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13 Feb 2012

In search of love

Otto Fong, a gay man in Singapore who is in a 14-year relationship, reflects on the trials and tribulations of finding love as a young man growing up in a time when homosexuality was not only a taboo subject but attending gay events may include being harassed by the police before he met his partner.

(This article is based on Otto Fong’s speech at a sharing session held at the Singapore Management University on 7 Feb 2012.)

As Valentine’s Day is coming up, I’ve decided to share the one aspect of my life that is relevant to the occasion: my love. More specifically, I’m sharing how I had looked for love in the 90s, in a decade B.I. (Before Internet).

In 1989, I graduated from Oklahoma State University in the US and returned to Singapore to complete my National Service in the Armed Forces.

At that time, there were just a few places where gay men gathered to socialise. There was a pub in Orchard Road which catered mainly to foreigners and their admirers. There was a karaoke pub for local gay men, and I will share why I skipped that option later.

Totto, a character from Otto Fong's Sir Fong’s Adventures in Science, as seen in the couple's Valentine's Day cake last year. The character is inspired by a child the couple hopes to adopt in the future.

A third option was a ‘Sunday Disco’. Every few months, a local disco would open its doors to gay men on Sunday nights. I assume that Sunday night was given to us because it was the least desirable evening to party late, and we would fill the dance floor and the disco owner’s coffers in a win-win situation. Every few months or so, the police would conduct a raid. They would line us up and take down our particulars, asking what used to be rather embarrassing questions such as, “how often do you come here?” Most of us would blush in shame and lie, “it’s my first time.” I remembered a rare brave soul (not me), when confronted with that question, defiantly answering, “oh, I come here so often I lost count!”

The intent of the raid might be routine, but invariably the clients would scatter and stay away. Awhile later, another disco would take up the baton and open its Sunday doors to us. We were shooed from disco to disco, and kept nomadic. Without a stable place to meet, we had no means of constructing our identities, friends and community. Without community, we were scattered and disempowered.

There was one other place to meet gay guys – the open air space above Raffles Place MRT. In the early 90s, we hung out regularly, ‘cruised’ the back streets around the area trying to meet others. Guys from all walks of life roamed for love – yet, we were guarded about our true selves. Many used fake names. Conversations were inauthentic, full of gaps and closed doors. You can imagine that chances of finding someone compatible were extremely remote.

Most of my relationships then were conducted in secret from my family, colleagues and friends. It was like one frightened blind person leading another frightened blind person. They all ended in heartbreaks. Guess what? We endured these heartbreaks the same way we conducted our relationships: on our own. 

Up till today, I have trouble sitting in a gay karaoke – which is often filled with the mournful groans of broken hearts, much like a bear bile factory in China. Every other song was one of tears and crying softly over pillows. Two favourites were Sandy Lam’s “Loved Someone Who Didn’t Come Home”, and Faye Wong’s “Easily-Hurt Woman”.

Society’s message to gay men was this: “go out, and you risk humiliation, harassment and get labelled a slut. Stay home, avoid any gay encounters, and remain ignorant and stupid. But you’ll be safe.” If I had relied on the country’s media, I would have been deeply closeted, filled with misery, loneliness and self-loathing. To my credit, I chose slut over stupid. 

I threw myself from one possible relationship to another from age 21 to 29. My lovers were varied: one boyfriend was so poor at expressing himself, he shared his feelings for me via song lyrics: “this is how I feel about you,” he would say to me every conversation, “press ‘play’ please!” Another wanted me to be his trophy, and dragged me from weary power lunches to dreary intellectual dinners. A third made me feel so safe, so loved for eight months before it was revealed that I was his fling outside of a 16-year relationship. Oh, and by the way he was getting married too. Cue Faye Wong music! 

Straight people like to say that gay men cannot conduct successful, long-term relationships. The more likely truth is that given the lack of social, familial and legal support, it’s a wonder so many of us would not give up! It’s helpful to remember that even straight people face challenges in the pursuit of love – for in spite of all the support that family, society and law gave our straight brothers and sisters, divorces rates continued to climb.

By 29, I was ready to concede defeat. “Maybe it is true what they said about gay men – we’re just not built to have lasting relationships!”

Fortunately, my years out there paid off in two important ways: 1. after a couple of particularly nasty breakups, I started to appreciate the hurt I had unwittingly inflicted on some of my past boyfriends. My failures made me appreciate how valuable a good lover is. 2. An ex-boyfriend match-made me and my current partner, Han.

