Part 2 1972 - now
New Nation newspaper (Singapore) ran a ground-breaking survey of gay life in Singapore called “They are Different …”. This included “The close-knit community of local transvestites”, “Chance for a new life …” (a drag troope hoping for a tour of Iran) and “Case studies of men who have become women” which interviews four trans women who had recently had surgery at Kandang Kerbau Hospital: Miss X, a civil servant; Miss Y, who was a sex worker on Bugis Street and is attempting to become a model; a cabaret girl; a fourth who had already disappeared. All have new identity cards.
The introductory article, “People who lead very secretive lives”, was less positive:
"The transvestites who have become prostitutes frequent Bugis Street where they usually solicit after midnight and Johore Road, in foul-smelling, oppressive hovels, honeycombed with box-like cubicles big enough only for a double bed and standing space for one or two. At these places, they ply their trade at prices ranging from $3 to $20 or more for a quick time, often fleecing European tourists or resident expatriates. Their clients: Male homosexuals as well as men who also enjoy normal heterosexual relationships and do not regard themselves as homosexuals. The Bugis Street homosexuals often cater for Europeans or tourists, and the Johore Road group for the locals. Such male prostitutes find it extremely difficult to rent accommodation from decent, normal people."
Singapore legalised trans operations, and permitted trans persons to wed. Soon afterwards a policy was put in place that if post-op, trans persons could have their sex corrected in identity cards and other documents - but not birth certificates. This was not specified in any law, but as a directive it functioned smoothly for over 20 years.
Saint Jack, a novel by Paul Theroux, about a US man setting up a bordello in Singapore, with only passing references to Bugis Street.
Russell Heng, speaking in 2005:
“Thirty years ago, the butch he-man type, many of whom were of working class background, could be found buying sex on Bugis Street and not in the gay bars. Let me recount a story about a friend whom I shall call Eugene that best illustrate a certain mindset that was not uncommon in those days. Eugene had a crush on a char kway teow hawker in his neighbourhood. Kway teow seller was also one of the local samseng with tattoo on his body, which drove Eugene wild with lust. Eugene was prepared to pay him for sex but to no avail. Then Eugene wised up to the fact that the only way to hook local butch men was to go in drag and seduce them on Bugis Street. Lo and behold, one night, Eugene in his wig and dress met kway teow seller on the street and tables were turned. He was prepared to pay Eugene for sex. In those years, many butch men could only bring themselves to have sex with another man if the latter turned himself into a surrogate woman by going drag. It probably lessened the guilt for them.”
Dr Ratnam, his assistant Dr Lim and several of his then patients were featured in the exploitation documentary Shocking Asia, which included graphic footage of one of their genital operations, along with midget wrestling, Japanese S&M sex clubs, mass piercings in India and cremains being dumped into the Ganges.
First operation on a trans man, in several stages August 1974 to October 1977.
The film of Saint Jack had been shot entirely on location in Singapore, including on Bugis Street. They submitted a fake synopsis to the authorities. It was the first film with a gay Singaporean sub-plot complete including full frontal male nudity and the first to have a Singaporean trans woman nude scene. It includes a scene of a transwoman named Bridgit Ang, playing herself, chatting up a table of Western expatriates on Bugis Street.
It was banned in Singapore and Malaysia shortly after release.
“The police started to harass the transgenders, forcing them to migrate to Orchard Road or Geylang. I found this newsspaper report quoting a Delphine Tan about how hard a life it was operating away from Bugis St: ‘We were beaten and abused by some Singaporeans who despised us. And we were always being raided in Orchard Road. At least here, the foreigners are more broadminded and treat us well’. On returning to operate on Bugis Street, Delphine continued: ‘This is our home. It is where all our friends are. This is the only place we can go where we are accepted and appreciated.’ ” (Heng, 2005)
December: French photographer Alain Soldeville was on a two-year trip to Asia and Australia when he arrived in Singapore. After a few days sight-seeing, he headed out one evening to Bugis Street.
"Within an hour, strange androgynous creatures arrived by taxi. Dressed in sexy, tight-fitting dresses or satiny pants, wearing heavy stage makeup and high heels, they took over the territory. The street seemed to belong to them and their dramatic entrance was followed by scrutinizing eyes. It appeared that most visitors were there to watch the show that had just begun.
I stroked up a conversation with Anita who was of Malaysian background. She was 23 years old, with a clearly outlined masculine face, tall, thin and muscular. She wanted to know where I came from, how long I was going to stay in Singapore. During the following weeks, I became close to Anita and she introduced me to her friends: Amina, Danita, Delphine, Rosa and Susanna. They liked having me photograph them and would strike natural poses.
