Unravelling Queer Singapore: Bugis Street
Writer: Gaiatri Sasitharan
Editor: St. Clair
How well do you really know the streets you traverse every single day? How aware are you of the people who occupied these spaces and their significance to different communities in Singapore? Local poet and playwright, Alfian Sa’at suggests in his book titled A History of Amnesia (2001) that:
Singaporeans live with no history, or more accurately, they live with a postmodern history that is constantly erased, reconstructed, reinterpreted by institutions of power.
One thing that is consistently and constantly erased, written over and hidden in Singapore is the LGBTQ+ community. And one of the spaces that was (in)famous for being queer-positive, safe and affirming for the community was Bugis Street. A street market by day and rowdy, seedy entertainment venue by night, Bugis Street offered a space for people living on the fringes of society to let their hair down and truly be themselves.
1920-1940s: Red Light District or Entertainment Venue?
Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, Bugis Street was as busy and bustling as it is today; always a central location for gathering and entertainment. But, back then, it attracted a very different crowd. In its early days, locations at and around Bugis Street were designated as red light districts with conventional, run-of-the-mill heterosexual brothels. Lined with brothels with Japanese and European sex workers, both local and foreign men often frequented the area to engage the services of female sex workers. At the end of the Second World War (WWII), Bugis Street underwent its own transformation and in the day it had become a popular market. Street hawkers began gathering there to sell sundry goods and cooked food.
1950s-1960s: The Queer-Positive, Tourist Mecca of Bugis Street
Now, we enter into the heyday of Bugis Street, when it was an iconic tourist attraction. It was during this decade that the activities on Bugis Street gave Singapore the reputation of being a queer-affirming, safe space for the LGBTQ+ community, at least in Asia. Bugis Street had become a gathering space for members of the male-to-female transgender community while retaining its status as a popular entertainment location and red-light district. It was a haven for transgender women and drag queens who could find work and earn an honest living as their authentic selves. The bawdiness and flamboyance of Bugis Street was an incredible draw for tourists, uniquely distinguishing it from the sanitised attractions Singapore is now known for.
When more transgender sex workers began gathering there in the 1950s, they also attracted increasing numbers of Western tourists. These tourists were drawn to the alcohol, the delectable food, the Pasar Malam shopping and the women themselves. Business was booming, making Bugis Street a lively and prosperous area in the heart of the small island.
Until the 1980s, Bugis Street was one of Singapore’s most famous tourist meccas, internationally renowned for its nightly parade of flamboyantly dressed transwomen, attracting hordes of Caucasian gawkers who had never before witnessed Asian drag queens colloquially referred to as ah Kua (in Hokkien) in their full regalia. These charismatic women would sashay down the streets, flaunt their bodies, flirt with tourists and occasionally stop to pose for photographs that could be purchased for a fee. These women worked independently, uncontrolled by pimps, with an almost exclusively Western clientele. It was assumed that foreigners could afford to pay better than most locals, and they also possessed the allure of coming from more advanced societies compared to the Singapore of that era.
The earliest published description of Bugis Street as a place of great gender diversity and transgender activity was recorded by Francis Downes Ommaney in his book "Eastern Windows" based on his time in Singapore during the late 1950s.
1970s: Crackdown on Bugis Street
The 70s saw the police coming down extremely hard on the transgender community working in Bugis Street. After a surge of thefts, assaults, brawls and crime, a slew of arrests took place. A major crackdown was reported in the Straits Times on 2 April 1977 when more than 40 transwomen (referred to as catamites by the journalist then) were arrested and questioned. Their particulars were recorded and collected in a register to keep tabs on them, and they were released after being screened and warned to keep clear of crime. If they were caught returning to Bugis, they would be immediately booked and charged in court.
Transwomen were increasingly prevented from entering Bugis Street and instead forced to move to Lorong 6 in Geylang (another space unofficially designated as a red light district). This new restriction was debilitating for these women who depended on sex work to survive. A Straits Times article from October 1985 quoted one of the women saying that "ever since [they] moved out, [they]’ve been having a hard time...[they] used to earn about $300 a night, now [they]'re lucky to get $50” working in other areas. Beyond the loss of financial stability and independence, the women lost a secure community space that many of them grew up and matured in. For decades, Bugis Street was the only place in Singapore where the transgender community was welcome. To them, “Bugis Street [was their] only home."