Han and I had been around the block a few times, so we were older and wiser. We dated for three years before he started spending weekends over. After five years, when we were very sure of our mutual commitment, I placed a downpayment for our first car. The car was to enable him to live with me on weekdays, and still get to work relatively conveniently. 

As our relationship grew stronger, another miracle was happening around the globe: the Internet. 

With the advent of social networking sites such as Fridae.asia, gay Singaporeans started posting their profile pictures online. That, few realised, was the first tentative step out of the closet for many in the community and as one. 

Han and I started hanging out with other couples like us. With a growing community, and regular gossip, we gained valuable insights. For instance, in each couple, we observed that one would be sloppier while the other would insist on cleanliness. So it was and still is with Han and myself, and I used to think that difference was an irritation we had to live with. We quickly learnt, upon a visit to a couple’s home (they were both sloppy), that differences are what kept us from spinning out into extremes in our daily habits. 

With that stability, Han and I were able to focus our energies on building our dream home. We are able to invest more energy in our individual careers, and we even have enough time left to welcome a lively Jack Russell into our lives.

With my hunting days (for a partner) behind me (at least, for now, hopefully, for longer), I’ve now turned my mind towards the greater society. Before I hit puberty and realised I was gay, I was first and foremost a lover of comics, science and science fiction. I have since embarked on a quest to get Asians to see themselves as equals in terms of science with their Western counterparts. Afterall, the problems of global warming and mass extinctions of animal and plant species cannot be solved by a science army of half-strength. I am now drawing and self-publishing a thriving brand of sci-fi comics called Sir Fong’s Adventures in Science

Normally, I would end an article with a punch – save the best for last, I suppose. But I decided I won’t. While Han and I have been together for 14 years, it really isn’t anything to gloat about. Being together is simply a preferred state of living for the two of us, and many of our single friends are doing perfectly well in their singlehood. If our years being out there in the wild, wild world of love and relationships had taught us anything, it is that we simply can’t take anything for granted. 

Perhaps I can close and leave you with this: despite the draconian options society officially offered gay people in the past, it was possible for me to find true love against all odds. The only true way to stop you from loving someone is that you choose to stop loving. With that, thank you for reading, and may you have a great Valentine’s Day with your loved one, with your friends or with yourself.

Fridae is interested in receiving personal essays from LGBT readers in the Asia-Pacific region that illustrate the current state of love and relationships, especially aided by online dating sites, mobile dating apps, and social media. Essays should be between 1,000 to 1,500 words, and be evocative and compellingly told. Send submissions to editor@fridae.asia.

Reader's Comments

1. 2012-02-14 01:41  
Sir Fong, great article! Yes, I'm happily single but I still choose to love and have not given up hope of finding love one day despite the odds. Thank you for sharing your journey, its inspiring :)
2. 2012-02-14 02:48  
this is a great and honest confession.
a simple but great lesson for me. never take anything for granted.
3. 2012-02-14 04:14  
Nice article about someone biography and history.. It keep me to believe there is a love out there if we willing to search and take a risk.. But still, it's not an easy task if live in my country where diversity of entics and religion is tolerated, but not the sexual choices..

To Mr Otto, happy Valentine's day for you and Mr Han..
Comment edited on 2012-02-14 05:23:23
4. 2012-02-14 04:39  
Nice, serious and empowering! And I like this initiative of Fridae to ask readers for personal testimonies.


"With the advent of social networking sites such as Fridae.asia, gay Singaporeans started posting their profile pictures online. That, few realised, was the first tentative step out of the closet for many in the community and as one. "

I think there has been a regression here, not talking exclusively of the fridae website. I am surprised at the number of people who don't put photos on their profile. Or pics of landscapes or animals. Or pics of themselves, but the face missing. I feel this number has been growing over the last few years, but perhaps it is a false impression.
5. 2012-02-14 05:47  
sweet yet strong empowering article. hope you and Han had a everlasting and stable relationships.

while today they call it Vallentine's Day it's Tue's Day for me as a single guy haha ;P
6. 2012-02-14 07:41  
lol, my colleague called it 'Singles-Awareness Day'. whatever it is, have a great day everyone!
7. 2012-02-14 08:54  
To all the singles and couples out there " Happy Valentines Day". May each and everyone of you find that love and enjoy the joy love brings. Life is a journey , just enjoy the ride.

Otto - thanks for sharing . Cheers !
8. 2012-02-14 09:23  
Dear Otto, thanks for sharing such a beautiful live story and just never give up for search of real love. well done sir.
9. 2012-02-14 09:39  
10. 2012-02-14 09:42  
Happy Valentine's day to all - my heart box still has room hehe.