Photo by Alain Soldeville
After five or six weeks in Singapore, short of money, I had to leave for Australia. I would return in 1984 only to learn that Bugis Street was about to be torn down to make way for the subway."
Amy Tashiana, not getting on with her father and step mother, ran away and was adopted by a group of older transsexuals who prepared her for her transition.
Abigail Chay, with the support of her parents had completion surgery.
The Malaysian government had previously offered gender-affirming surgeries — the only country in Southeast Asia to provide such operations apart from Thailand and Singapore - and contributed funds towards the Mak Nyah Association (the local term for trans women). However in 1983 a fatwa was issued by the Conference of Rulers banning such surgeries and the hospital that undertook it was shut down, marking the beginning of a repressive, anti-LGBT chapter in Malaysia’s history. Teh Yik Koon: “This decline is tied directly to the revival of Islam, which has become increasingly politicized and institutionalized. The competition between rival political groups to be seen as more Islamic to gain support from the Muslim community has resulted in greater discrimination for the transsexual community.”
The film of Privates on Parade, was released. It was based on the 1977 stage play, set in Singapore and Malaya in 1948 during the “Emergency”, but filmed at Shepperton Studios in England, . Telling mainly of a British entertainment troope - with lots of drag - and their conflict with the authoritarian officers, along with scenes of the the corruption and violence of the civil war.
October: the very end of the old Bugis Street as bulldozers demolished it. The street hawker stalls were cleared and relocated to other areas of Singapore.
Construction began on the Bugis Metro Station.
The trans women who solicited there were told to relocate to the other red light district, Lorong 6 in Geyland. Some kept returning and were arrested and charged.
Bianca who worked Bugis Street said it was not easy to make a living there towards the closing years. Another transgender who worked there called Bianca said where once they could make $300 a night, now "we are lucky to get $50". (Heng 2005)
The Health Ministry asked hospitals to stop doing such operations [trans] on foreigners. It also discouraged them on Singaporeans. It said “the increased danger of Aids with such patients poses unnecessary risk to hospital staff”.
Psychiatrist Tsoi Wing Foo explained that the failure of psychotherapy alone in the treatment of trans women led to the development of modern sex reassignment surgery. He described our technique, its indications, complications and outcome.
Psychiatrist Tsoi Wing Foo carried out a study on the prevalence of transsexualism in the country, and concluded that the prevalence rate for male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals was 1 in 2,900, and female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals, 1 in 8,300.
Tsoi’s dissertation, A psychiatric investigation of transsexualism in Singapore, was accepted at the National University of Singapore.
Amy Tashiana went to Bangkok for completion surgery. It was cheaper there (S$5,000) and no hassle about psychiatric assessment. She became one of the best known trans models in Singapore.
W. F. Tsoi, E. H. Kua and L. P. Kok published Handbook of clinical psychiatry : a guide for medical students and family physicians.
Dr Tsoi’s study of parental influence in a group of Chinese male and female transsexuals compared with a group of male and female heterosexual controls. The fathers of male transsexuals were found to be less caring, and mothers of female transsexuals were less overprotective than the fathers and mothers of the controls. Parental involvement of male transsexuals showed a weak father figure and an overinvolvement with the mother, and in female transsexuals, an unsatisfactory mother-daughter relationship.
Dr Tsoi’s study of 200 trans women and 100 trans men compared with 100 male and 80 female heterosexuals in Singapore. Transsexuals started their psychosexual development earlier than the controls. Transsexual feelings started in childhood. Trans women went through a homosexual phase followed by a transvestite phase, before they became transsexual. Trans men did not go through distinct phases. Cross-dressing was one of the early signs of transsexualism and started earlier in trans men. None of the transsexuals were married, in contrast to reports showing that up to 50% of Western transsexuals had been married
Court case Lim Ying vs Hiok Kian Ming Eric. Lim discovered after marriage that Eric had been born female, and applied for an annulment. Three important points were decided. First, that marriages under the Women's Charter between parties of the same sex are not permitted; secondly, following the English case of Corbett v Corbett, that the determination of sex was to be by use of biological criteria (chromosomal, gonadal, and genital tests), ignoring any operative intervention; and thirdly, that breach of this requirement renders the marriage void ab initio even though it is not one of the grounds listed in the former section 99 of the Women's Charter. As Eric’s birth certificate still said ‘female’ the marriage was ruled null and void.
Did this invalidate all marriages of trans persons?
S. S. Ratnam, Victor H. H. Goh & Tsoi Wing Foo published Cries from Within: Transsexualism, Gender Confusion and Sex Change, the first Asian book on the topic.
