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12 November 2023

Trans Singapore: Part 1: to the first sex-change operation in 1971

Part 1: to the first sex-change operation in 1971

Part 2: 1972-now

Comments and Mediagraphy

Part 1: to the first sex-change operation in 1971

The Bugis are a people from south Sulawesi (previously Celebes) that traditionally had five social genders: makkunrai and oroané (cis), calabai and calala (trans) and bissu (androgynous or intersex shamans).

In Malaysia the terms ‘pondan’ and ‘bapok’ have been used in the past for trans persons, but are mainly derogatory. Since the 1980s the terms ‘mak nyah’ for trans women and ‘pak nyah’ for trans men are the preferred terms.

Other terms for trans persons used in Singapore - mainly derogatory but some have have been reclaimed - are "ah kua" (Hokkien),"kidi" (Tamil) and "muffadet" (Singlish),

The Bugis were known in the 17th century and afterwards as they spread across south-east Asia as merchant-adventurers. It is not known how many calabai, calala and bissu were involved in this expansion. A Bugis sultanate was set up on the west coast of Malaya in the 18th century.


The British governor Stamford Raffles arranged for the British East India Company to establish a trading post.

The Bugis were major traders in the British trading post.

The aboriginal Orang Kalland were relocated to the northern Singapore Straits at Sungai Pulau.


After being pushed out of Sulawesi by the Dutch, several hundred Bugis settled in Singapore. With their trade networks, they were welcomed by the British rulers. They were alloted an area south of the Rochor River, which came to be known as Bugis Town.


A further treaty with the Sultan led to the entire island becoming a British possession.


Singapore became part of the Straits Settlements, then under the jurisdiction of British India.


Singapore became the regional capital.


The aboriginal Orang Kalland were wiped out by a smallpox epidemic.


The Straits Settlements were separated from British India, coming under the direct control of Britain.


By this time, with changes in the maritime trade, most of the Bugis had moved elsewhere, and immigrants from India and China were arriving. The British authorities authorised brothels in the Bugis Street area, and Chinese and Japanese women were brought in to work in them. The nearby Malay Street became the place where cis female street-walking prostitutes were found.


The Singapore Mutiny by Muslim sepoys from British India, who were garrisoned in Singapore. After hearing rumours that they were to be sent to fight the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim state, the soldiers rebelled, killing their officers and several British civilians.


The British built the large Singapore Naval Base as part of the defensive Singapore strategy. Originally announced in 1921, the construction of the base proceeded at a slow pace until the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Costing £15 million and not fully completed in 1938, it was nonetheless the largest dry dock in the world, the third-largest floating dock, and had enough fuel tanks to support the entire British navy for six months. The base was defended by heavy 15-inch (380 mm) naval guns, as well as a Royal Air Force airfield at Tengah Air Base. Winston Churchill touted it as the "Gibraltar of the East".

The Bugis Street area further developed as the red light district, until the late 1930s when the authorities attempted to eliminate sexual soliciting.


Noel Coward, on a round-the-world trip, visited Singapore and commented of Bugis Street:

“ubiquitous whores, none of whom were young or even remotely attractive”.

And thus it was in his 1964 book.


Section 377a - an addition to the Singapore Penal Code introduced by the colonial government which criminalised sex between consenting adult males. It was not repealed until 2022, when it had been de facto unenforced for decades.


7-8th December: Japanese forces attacked Thailand, Dutch East Indies, the UK colonies of Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya, and the US colonies of the Philippines and Hawai’i.


The 60,000 British empire forces in Singapore and Malaya finally surrendered to the Japanese 15 February 1942, what Churchill called "the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history". Most UK and Australian troops, and later Dutch civilians, were imprisoned in the Selarang Barracks, near to Changi, an existing prison at the east end of Singapore. The Barracks also became referred to as Changi. 850 died in captivity, others were transported to work as forced labour in Japan or on the Thai-Burma railway (which included a bridge over the river Kwai).

Among the inmates were Bobby Spong and James Clavell, the future novelist.

