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16 Aug 2005

russell heng

This week, Fridae speaks to Dr Russell Heng about this upcoming talk on Aug 16. Titled "Where Queens Ruled! A History of Gay Venues in Singapore," the talk is part of IndigNation, a collection of events to celebrate pride in Singapore.

æ: ASOL (Age, Sex, Occupation, Location)
Russell: 54, M, researcher at Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore).

Dr Russell Heng is presenting a talk titled, 'Where Queens Ruled! A History of Gay Venues in Singapore,' on Aug 16.
æ: You will be presenting a talk titled, "Where Queens Ruled! A History of Gay Venues in Singapore" on Aug 16. The talk is part of IndigNation, a collection of events to celebrate pride in Singapore. Why this subject?
Russell: Somebody suggested the topic and it is my forte. I have lived through much of what I am going to talk about, researched the subject over the years and also written about it. But the most compelling reason for choosing this topic as part of IndigNation is the need for a community of people to derive a stronger sense of identity FROM knowing their history better. Stories about places, people, the struggles, etc., are useful reminders that what we take for granted today were not always like that. When people understand history and the forces that shape history, they chart their destiny better. I think many of today's gays/lesbians in their 30s or younger would have very little knowledge of this history and I hope to arouse their curiosity to find out more about our shared past.

æ: How did you become involved with IndigNation?
Russell: One of the organisers, Clarence (Singam), asked me and I said yes to giving the talk. Actually, IndigNation has caught me in a very busy month between two major international conferences that I have to attend. But I think it is a very important statement for the gay community to make and so I bit the bullet and said yes. Now I am desperately racing against the clock to finish a research paper on the gay activism in Singapore for a conference in Shanghai next Tuesday.

æ: What was gay life like 40 years ago? Could you give readers a brief low down on yesteryear's nightspots such as Pebbles Bar, Music World, etc and meeting places like Raffles City, Fort Road, Ann Siang Hill, etc?
Russell: You would understand if I do not answer this question too completely because I want people to come to the talk and find out for themselves.

Forty years ago, even knowing where to go was very much a matter of serendipity. Internet and Google were not around. Mostly, if you were lucky, a friend would know of a place and he probably stumbled upon it by chance. So gay venues were never that chock-a-bloc full as they can be now. Gay/lesbian Singaporeans, for the most part, did not know where to go. For those who found out where the places were, there was also a great anxiety in actually going to one of them. Probably that anxiety then was much stronger than it is for a first-timer now. Four decades ago, potato-queens made up an overwhelming majority of Singaporeans who did the gay scene. On looking back, it was kind of depressing. The idea of two Singaporeans taking each other to bed was for many beyond the imagination.

You mentioned Pebbles. Incidentally it was not the first gay bar. Le Bistro preceded it and even then, an old retired Kiwi soldier I know claimed there was another place before Le Bistro. I will be talking about this. Pebble was arguably the first disco with its small dance floor but same-sex dancing was prohibited until somebody decided to push the envelope.

I have also made an effort to search The Straits Times picture archives for old photos of these early gay places. For those who are curious to know what they look like, here is a chance to get a view. I must also add that The Straits Times library has been very helpful. So don't always knock this paper. It can be rather gay-friendly at times. But I digress.

The history that I am talking about would not be just about identifying the places, when they opened and when they shut down. I am taking these events through a series of major shifts in the gay scene down the years. I should also add that going back 40 years is just excavating living memory, i.e., talking to fellow "old queens" who still remember. In my talk I am going to say a bit about the possibility and need to take history back a lot further.
æ: In 1993, the Police raided Rascals, a gay-on-Sunday disco, and harassed its patrons. Several people were detained for not being able to provide official identification records. It is remembered that 22 people, including lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, signed a petition protesting the high-handed police behaviour and later, received an official apology. This is the last documented incidence of police harassment of gays. What other significance did this incidence have on the gay community in Singapore?
People Like Us is a Singapore gay and lesbian GROUP focussed on advocacy and public education. It is an informal GROUP since the Singapore Registrar of Societies refused to grant registration in 1997.
Russell: The Rascals incident kickstarted the formation of People Like Us (PLU), Singapore's first GLBT advocacy group, basically the birth of GLBT politics as we know it today. I remember I was then part of that small GROUP of people who were trying to give the nascent activism a form and direction. As much as we were enthusiastic, Singapore's political climate made us nervous and we were finding it hard to move forward beyond meeting in somebody's home for monthly potluck parties, and hearing an endless round of coming out stories.

