board (NParks). However, this newfound right was not handed to the citizenry on a silver platter out of the magnanimity of the Government. It was secured through years of effort by activists to open up political space and to persuade Singaporeans to accept the idea of peaceful protests.

It took arrests, fines and prison sentences suffered by activists, in particular Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leader Dr. Chee Soon Juan. Chee made a decision in 1999 to risk imprisonment by embarking on a long-drawn campaign of civil disobedience to bring the Government to bear for its refusal to honour citizens' rights to free speech and assembly.

The arduous road that led to the legality of holding Pink Dot at Speakers' Corner has been chronicled by filmmaker Martyn See[1].

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Acknowledgements[edit]

This article was written by Roy Tan.