In the 1984, Madeleine Lim – who was just 20 at the time – felt she was risking jail when she ran an underground lesbian feminist newsletter and informal group in Singapore. Three years later she left Singapore for San Francisco where she later co-founded the US Asian Lesbian Network and SAMBAL (Singaporean & Malaysian Bisexual Women and Lesbians).
Her award-winning 25-minute short film Sambal Belacan in San Francisco premiered at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in June 1997. The same year, Lim's film was accepted at the Singapore International Film Festival but was banned by government censors just before it screened.
Madeleine talks to Fridae staff writer Sylvia Tan about filmmaking and activism, being 'censored' by her lesbian friends in Singapore for being an 'out' lesbian and what she considers to be her most traumatic homophobic experience coming out as a 16-year-old student in an all-girls catholic convent school in Singapore.
Fridae: You left Singapore when you were 23, just one month after graduating from the College of Physical Education. Tell us more about your life then and why you left Singapore?
ML: I had been attempting to organise the lesbian community in some shape or form for several years in Singapore, since 1984 when I was 20 years old. I ran an underground lesbian feminist newsletter for two years, and I also organised monthly potlucks during that time.
In 1985, a women's discussion group started at the National University of Singapore and I became actively involved in that, facilitating the weekly discussions and writing articles for their newsletter. Around the same time, AWARE (Association of Women for Action & Research, a feminist organisation) was founded and I became actively involved in that as well over the next couple of years.
In 1987, AWARE organised a dinner in celebration of International Women's Day. For that event, I co-wrote and directed a skit called the Myth Pageant Beauty Contest (a spoof on the Miss Pageant Beauty Contest). The dinner itself was fun and well attended.
Shortly after that however, the Singapore government arrested the woman whom I had co-written the skit with. This was during the alleged Marxist Conspiracy arrests in 1987 where the Singapore government arrested 11 people in the second round of arrests, which included a number of writers and theater folks.
I had been fairly fearless in my lesbian community organising efforts up to that point, but the second round of arrests struck a little too close to home for me. And that was the whole point of those arrests, to distill fear and effectively clamp down on organising efforts and dissenting voices of any sort. My parents feared that I would be arrested. So, once I was done with College of Physical Education and graduation was over, I left Singapore for the US.
F: How long have you been living in San Francisco?
ML: I've been living in San Francisco since 1988, for 12 years now.
F: How active are you in the gay community?
ML: My organising efforts center mostly on lesbians with color issues and visibility in the US, specifically the Asian Pacific Islander queer women's communities. In 1989, I was actively involved in organising the Dynamics of Color Conference, which dealt with racism in the Bay Area lesbian community. I co-founded the US Asian Lesbian Network, which networked with Asian lesbians in Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, India and the Philippines.
Since becoming a filmmaker, I'm much more visible to the public eye. So I've been organising in different ways – using my films as organising tools, especially when I speak at universities, panel discussions and film festivals. A copy of my film was sent to ex-President Clinton's Advisory Committee on Asian American Pacific Islander issues.
F: What was the worst form of homophobia you have encountered in the US?
ML: In many ways, San Francisco is still a gay Mecca, and that's the reason I've lived here all these years. Institutionally, homophobia is illegal in the US. So when it manifests itself, it tends to happen on an intense personal level.
I remember about seven years ago, I was riding a bus home late one night. The bus was pretty empty except for a handful of passengers. I was reading one of those free lesbian and gay publications I had picked up in the gay Castro district. These two white men sitting behind me got really interested in the paper and were starting to peer over my shoulders, reading along.
One of them asked where I'd gotten the paper. Trying to stay cool, I replied, 'From the Castro'. He said, 'It figures.' Then the other guy screamed out, 'Mother fucking faggots!' along with a bunch of other profanities. Then the first guy yelled, 'Anyone reading this shit on the bus should be shot!' I froze.
I didn't know how serious they were, if they had a gun on them, if I should tell the bus driver, if I should get off, or if they would follow me when I got off the bus. I ended up staying in my seat, continuing to read the paper. When the bus got to my stop, I left the paper behind on the seat and said to them, 'Enjoy.'
F: How does that compare to the homophobia you experienced when you were in Singapore?
ML: Institutionally, in Singapore, homophobia is legal and enforceable by the powers that be. And that fear gets trickled down to the individual in complex ways. I think that internalised homophobia is an extremely destructive force. I have many lesbian friends in Singapore who are very much afraid and closeted, and they sometimes are the ones who attempt to censor me for being an 'out' lesbian.