The 15-year-old Leona Lo did not know how she was different until she found Cries from Within in the library.
Tsoi Wing Foo published a comparison of 320 trans women and 130 trans men in Singapore. The subjects were given a semistructured psychiatric interview. The results showed that the trans women were slightly younger, had less education and held lower level jobs. Their occupational preferences were reversed. The trans women started petting, sexual intercourse and having partners about one to two years earlier, but they cross-dressed four to seven years later. Both trans women and trans men were homosexually orientated. Other studies showed that late maternal age was associated with homosexuality, but not with transsexualism. These studies also confirmed that transsexualism had its onset in early childhood, and that cross-dressing was an early feature. The Singapore transsexuals went through a "homosexual" and a "transvestite" phase before they became a transsexual. Western transsexuals exhibited both homosexual and heterosexual behaviour, and some were married to the opposite-sex-by-birth partners. Trans women prostitution was reported in many studies.
The new rebuilt Bugis Street re-opened for business. Some of the former street hawkers and non-chain retailers were permitted back. Initially the sale of illegal and pirated goods sprouted, but they were repressed. The Singapore Tourist Promotion Board attempted to recreate the old atmosphere with contrived ‘Ah Kua’ shows on wooden platforms, but it was obviously artificial, the tourists did not go for it, and it was abandoned after a short while.
Boom Boom Room, Singapore’s only drag cabaret nightclub, was established by owner Alan Koh in 1993 at 4 New Bugis Street in Bugis Village. It later relocated on 2 April 2000 to the second floor of the old 2-storey Chui Eng Free School schoolhouse at 130-132 Amoy Street, Far East Square. The star attraction was risqué comedy routines by local drag superstar Kumar aided by his coterie of cross-dressing toyboys.
Leona Lo did her national service as a combat medic.
Dr Tsoi published a follow-up study of 45 trans women and 36 trans men. The subjects were interviewed before and 1 to 8 years following surgery. The trans women had less education and held lower level jobs, started their sexual life about 1-2 years earlier, but they cross-dressed 4-7 years later than the trans men. 35% were married and all of them had no problems adjusting to their new life. The overall results were 56% very good and 44% good. There are no pre-operative variables that can predict good adjustments for trans mens. For trans women, the earlier age of transsexual manifestation was related to good post-operative adjustments. The trans men were less satisfied with the surgery, but they adjusted as well as the trans women. The results were comparable with those from previous studies.
Prof Ratnam retired. The Gender Identity Clinic was taken over by his nephew, Dr. Anandakumar. In 30 years more than 300 sex change operations had been performed, mainly at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital.
The Bugis Street film, directed by Hong Kong director Yonfan, about a cis teenager from Malacca (but played by a Vietnamese actress) who takes a job as a maid in the Sin Sin Hotel ($3 a night) on Bugis Street. She is initially disconcerted to discover that most of the residents are trans women, but comes to support them. While set in the old Bugis Street, it was filmed in the modern redeveloped version. It was given a restricted rating, which impacted sales. There is an associated book.
There is another book, with a different plot, which came out at the same time: Koh Buck Song’s Bugis Street: The novel, set in the last days of the old Bugis Street, which gives a full chapter to Rosie, a trans prostitute, but her life is secondary to a familial heteronormative melodrama, and she dies. The novel was developed into a theatre musical, cast mainly with cis gay men playing the trans women and only one real trans woman.
A new law was passed amending the Women’s Charter:
“(a) the sex of any party to a marriage as stated at the time of the marriage in his or her identity card issued under the National Registration Act shall be prima facie evidence of the sex of the party; and
(b) a person who has undergone a sex re-assignment procedure shall be identified as being of the sex to which the person has been re-assigned. ”
Leona Lo was doing a degree in English literature at York University in England, and flew from there to Bangkok for completion surgery.
A fire erased most of Johore Road where trans sex workers had previously been available.
Abigail Chay had become an actress in Singapore television and film.
Dr Ratnam died age 73. After his death the Gender identity Clinic was quietly closed on the excuse that the gynaecologist in charge, Dr Anandakumar, had left for private practice. The Ministry of Health had been pushing for closure for some years.
Newly declassified UK naval documents revealed that possibly 50% of its sailors in the 1960s gained “same-sex” experience often with the trans women on Bugis Street.
Petitions from the trans community supported by local media resulted in the Clinic re-opening quietly. However by now clinics in Bangkok were taking most of the business, and were cheaper.
Leona Lo published My Sisters, their Stories, Singapore's first pictorial documentary on transsexuals in Singapore and Thailand.
Hidden Genders on Singapore National Geographic TV.