Morale was inevitably bad, and the officers encouraged sports and theatricals. One of the first were The Mumming Bees concert parties, and it was at these that Bobbie Spong, who had already made somewhat of a name as a performer, first became well-known. Bobbie impersonated comedienne Beatrice Lillie, film star Marlene Dietrich and female impersonator Douglas Byng. From there Spong branched out into comedy sketches and revues, almost always in female parts. Even the Japanese and Korean guards came to watch. One night her appearance was greeted by a roar of applause that was heard across the island. Somehow Spong had managed to bring into the prison camp a full set of female clothing including corsets, and was allowed to grow his hair to a feminine length. Bobbie often stayed in role offstage. In particular she would tour the hospital wards and sing for those too sick to attend the performances. She was so convincing that when she sat on a patient’s bed they would blush and attempt to cover their nakedness.


Late in 1943 when Private Spong returned to the Chungkai camp in Thailand from a work-camp up the line, and converted to Bobbie for a show, she was so convincing that the Japanese officers stopped the show and demanded proof of her manhood. Both Japanese and Korean guards often asked Bobbie to give a private performance in their quarters. This she did, graciously accepting fruit and cigarettes, and then would quickly flee back to her own quarters.

Christmas Day: Bobbie - in a light green and orange frock and hat - was in the hospital to give out cigarettes. Later that day she was at the mock horse races where everybody dressed up the best that they could. She kissed the winners of the races. The day ended with Bobbie under a large tree singing from the Douglas Byng repertoire.


29 April: the Changi theatrical shows were cancelled because the Japanese had taken all the theatrical paraphernalia for the celebration of the Emperor’s birthday. Bobbie was part of a burlesque football match that was hastily arranged instead.

mid-May: Bobbie’s final appearance was in mid-May 1944 at Chungkai camp. Spong then shocked everyone by volunteering for a work detail in Japan because her best friend had been drafted for it. Departure was 8 June. By then Spong had had his hair cut, but managed to pack twenty frocks in his rucksack. 1300 POWs were crammed into an unmarked transport ship. The ship was spotted, torpedoed and sunk by a US submarine - very few survived.


15 August: British military forces returned after the Japanese surrender.


1 April: . British Military Administration ended on 1 April 1946, and Singapore became a separate Crown Colony


“The Mayalan Emergency”. The violent suppression of the Communist-led independence movement, using Agent Orange, concentration camps, forced relocations and slaughter of unarmed villagers.

The British Army all-male Combined Services Entertainment division (which put on drag performances) included Peter Nichols, John Schlesinger, Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter - who later became famous in British film, theatre and television. Nichols later wrote up the experience as a play, later film, Privates on Parade (see 1983.)


The 1954 National Service riots, Hock Lee bus riots, and Chinese middle schools riots in Singapore were linked to the ongoing “Malayan Emergency”.


Street hawkers selling cooked food and other sundries came to Bugis Street. Tables with white tableclothes were placed in the street. This became an entertainment area for British troops, and later - as the war in Vietnam developed - US forces also. There were some conflicts between the cis and the trans sex workers - the latter now starting to arrive. The trans women were almost all non-op in that it was far too expensive for Singaporeans to fly to Casablanca or Europe for the new gender operations.

Increasing numbers of Western tourists came for the booze, the food, the shopping and the "girls". Bugis Street became one of the most famous areas of Singapore for tourists. Western men persuaded themselves that they could tell the ‘real’ females in that they were not the gorgeous ones.

Writing in 2005, Russell Heng recollected what Bugis Street had been like:

If you want a mental picture of the old Bugis picture, imagined old shop houses before they were made pretty like they are today. In the evening, the street is closed to traffic and zhi cha stalls set up rows of table. Usually at around 9 pm, the first of the transgenders would arrive but you have to wait till at least 11 pm for the party to start warming up. The transgenders would move among the tables. If you strike up a conversation, they would sit down and chat. You can offer to buy drinks, which were not cheap with Coca Cola sold at $10 a bottle. Yes, t was a time when soft drinks were sold in bottles not cans. The exorbitant $10 was like a cover charge to see a show. However I cannot be certain if there was ever an arrangement for the drink stalls to pay a commission to the transgenders if they get tourists to buy the over-priced drinks. On a busy night, you can have as many as 40 transgenders. I also remember some interesting characters like the little girl who went round challenging tourists to play noughts and crosses for either 10 or 20 cents. She never lost a game.



Singapore granted full internal self-government for all matters except defence and foreign affairs.


Dr Shan Ratnam trained at Singapore General Hospital.