There is a book called "The Boyfriend Within" which makes the point first love yourself, then you will be able to love others.

Is our greatest problem the idea that everyone passing by can "see that you are gay"? Absolute rubbish!!! Eye contact is the only give away.

Who you sleep with is only known to that other person and others in the same house/flat. That 2 men/women live together is not evidence of their sexuality.

How many of your friends even less your employers are going to check gay sites to see if you are there. So why not put a face pic? If they don't like it they are not true friends! It is the face and especially the eyes which says so much about a person.

Just remember that maintaining a relationship requires constant effort from both partners. I know!!!!!
11. 2012-02-14 11:14  
Haha Slut over stupid!? Nice one! I am slut also.
12. 2012-02-14 11:32  
Happy Valentine's Day to everyone! Thank you very much for sharing, Otto. ;)
13. 2012-02-14 15:13  
i am a very cynical person, but this article seems to give me a little sense of hope, despite i never feel very hopeful for a long-lasting gay relationship.
14. 2012-02-14 16:16  
good stuff! and keep up the faith :)
15. 2012-02-15 00:32  
I believe in true love.
The right man on the right heart at the right time is awaiting for me.
Sooner or later.
Amen. :)
16. 2012-02-15 07:25  
Great article.

I agree with drelin up there though that there are a (surprising?) number of people who don't put up photos of themselves as their profile pics.

Maybe it's a reflection of how insecure we perceive the environment to be?
17. 2012-02-15 08:11  
I sincerely thank you for this article. It was well written, but most of all, it touched me and reminded of my days BI. It was not until the internet that my life really took off, I accepted myself, and I finally had a chance at happiness!

18. 2012-02-15 14:14  
Congratulations Otto on your achievements, in so many ways, including your long-term relationship. I was privileged to interview you on Melbourne's gay radio station several years ago after your "coming out" at the school you were teaching at, and the subsequent drama that entailed.

Yesterday was Valentines Day, as we all know, and so my partner and I went out for a pleasant dinner here in Melbourne. My partner is Singaporean and we live together quite happily here in Melbourne, and later this year we celebrate 18 years together.

I think you explain very well why it is that the public perception is that gay relationships do not last. Utter Rubbish...! The main reason they have not lasted in the past is because there were so many things going against such relationships ever being successful, although I guess things have been a little easier here in Australia over the last 15-20 years than in Singapore.

But having said that, as a long-term visitor to Singapore, I have seen some dramatic changes in the gay scene and activities over the past 10-15 years, even if your relationships there are still not yet officially recognised, or gay sex is still (ridiculously) illegal. But things are changing.

While we still do not have gay marriage in Australia (yet...), must discriminatory issues have well and truly been dealt with at a legislative level. We can have our gay relationships officially recognised, our partners (for all intents and purposes) have similar rights and entitlements as a straight defacto couple, passing of property rights, partner recognition by employers etc, etc. You will get that in Singapore in due course, but it may still take just a little longer. Be patient...
19. 2012-02-15 23:37  
20. 2012-02-16 13:21  
Thanks for sharing! Insightful. May each of us find our path to happiness --with or without a lover.
21. 2012-02-16 19:41  
This is truely inspiring.. when we believe in something .. we work towards the goal.. and that is how we gain wisdom and knowledge.. despite the hurdles we might come across during the journey.. your message just reminded me this "DO NOT GIVE UP".
22. 2012-02-16 19:41  
This is truely inspiring.. when we believe in something .. we work towards the goal.. and that is how we gain wisdom and knowledge.. despite the hurdles we might come across during the journey.. your message just reminded me this "DO NOT GIVE UP".
23. 2012-02-16 19:41  
This is truely inspiring.. when we believe in something .. we work towards the goal.. and that is how we gain wisdom and knowledge.. despite the hurdles we might come across during the journey.. your message just reminded me this "DO NOT GIVE UP".
24. 2012-02-16 19:41  
This is truely inspiring.. when we believe in something .. we work towards the goal.. and that is how we gain wisdom and knowledge.. despite the hurdles we might come across during the journey.. your message just reminded me this "DO NOT GIVE UP".
25. 2012-02-17 13:15  
Personally being a gay, nerd/geek, free-thinking atheist, non-traditional (infact quite anti-tradition towards those with no logic) person has proven to be quite 'distasteful' to many/most gay men here (expats and locals alike).
Being called 'godless damned' etc. by gay men here, kind of adds to the insults.
It is mainly due to the prevailant social structure here however, so though will still keep eyes and ears open for love here, won't be crying if nobody ever comes along given the seemingly very low probability.