The Boom Boom Room closed. Gold Dust opened six months later for a similar but more upmarket clientel.
“Sense of Being”. Channel U, April 2005. Singapore's first television programme to feature a local transwoman, 38-year-old Amy Tashiana, who talked about her life as a former model and performer at the defunct cabaret club Boom Boom Room.
Tina Lee, 60 year old, who was sexworker for two thirds of her life said that after she was too old and ugly to have any market value, she worked as a dish washer but lost the job when employer found out she was once a transvestite, fearing she had Aids. Remember Aids came on to the Singapore scene in 1984 with the first reported HIV positive case. She then lived in a rented room on her savings. She said: "no matter what they do, the government should realize there will always be places like Bugis Street. They should help us by giving us a place to stay and ICs so that they will know who we are and we are not criminals. We don't want sympathy nor do we want to be ignored. We just want understanding" (Heng, 2005)
At the First International Conference of Asian Queer Studies, 7 – 9 July 2005, held in Bangkok, one of the keynote speakers, Prof Vitit Muntarbhorn, Professor of Law at Chulalongkorn University, mentioned in his address that until now, no country in Asia has permitted the change of sex to be reflected in personal identity documents after sex-change surgery.
Muntarbhorn didn't seem to be aware that Singapore had recorded the change in status since 1973, and recognised marriages of sex-changed persons as well.
Leona Lo published her autobiography.
Marla Bendini’s first multimedia performance, in Pattaya, Thailand.
The first annual Pink Dot Rally for the LGBTQ+ community
The New Paper, 6 Dec 2010, ran an article on aging trans women who had previously lived by sex work on Bugis Street.
Sisters in Solidarity founded by Leana Lo and two others to oppose the anti-trans discrimination in clubs especially in the Clarke Quay area of Singapore.
The Ah kua show, based on Leana Lo's autobiography, Singapore and then the New York International Fringe Festival.
Fanny Ler, after marriage, a daughter and a divorce, transitioned at age 34.
Tiffany’s Cabaret Show from Thailand, finally allowed to appear in Singapore. It had been refused twice in the 1980s because of ‘sensitive content’.
December: the Bugis MRT (metro) station finally opened.
Fanny Ler to marry again - a man this time.
3 Feb-14 Mar: an exhibition eponymously entitled, "Bugis Street", open to the public, was held by French photographer, Alain Soldeville at the gallery of Objectifs - Centre for Photography and Filmmaking, 56A Arab Street.
RFH, a 33-year-old Singapore national who lived as female in the UK for a decade, was to be deported home where she faced doing national service as a man, but on appeal was allowed to stay in UK.
Lune Loh did her National Service , and after she said that she was trans, she was subjected to bullying and harrassment.
Li Huanwu, nephew of current Prime Minister and grandson of Singapore’s first Prime minister, married his partner in Cape Town.
Quen Wong produced and directed Some Women about herself from her days as a teenage boy coming out to her supportive family, to getting married at age 46. The film also includes Sanisa/Anita, a former sex worker from Bugis Street, and Lune Loh, a trans youth activist who is lesbian and has opted not to pursue medical interventions.
Ashlee, 18, the Millenia Institute school in Singapore, where teachers were initially supportive of her transition until she was about to begin hormone replacement therapy, was told that she would be expelled if she did not cut her hair and wear the boys’ uniform.
The largely unenforced 1938 Section 377A of the penal code which made same-sex relations a crime, was repealed. At the same time the constitution was altered to reinforce rules against same-sex marriage.
The National Council of Churches of Singapore called on the government to guarantee the freedom of the clergy to preach against queer sex. The Singapore Buddhist Federation said traditional family values have to be preserved. "(But) we cannot force our values onto others or instil our own ideas, especially in the young. Let them have their own choices when they come to a mature age."
Lune Loh is a poet, and, after graduating from the National University of Singapore, is now doing an MA in creative writing at the University of London.
Andrea Razali is working as a para-counsellor, has a corporate job, and is undertaking a masters in psychology, and is the National Director of Miss Equality World, a new international beauty pageant.
Harvey, an autistic Tamil trans woman who was raped in 2014 at the Singapore Institute of Mental Health while detained in a male ward, and no action was taken against the rapist. She attempted to sue the IMH in 2016. However she experienced a PTSD-induced flashback and destroyed a table in the courthouse. In 2023 she is facing criminal charges and may be sent back to to IMH.
Qatrisha Zairyah Bte Kamsi was the first winner of Miss Equality World Singapore, and also Miss International Queen Singapore. Her stepfather did not approve of her transition, so does not know of her marriage or her pageant successes.