This August, five different theatre groups in Singapore are launching The Singapore Theatre Festival. It's a three week-long programme of plays, free theatre activities and public forums, and there's nothing particularly gay about the line-up. Most of the shows are targeted to be fun for the complete nuclear family, including your suspicious parents and your Bible/Quran-toting cousin. This does, however, present an opportunity to speak about gay culture and local theatre - two twilight worlds which have so often overlapped in Singapore.
It's easy to underestimate the importance of this - after all, following script changes, only a few hundred people saw these plays. But one must remember that this happened in a time when discussion of homosexuality, let alone coming out, was largely taboo; when the only gay media you'd have would be smuggled porn magazines from abroad; in an environment where political protest was (and still is) illegal. The nation got to wake up and read in the papers that a struggle was taking place, based on homosexuality, between an arts group and a government body. The message to every queer person was, "The government may not like you, but you are not alone - someone out there is speaking up."
Theatre practitioners didn't stop speaking up, either. In 1991, Dramabox presented Another Tribe by Fong Yong Chin, a Mandarin-language play about the gay relationship between an older and a younger man. In 1992, Theatreworks produced Tan Tarn How's work, The Lady of Soul and her Ultimate S-Machine, whose madcap political and sexual contents included a passionate gay love affair between a Minister of State and a senior civil servant. Also in 1992, the transgender community became a focus of attention in Russell Heng's Lest The Demons Get to Me and Michael Chiang's extremely popular comedy Private Parts. And in 1993, lesbian theatre came into its own - Ovidia Yu's iconic Three Fat Virgins Unassembled featured a repressed dyke in its array of dissatisfied Singapore women, and Eleanor Wong's Mergers and Accusations presented the lesbian lawyer Ellen - the future star of a trilogy of lesbian plays, Invitation to Treat.
Local theatre presented an opportunity for Singaporeans to encode pro-gay messages into their productions, while being able to publicly disclaim a confessional side to their works - after all, many of these queer plays were indeed written by straight playwrights. Singapore's government had decided to invest in Singapore's cultural scene, yet by its nature, the theatre was always a space for outsiders of society, where genders could change in the dressing room in a puff of powder. No wonder the late Senior Minister of Education Tay Eng Soon desperately pleaded in a 1992 speech, "By all means, let our 'cultural desert' bloom. But please let the blossoms be beautiful and wholesome!"
Looking back on those early years of theatre, it's evident that they represented a moment of the opening of Singapore consciousness to queer issues. They didn't just pave the way for the sophisticated investigations of gay Singaporean identity in recent plays like Alfian Sa'at's Asian Boys Volumes 1 and 2 and Haresh Sharma's Mardi Gras and Top and Bottom. They also made it possible for images of gay Singapore to arise in other media like film, such as the transsexual themes of Glen Goei's Forever Fever (1998) and the teenaged lesbian subplot of Eric Khoo's Be With Me (2005). They're also in the minds of whoever's going to write the first Singaporean television serial with openly gay and lesbian characters - and mark my words, that show will come some day.
Most importantly, they forced the government and public to acknowledge that there are gay, lesbian and bisexual people working in important positions in their cultural industry. The excellence of our queer theatre has been proven with works like W!ld Rice's internationally successful drag renditions of Stella Kon's Emily of Emerald Hill and An Occasional Orchid. Gay and lesbian Singaporeans in theatre are consequently recognised with awards and ministerial handshakes, however grudgingly. And two men or two women kissing on stage (if not in real life) is no longer a big taboo.
Singapore is not yet a haven of free speech, however. Which is why I'm excited about the Singapore Theatre Festival. Its plays and discussions are lodged in debate about injustices and tensions that remain even in a time when being gay is no longer the biggest issues in our lives - questions of loyalty, language, party politics and cruelty, as framed by some of the best writers of our country, gay or straight.
Moreover, it's clearly grounded in an understanding of the history of theatre in Singapore. Gay and lesbian viewers should watch out for Second Link, a collection of Singapore and Malaysian writing in performance, curated by Singaporean Eleanor Wong and Malaysian Leow Puay Tin. The Singaporean half, performed by Malaysian actors, includes excerpts from Wong's lesbian play Jointly and Severably and from Chay Yew's gay play A Language of Their Own, as well as a gay-themed poems from Alfian Sa'at and Cyril Wong. The Singapore actors who perform the Malaysian half are similarly ready to queer things up a bit - for instance, a wild drag Thai dance opens S.H.Tan's Mystery of the Attraction in Haadyai Solved.
The rest of the plays are a mixed bunch - fans of campy comedies might go for Wong Chen Seong's Salsa Salsa Salsa, family drama buffs might prefer Alfian Sa'at's Homesick, followers of political satire will relish Ovidia Yu's The Silence of the Kittens and Eleanor Wong's The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ, while aficionados of experimental theatre should enjoy Ang Gey Pin's By the Way and Spell #7's National Language Class/Utama: Every Name in History is I. There's even an opportunity to be involved in the creation of a play, with Dramabox's Sing Your Way Home, a free community theatre project in which participants can bring their own personal stories to the stage. Just like gay theatre, it'll be an exercise in bringing the voices of the margins to the centre.
As I see it, the world of the theatre is a lab, and each new play is a new experiment in how life may be lived. Not everyone accepts the results so fast - after all, it was more than a decade ago that it was proven to Singapore that yes, homosexuality is natural and acceptable, and the proof is still slow in gaining ground. Nonetheless, we can be grateful to the people of fifteen years ago for speaking up. But in the mean time, I want to hear the ideas of tomorrow. I go to the theatre.
Ng Yi-Sheng writes for the theatre review page, The Flying Inkpot. The Singapore Theatre Festival is organised by W!ld Rice and lasts from August 2nd to 20th. It includes plays and activities by Dramabox, Spell #7, Theatreworks, The Theatre Practice and W!ld Rice. Its website is singaporetheatrefestival.com and tickets are available from Sistic. This article draws on facts and references cited in William Peterson's The Queer Stage in Singapore and People Like Us: Sexual Minorities in Singapore, Select Publishing, 2003, pp78-96.