1980s: Recalibration of Prime Land
Beginning in October 1985, major urban redevelopment efforts took place on Bugis Street. Singapore was slowly but surely cleaning up and upgrading every corner of the island, transforming the bustling seaside port into a modern, capitalist city. Following a joint study by the Ministry of National Development and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), it was deemed that such a prime parcel of land could not be left untouched and preserved for conservation. Rising development needs, the construction of the MRT station as well as potential health risks from lack of sewers there meant that the old Bugis Street had to go. This resulted in the complete loss, upheaval and termination of the nightly transgender sex bazaar culture as well as the disappearance of traditional trades practised for generations. By the early 1990s, Bugis Street as a colourful and unique era in Singapore’s history, was bulldozed and forgotten, never again seen as a queer-positive space in Singapore.
Capitalism > Culture
Today, the section of the original, longer Bugis Street is a cobblestoned, relatively wide avenue sandwiched between different wings of Bugis Junction, a shopping mall. Containing numerous eateries, shopping and entertainment outlets, the Bugis Junction retail complex retains none of the echoes of the queer-positive, trans-affirming space it used to be. The STB did attempt create a sanitised version of Bugis Street and revive the transgender performance culture due to lamentations from both locals and tourists. They tried to imitate the flashy, splendour by staging contrived “ah kua shows” on wooden platforms but these shows failed terribly, never able to pull in the crowds. Furthermore, attempting to appropriate and commodify a subculture that was quashed by the state itself, was seen by many as incredibly disrespectful.
Rewriting and Erasure
In March 2016, the National Heritage Board released archival photographs of Bugis Street from the second half of the twentieth century. However, in their caption, there was absolutely no mention of the transgender community or its prevalence in the space. In reaction to this, Ng Yi-Sheng, a local writer and poet, commented "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." This “white-washing” of Singapore’s queer history was condemned and criticised by many in the comments section. The intentional disappearance of spaces of historical significance to the trans community is a deliberate move to control and paint the narrative of a conservative hetero-normative society.
Queer Singapore Today
What even comes to mind when you think of the phrase Queer Singapore? People, activists, grassroots groups. Certainly not a whole road, a physical space where this marginalised and discriminated group can call their own. Now, Singaporeans boldly rally amongst themselves, carving out spaces online that are welcoming and safe like @sgbrownqueers, @sayonisg and @heckinunicorn on Instagram. One of the only instances when LGBTQ+ people can come together to celebrate themselves, their identity and their love is at Pink Dot, a rally held once a year at Hong Lim Park. With the onset of the pandemic, even this has been taken away from them and instead transported online, with live-streamed performances and a virtual light up. Forced to rally without governmental support (and sometimes even hindrance), LGBTQ+ individuals have done their utmost to preserve a small space in this already tiny nation for themselves.
Yet, even these things become co-opted and manipulated by the very same government that denies them rights. Just recently, the UN Ambassador-at-Large for Singapore, Professor Chan Heng Chee claimed that “for Singapore, the LGBT community are valuable members of our society. The Government does not tolerate violence, abuse, discrimination, and harassment against the community.” To support this, she used the Pink Dot rally as an example of how the LGBTQ+ community has been permitted to live peacefully and happily in Singapore.
The organisers of Pink Dot took great offence at this and responded with a statement of their own:
“Pink Dot exists as a protest against discrimination towards the LGBTQ community. We are not a convenient excuse for the Government to claim that discrimination does not exist. The Government should also not be taking credit for Pink Dot’s existence. Especially when our events are organised in spite of the obstacles placed in our way.”
Queer Singapore is a Singapore where the LGBTQ community can live, work and love freely without facing discrimination, harassment or condemnation. Perhaps one day, we will see a new era of Bugis Street, a physical space in Singapore that is once again queer-positive, trans-affirming and welcoming to all people no matter their gender or sexuality.
Trans Woman Tells Us Stories of a Wilder Bugis Street, Kopi.co, https://thekopi.co/2019/02/16/bugis-street-history/
Bugis St buildings torn down, The Straits Times, 15 October 1985, Page 38, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19851015-1.2.70
Bugis Street swoop: 40 get warning, The Straits Times, 2 April 1977, Page 7, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19770402-1.2.28
New Nation’s ground-breaking 4-part feature on the LGBT community in Singapore published from 24 July to 27 July 1972 with one final article appearing on 31 July. https://the-singapore-lgbt-encyclopaedia.wikia.org/wiki/Singapore%27s_first_newspaper_articles_on_the_LGBT_community
Detailed history and records of Bugis Street as it was before the clean-up: https://the-singapore-lgbt-encyclopaedia.wikia.org/wiki/Bugis_Street:_transgender_aspects
Lack of LGBTQ+ rights and representation in Singapore: https://heckinunicorn.com/blogs/heckin-unicorn-blog/the-price-of-being-queer-in-singapore-lgbt-rights-in-singapore
 According to the Oxford English Dictionary 3rd Ed. (2003), in modern usage the term catamite refers to a boy as the passive or receiving partner in anal intercourse with a man.