Then one day, I turned up at one of these monthly sessions which happened to be a week after the Rascal's incident. I was not aware of it since the media either did not know or did not want to report it. But some of the people who organised the protest petition were at the meeting and they were indignant. And the indignation spurred everybody INTO taking a step forward to organise something more public and more focussed. Thus the regular monthly PLU forum at The Substation was born. Its first topic: What are your legal rights if the police detain you for being at a gay venue? Indignation was a wonderful rallying force then. I hope it proves to be so again in 2005.

æ: What did you do before becoming a researcher at Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)?
Russell: I did my first degree in psychology which I never used. Then I had to serve a scholarship bond in the civil service. My parting with the civil service in the early 1980s was because I was gay. I then became a journalist in The Straits Times (ST) before leaving in 1991 for an academic career. When I left the ST I was Features Editor of Sunday Times. Then came my work at ISEAS during which time I spent more than four years at The Australian National University writing my PhD thesis in Political Science. In a nation hung up on paper qualifications, HAVING a "Dr" as an honorific before your name adds gravitas, if you like gravitas. I don't really want the gravitas and so the PhD is just a piece of paper to get you entry INTO a certain profession. Incidentally the PhD thesis was on the mass media in Vietnam which I chose because of my familiarity with media in authoritarian Asian countries, i.e., our beloved island Republic.

In between all these, I wrote three plays - Lest The Demons, Half Century and Comrade Mayor - all produced by TheatreWorks. The first is about a transsexual. The other two also have gay characters but were not gay plays. Half Century was my response to the Marxist conspiracy nonsense in 1987. Both Lest the Demons and Half Century ran INTO censorship problems and were banned for periods of five years before they could be staged. So you must excuse me for bitching about authoritarian Asian states. Comrade Mayor parodies an Asian society where judges do not have to be told how to rule in favour of powerful political leaders; they just know. So in name there is judiciary independence but the reality is rather darker.

æ: What is the achievement you are most proud of?
Russell: That I have been part of larger movement to rejuvenate civil society in Singapore. That whatever little we have done may make it easier for coming generations of Singaporeans who are or want to be different FROM the majority.

æ: What about yourself would you like to change the most?
Russell: Tough question. Some days I wake up wishing I look like Brad Pitt. Other days I wake up wishing I look at Nicole Kidman. So the change I crave swings FROM bodybuilding to gender reassignment.

æ: What do you think is important in a relationship?
Russell: That you can both talk about absolutely everything honestly.

æ: Tell us about a cause that you support?
Russell: I am Secretary of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) a GROUP that seeks better working conditions for foreign domestic workers in Singapore. I am putting time and effort INTO this because I think the foreign domestic workers need Singaporeans to put their grievances on the national agenda for change. In comparison with the maids, gays and lesbians have a lot more resources to improve things for themselves. Therefore I have left gay activism very much to a wonderful lot of younger gays/lesbians who have taken over the leadership role and organised a far bigger range of gay/lesbian activities for the community.

Dr Russell Heng will present "Where Queens Ruled! A History of Gay Venues in Singapore" at Mox Bar and Caf, 21 Tanjong Pagar Rd, #04-01 on Aug 16 at 7.30pm. The talk will be followed by "Same-Sex Love In Classical South Asian Literature," presented in English by Sheo S. Rai. Click on Fridae Agenda for other events presented as part of IndigNation.

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