Really appreciate Mr Fong's work in not only trying to promote gays as capable of being actual sensible people (not just sex crazed shallow flirty fickled peter pans), but also science education which is sorely lacking in the local region.

If you ever come across this comment entry, Mr Fong... Thank you very much!
26. 2012-02-17 18:21  
Finding love is made more difficult by the deliberate stigmatisation of gay men by s377A . At least India's Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional this week, pointing out it was never a crime in India until the British made it one. The same applies in Singapore. I wonder when the Court will rule on Ravi's application, it seems to be taking an inordinate length of time.
27. 2012-02-17 20:26  
Otto, that is a wonderful heartfelt story of your struggle, it is so encouraging that you persisted and have found long term love. I would like to know what struggles you have had once in a long term relationship, I am in a 13 year relationship myself and I feel it is about to come to an end.

From my point of view, I grew up in a society that viewed homosexuals as child molesters, men who hung around in seedy bars, who occupied toilets and dark alleys and were pre-occupied with sex.

During my teens I fought so hard against my urge to be homosexual, I hated myself for being this dirty creature. Perhaps some would rush into the nearest religion, looking for solace within its pernicious grasp, not me, never been a one for superstitions. I thought about it logically, I can't be the only person going through this...

Luckily for me, around the time where I was going through my lowest and most depressed time, gay people were getting a voice, showing that they weren't like the caricatures society projected of homosexuals mainly by the conservative and religious nuts. I found the TV media encouraging in the mid 1980s, at 15, I had my first boyfriend, a Chinese boy I knew from 5 years old, that lasted for 18 months, but it was a closeted secret love and ended tragically. During this time I had many girlfriends, mainly because I wanted to be straight and thought I would just get over it, I just wasn't sexually interested in girls, no matter what I did.

At 17 I had a few flings that didn't amount to anything apart from a string of broken hearts, but that's just being a teen! When I went to university, I met many like minded guys and realised how sane and normal they were, again, I had many flings but nothing longer than a few days, a long weekend et.c.

Like Otto, I noticed all these shallow, heartbroken guys dropping tears into their beers so I stopped trying to find love and just concentrated on friends, be friends first, lovers second. Logically, how can you be in love with someone you don't know? It made a tremendous difference, I could find guys that I genuinely gelled with that talked geek, weren't put off by my views and I could genuinely fall in romantic love with them.

After being with one guy for two months I decided to "come out" to my family and friends. Many friends deserted me, I didn't care, I'm what I am, if you don't like what you see, move on. I had the same attitude to my family, but they were far more understanding and were happy that I am happy.
28. 2012-02-17 21:52  
Thank you for sharing a story with us. I hope that you can happy go lucky for you future.
29. 2012-02-19 13:07  
really great article. Thanks for sharing on your story!
30. 2012-02-19 22:15  
Great article! It has inspired me in my search for my true love.
31. 2012-02-20 15:57  
Dear friends of Fridae, thank you all for reading this article. And thanks for sharing your personal experiences too! I was replying to some of you till I reached my daily mail quota, so I just want to thank you all again for your well wishes to Han and myself.

Finally, for those of you who prefer to have a loving relationship, may I suggest that you look to Sir Elton John, our dear dear godfather, only met his true love at the ripe young age of 46! So, please don't give up, and don't forget to relish every moment when you're single too!

Otto Fong
32. 2012-03-13 15:34  
As one about the same era, I do understand and the feel for this article. There are less opportunities to meet and socialize those days and gay tend to appreciate and treasure these more. However, scene have changed after 2000. There are more internets, spa and others sprouting up. There are more opportunities for sex rather than relationship. I feel that gays these days are groomed towards ons and short term relationship. Fewer are seeking and putting more effort into ltr. There aint enough and lack education for today younger gays. Lucky for them but yet sad on the other hand.
33. 2012-11-27 18:14  
At a time when examples of successful gay relationship are few and far in between as guidance, Otto, your story gives refreshing hope for the aspiring new comers. The social stigma that brands gays in negative light puts them in uncertainty of success. 'In search of Love' is a silver lining in the cloud. Kudos!
34. 2013-04-06 22:12  
This article truly touched me.

Thank u for sharing this... u r an inspiration for some of us. I do hope that I would also be fortunate to experience such an amazing journey like yours

Wishing you both a long lasting and happy life

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