The most traumatic homophobic experience is still when I was 16 years old, and coming out and coming to terms with my lesbian identity as a teenager, in an all-girls catholic convent school. The pressure from the school, the church, the teachers, the principal, my parents, my girlfriend's parents, was tremendous, intense and daily.
I was 'outed' to all the teachers in the school and was constantly being pulled out of class for 'counselling sessions'. The pressure became unbearable. It eventually broke my girlfriend and I apart. I was this close to being one of those gay teenage suicide statistics one hears so much about. I was extremely depressed for two years after that. I still don't know how I survived that experience with any semblance of sanity intact.
F: When was the last time that you were back in Singapore, and how do you think things have changed while you were away?
ML: The last time I was in Singapore was in December of 1998 visiting my sister. My sister moved last year, so I haven't visited Singapore since. I still keep in touch with friends who travel back and forth between San Francisco and Singapore, and along with SAMBAL, I try to keep posted on what's happening in the Singapore lesbian community. On the social scene, I hear about the different clubs opening or closing or moving. On the personal level, I know of friends who are networking and organising within the lesbian community in different ways.
F: You said that you are eligible to apply for US citizenship but you haven't done so because you don't want to give up your Singapore citizenship. Has that changed and why?
ML: I'm sort of in transition with that. I've gotten the paperwork but have not yet applied for a US citizenship. I'm still reluctant to give up my Singapore citizenship. God knows why as I don't have any immediate family in Singapore anymore. And especially since the Singapore Film Censorship Board banned my last film Sambal Belacan in San Francisco. Maybe it's nostalgia for my place of birth or maybe somewhere, somehow, in a corner of my soul, I'm still attached to Singapore. My parents may retire to the US. If that happens, then logically, I'd apply for my US citizenship.
F: Have you thought of returning to live in Singapore?
ML: I have, from time to time. To work on a film production, I would. Maybe when I'm older.
F: How do you feel about Alex Au's gay forum being banned in Singapore because the authorities feel that the forum promotes homosexuality?
ML: One just has to wear it as a badge of honor, like I was forced to, when the Singapore Film Censorship Board banned my film. But was I pissed!
In 1994, one of my close friends from Singapore moved to San Francisco. She instantly added an amazing sense of family to my daily life that I hadn't felt since leaving Singapore. Up to that point, I had been living in San Francisco for six years. My lesbian identity was totally validated but not my Singaporean identity.
After my friend moved to SF, we talked constantly about belonging and about what home meant to us, where that was, whether it was geographically based, etc. That was when the idea of making a film that reflected our daily lives began to germinate.
F: Before Sambal Belacan in San Francisco, you completed Shades of Grey in January 1996 (a seven-minute film about lesbian domestic violence). It's has been shown in seven major film festivals. Where did your inspiration come from?
ML: It came from a personal experience. The process of making Shades of Grey was healing and cathartic for me.
F: What other films have you done?
ML: In the summer of 1996, I was commissioned by a homeless advocacy organisation to produce a documentary on their youth pilot art project. 15 homeless youths participated in the three-month art project where the youths learnt about community organising, self-empowerment and leadership skills through art. Youth Organizing, Power Through Art is the 30-minute documentary that resulted.
Since completing Sambal Belacan in San Francisico, I've been freelancing as a director, cinematographer and editor. This past summer, I directed seven pieces of work for the stage.
F: Has being Asian been a driving force in your films?
ML: Being a mixed-heritage Asian has definitely been a driving force in my filmmaking.
F: Do you think there is a market for an Asian lesbian full-length film?
ML: Oh yes. Not just for one Asian lesbian feature-length film, but many. Look at how popular the gender-bender films that Brigitte Lin acted in were, Swordsmen 2, East is Red, Ashes of Time, etc. As Asian lesbians, we are starved for representative images of ourselves. And if we are to get our fill of wonderful and various images of Asian lesbians, then we filmmakers will just have to get more creative, won't we?
F: You are planning a feature length film next about a coming of age story of girls in a convent school. You attended a convent school in Singapore for 10 years yourself. Is it your life story?
ML: It would definitely be based on my personal experience, and as such, it would a semi-autobiographical piece, but fictionalised and dramatised.
F: If you were allowed one wish for Singapore, what would it be?
ML: The Singapore government needs to stop constantly spoon-feeding the general public on what to think. Let the individual person think for him or herself. It's about time. After all, Singapore is now 35 years old.