Love on Bugis Street, Singapore…
On a recent trip to Singapore I saw this book at Changi Airport and regretted not buying it for the long flight home. I had been looking for some interesting literature to read by South East Asian authors, particularly those published by smaller, independent publishers. Luckily I have managed to get a copy here in the UK and the books subject matter covers a remarkable period and place in Singapore’s social history.
From the 1950s until the early 80s, Bungis Street in Singapore was internationally renowned as a nightly meeting place for trans gender women. Cutting through the city’s Chinatown district it originally played host to hawker stalls selling local street food in what was then a run-down area frequented by locals and sailors. But for reasons not quite clear, the area became home to the city’s transvestite culture and as the word spread so did the area’s popularity.
Bars opened, ex-pats, tourists, British and American naval personnel replaced the locals and the area became one of the most talked about social scenes in South East Asia. Here was a chance for trans gender people to express themselves freely whilst men who were so-minded enjoyed the thrill of sexual encounters of a much different kind. When ‘regulars’ were asked how they could tell the difference between trans gender and ‘real’ women they usually replied that the better looking the woman the more likely to be trans gender.
Throughout the sixties and up until the mid seventies Bungis Street enjoyed a colourful reputation for hard partying and the area developed and prospered from the money it’s visiting tourists provided, it was Bangkok before Bangkok in many respects but as Singapore’s wealth and global financial importance evolve and grow so the change to Bungis Street and other areas took place.
By the 1980s Singapore was cleaning up its act and the whole area was redeveloped, the once seedy bars and clubs were replaced by sidewalk cafe’s, restaurants and shopping malls but the memory of those times lives on and no more so than in James Eckardt’s remarkable book, Singapore Girl. The book is a memoir about the author’s relationship with Milly, a pre-op transsexual and Tamil born prostitute. It combines the story of a LSD fuelled sail boat trip with his friend which sees him, a self-proclaimed, fiercely heterosexual, ex-army man fall in love with a twenty one year old girl who, biologically, is still a young man.
The book is divided into three sections, there is the period post-Milly where she leaves Eckardt for a Frenchman and he writes down his experience with her as a means of winning her back (unsuccessfully) and finally, thirty years later when he receives an email from the Frenchman, her husband who tells him about Milly and what happened to her since their break-up. This prompts Eckardt, who, by now is a well recognised author in Thailand to revisit the story which had remained sealed in an envelope for all of those years. The original story (parts one and two) was written in thirty six hours during a drug induced writing spree and ends with the author revealing for the first time to his family and friends the truth about Milly and her trans gender past.
It is a remarkable story and one which paints a vivid picture of the less salubrious aspects of South East Asia’s social and sexual history whilst being a story which could readily apply to any number of experiences happening to this day in the red light districts of the area’s great capitals.
Singapore Girl by James Eckardt is published by Monsoon Books in Singapore.
Categories: The Reading Room