Being gay in Singapore in the 1980s was lonely. In the days before the Internet, there was little to tell us what we were, or why we were; so many of us grew up thinking we were simply misfits, or worse, evil or sick; and that to conceal and deceive was the way to live our lives. Without community or a sense of support, gays felt a strong sense of being apart and different from others, and life took on a clandestine nature.
Most of us developed an innate “gay-dar” (radar, gaydar – get it?) to detect “kindred spirits”, or, as we like to say, PLU – People Like Us. There were clues apart from dressing and behavior. For instance, bring up the subject of favorite singers, and the mere mention of Tracy Huang, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Linda Ronstadt, or Madonna, would be a dead giveaway. Friendships would quickly form, and the siege mentality of gays at that time ensured that friendships usually lasted a long time -- although friends came and went as there were always some who were “unsure” of their sexuality.
Unlike “straight” circles, a gay circle had the tenor of a support group. Doubts, fears, hopes, and heartbreaks were shared; jealousies, infatuations, and pettiness confessed; bitching, gossip and attempts to “out” other closeted gays, enjoyed. There was always a shoulder, or shoulders, to cry on. Some groups even spoke in “code” in public to guard against eavesdroppers!
Still, there were dark moments aplenty in the 80s: people were more mean and vicious with their remarks; prejudices were more entrenched. Effeminate gays were victimized and ridiculed; and “straight” people hesitated to be seen with their gay friends in public.
Gay culture, especially movies and books, was almost non-existent in Singapore then. There were several gay movies produced in the 80s, but they were never screened here. Remember films like Making Love, Torch Song Trilogy, My Beautiful Laundrette, and Maurice? An underground “market” emerged for these treasures, and they made the rounds as VHS tapes, often becoming the highlight of some pink home movie party. I remember that only a very small number of gay shows made it to our local cinema screens. One of these was Cruising, starring Al Pacino, because it contained a “bad” ending for the gay character.
Gay books were also hard to find in local bookshops. A few made it: Maurice, The Glass Menagerie, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the autobiographical sex-change account, Conundrum, by Jan Morris. No one would dare linger around the shelf to browse. One would grab the book and rush to the cashier immediately, hoping no one had seen you. I bought my “indecent” books in London or New York.
Gay nightspots were few and far in between. Many of us hung out at Hangers, a disco located in a hotel on East Coast Road. Cha Cha was the rhythm of the day; and the dance floor was pretty wild, with local personalities and socialites letting their hair down and having fun. The other gay-centric discotheques were Niche at Far East Plaza on Scotts Road, and Marmota at Leisure Drome in Kallang. My favorite haunt was Pebbles Bar at Orchard Road, where one of the my favorite local bands, Tania, played.
The first case of AIDS was diagnosed in Singapore in the 80s, and the gay scene changed forever. Gays were thrust into the social spotlight; their lifestyles exposed and examined, then vilified. The result was that while gay promiscuity declined, an ardent gay activism rose. One sign was the increasing number of my friends who joined groups such as Action for AIDS to raise social awareness about the disease and lend support to its victims.
Thirty years on, the stigma of gayness has become less damning. People are more open and accepting of gays, and with the Internet and social networking media, the sense of isolation is fast diminishing. More organizations exist to guide, counsel, support, and improve the lives of gays. But there’s still a long way to go in terms of gay civil rights – the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code; the failed registration of PLU (People Like Us) as a social organization; the recognition of same-sex unions….
But there is a clear feeling we have turned a corner. The PINK DOT is the clearest indication of that. For the third year running, the support from local LGBT members, and their families and friends, has been bold, encouraging, and heartfelt. So much so, that the concept has been adopted by several countries who would be organizing similar gatherings of their own. We have indeed come a long way; and I can gladly say that my memories of the 1980s, while forever a part of me, can be safely consigned to the dust heap of history.
While on the subject of Pink, there is a drink which is commonly found in Malay and Indian drink stalls. It’s called Ayer Bandung. It’s a simple-to-make drink. Just mix rose syrup (which is easily available in supermarkets in Singapore or Indian grocery shops in Hong Kong) with ice water and evaporated milk. I personally like it with ice water only.
For those who can’t find rose syrup, here’s a recipe for you. : )
Rock sugar 3 cups
Water 2½ cups
Egg white ½ + shell
Cochineal 2 tbsp
Rose essence 2 tbsp
1. Boil sugar and water until sugar is dissolved. Add egg white and egg shell, crushing the shell a little. Simmer for about 30 minutes until the syrup has thickened.
2. Pour the syrup through a sieve. Add cochineal and rose essence into the syrup.
3. Store in a clean bottle.