The earliest published account of the trans women on Bugis Street and the tourists who came to gawp was Eastern Windows by F D Ommaney, an officer in the Research branch of the Colonial Service. He gave nine pages to Bugis Street, and in particular:

And now here comes Maisie, tall and graceful too, but perhaps a trifle over-slim and flat-chested. She wears a smart, black, sheath-like cheong-sam with little jet beads sewn in patterns. They shimmer as she walks . . . But there is something not quite right about her feet. They are a shade too large. I will tell you a secret about Maisie. No one is supposed to know it, but it is surprising how many do. She is not a girl at all. She is a boy. Sometimes clients have been known to make quite a scene when they discover their mistake, and Maisie has sometimes had to stay away from Bugis Street for a day or two nursing a black eye. But not for long. Nothing daunted, she will be back again in a day or two with a new cheong-sam and some new ear-rings. (p44)

James Clavell’s novel, King Rat, set in the Changi POW camp, features a character, Sean Jennison, who was selected to play female parts in camp theatricals, was at first reluctant, but then embraced the parts, and lived as female off stage. After the camp was liberated she could not cope and drowned herself in the sea.


After a referendum on a proposed merger with Malaysia which included a choice of different terms for the merger and had no option for avoiding merger altogether, Singapore became part of Malaysia.

Shan Ratnam began teaching at the University of Singapore. He then did post-graduate medical studies in London.

Shonna, 16, worked as a sales girl, and frequented the trans scene on Bugis Street.


Race riots in Singapore involved a series of communal race-based civil disturbances between the Malays and Chinese in Singapore.

Shan Ratnam became Professor and Head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Singapore.

Shonna’s father died. She worked as a housemaid for a European man, and had an affair with him. Subsequently she worked in a bank and then in public relations for a hotel.

Noel Coward published Pretty Polly Barlow and other stories, about a young woman who arrives in Singapore with her strict aunt, who conveniently dies leaving Polly to explore her sexuality. Bugis Street is mentioned as a place to visit, but seems to be the Bugis Street that Coward had seen in the 1920s and 1930s, with no mention of trans women.


The Singapore and central Malaysian governments disagreed on many issues. Talks soon broke down, and abusive speeches and writing became rife on both sides.

7 August: the Malaysian government, with the agreement of the Singapore government advised the Parliament of Malaysia that it should vote to expel Singapore.

9 August: Malaysian Parliament voted 126 to 0 to move a bill to amend the constitution, expelling Singapore from Malaysia, which left Singapore as a newly independent country.

King Rat - although set in the Changi POW camp - was filmed in California. The episodes of Sean Jennison acting and then living as female were in the script from the beginning, but at a late stage, Columbia Pictures executives finally realized that they were present, and Sean was completely removed from the film.


Shonna came second in the Miss Singapore Beauty Contest, which led to modelling work.


National service was implemented requiring all 18-year old males to train full-time for two or two-and-a-half years, depending on their educational attainment. Transgender was listed as a condition in a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) 'Directory of Diseases' and recruits who outed themselves to the examining doctors had their 'deployability' denied in sensitive positions. They were assigned only clerical work at army bases.

The film A Matter of Innocence, based on Noel Coward’s Pretty Polly Barlow, was filmed in Singapore, about a young woman (Haley Mills) travelling with a stern aunt who becomes free to explore her sexuality after the aunt’s death. Includes some scenes in the actual Bugis Street of the late 1960s, unlike the straight version depicted in Coward’s story.


Shonna started a cabaret act using the name Mama Chan. However she twice attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills.


Ratnam was pestered by Shonna who was desirous to have sex change surgery. He became intrigued by the possibility, read the literature and finally practised the operation on two cadavers in the mortuary. He had Shonna evaluated by a team of psychiatrists who confirmed that she was indeed transsexual. Legal clearance was sought from the ministry of health and granted.

A secret report for the British Navy after an internal investigation concluded that of gay sailors and officers in the late 1960s "at least 50% of the fleet have sinned homosexually at some time in their naval service life”.

“Service chiefs agonised over the practice of sailors visiting the catamites of Bugis Street. The file says many sailors visited the area ‘for kicks’, got drunk and ‘end up sleeping with male prostitutes known as catamites’ who dressed up convincingly as females.”

This report was not declassified until 2002.


Surgery on Shonna was finally performed by Dr Shan Ratnam 30 July 1971 at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital 竹脚妇幼医院. This was the first such operation in Asia.

Dr Ratnam

A Gender Identity Clinic was set up headed by Prof Ratnam, who ran it until his retirement in 1995. The psychological evaluations were done by Singapore's chief academic psychiatrist Prof Tsoi Wing Foo.

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