Annabel Chong - who needs little introduction - became world famous in 1995 for appearing in a groundbreaking adult movie titled The World's Biggest Gangbang. The then-22-year-old, whose real name is Grace Quek, was filmed having sex 251 times with 70 men over a period of about 10 hours.
Through the play, Chen and Ng hope for the audience to see beyond the sensationalistic media write-ups which typically contrast her career choice with her conservative upbringing in a strict Christian family in Singapore.
Despite being criticised for reinforcing male-dominance and misogyny through pornography, Chong has said in various interviews that her decision to be a porn actress was an act of feminist defiance and reclamation of her femininity after she was gang raped in London where she was attending law school. In an interview with Nerve.com, she called the incident a "a lapse of judgement" for being drunk and a guy she was intending to have sex with turned on her by inviting his friends along.
Soonafter the incident, she dropped out, moved to the US and pursued graduate studies in photography, art and feminist studies at the University of Southern California. It was then that she joined an adult film company. Now 34, she is said to be living in California as an IT programmer.
When asked about the connection between the gang rape and the gangbang during the 1999 interview, she said: "I think on a subconscious level, in retrospect, maybe there is an element of trying to take back control in the gangbang, but it's not something I was thinking about before the event. It was only after that. Looking back at my life, I realised that a lot of things I've done seemed to be totally out of control. All that trying to get away from my coddled life was because I was trying to take back control by being out of control, which is kind of a paradox."
Fridae speaks to Chen and Ng about the issues they hope to address through the play and why gay and lesbian audiences would relate to the play's central themes of "self-expression, freedom, liberty and accountability."
Presented by Toy Factory Productions
Director: Loretta Chen
Written by Ng Yi-sheng
Cast: Cynthia Lee Macquarrie as Annabel Chong, Cheryl Miles, Amy Cheng, Lee Weng Kee and Paul Lucas
Rating Advisory: RA 18 (Mature theme and strong offensive language)
Date: 05 Apr - 15 Apr 2007 Tue - Fri, 8PM. Sat - Sun, 3PM & 8PM.
Venue: Esplanade Theatre Studio
Ticket price (exclude booking fee): Standard - S$33 at SISTIC
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Next page: "Sex remains a taboo - that's why it's interesting to an artist - the hypocrisies and the double standards that prevail...." says Chen.
Top pic: The cast Cheryl Miles, Cynthia Lee Macquarrie and Amy Cheng with director Loretta Chen, playwright Ng Yi-Sheng.
Loretta: It began as a pet project I was discussing with Toy Factory artistic director Goh Boon Teck (GBT) about and it soon took on a life of its own after an article in the press questioned the definition of a national hero. The writer defined the OB markers (out of bounds: a golfing term frequently used in Singapore to denote what topics are permissible for public discussion) for a national hero as one who dared to go the distance, go where no man/woman have gone before and challenged boundaries/expectations, etc. So just to play devil's advocate, I asked if Annabel Chong could be regarded as a national hero - not that I am saying she is but that if we apply the OB markers as they are, then she can clearly be seen as one. I mean in a society obsessed in being the first and the best, why shouldn't her work be considered record breaking? And then you realise of course that sex remains a taboo - that's why it's interesting to an artist - the hypocrisies and the double standards that prevail. It also interested me as I saw her as something like a Merlion- everyone professes to know her but no one very really knows who she was, etc, and she is iconic as people know who she is - when I travelled overseas (US, UK) people would know who Annabel Chong was - so that's interesting.
As I began my research, more issues/facets of her life fascinated me. I'm aware that her life is multi-faceted but for the sake of presenting a 90min play; I have narrowed down certain landmarks of her life. Namely, her as a product of Singapore, her as a product of a good Christian family, her exposure to performance art, her rape in London and finally her betrayal by her friends when she was made to go through an exorcism. So this play really gives you an insight into the intimate life of Annabel Chong contrary to what you normally see in the tabloids and media.
Yi-Sheng: It was Loretta's idea and I said yes because I think it's a fascinating topic for a play - Annabel Chong was always iconic to me; this dark yet familiar force of taboo sexuality that represents a side of Singapore we're not quite ready to acknowledge. She's always been in the back of my mind, ever since the news of her gangbang came to my ears at the age of 17 - we're very deeply influenced in our late teen years, after all; they're the years that determine entire generations.
And in fact, I can't help feeling like I've been living her life to an extent - I'm an intellectual in Singapore, a product of the Gifted Education Programme and the Humanities Scholarship who went to an American university and got sexually liberated, yet emotionally scarred - the big difference is that I decided to come home instead of staying in America. I have too many roots in Singapore to ever give it up.
æ: What issues do you hope for the play to address?
Loretta: Several issues for me. First of which is the notion of individuality vs. social responsibility because what Annabel Chong did was a very personal act out of her own free will but the consequences however played out in a larger social context that affected not just her family but also Singapore at large. I also wanted to explore the myth that porn stars have no interiority; in fact the play proves and shows that Annabel Chong is very much the filial daughter, friend and lover. The other issue I wanted to highlight is the notion of rape and gender empowerment, Annabel Chong saw a gangbang as a means to appropriate power that was denied her when she was gang-raped. However, the gangbang did her no justice and she never made it into A-lister pornographic fame. Hence we begin to realise that gender equality is very much steeped in our psyche and its hard to change - that a man who has sex with over 8000 women is considered a stud but a woman who like Annabel is considered a "slut". The play also blurs the distinction between pornography and performance art.
Yi-Sheng: I basically tortured Loretta and the cast and crew by writing about way too many issues than they could possibly cover in 90 minutes - I wanted to talk about sex, gender, orientation, masochism, censorship, freedom, family, politics, religion, myth, art, love and friendship... but really, in the end it's the story of a woman who never compromises herself, who battles those who seek to control her life and drives herself towards greatness whatever the costs. If anything, I hope this play will be inspirational - that it'll urge viewers to take the unsafe route of life; to live out their mad dreams.
æ: Would it be accurate to say that the play would not be so much a memoir about her life but more fictional or exploratory since you revealed earlier that you have constructed the character of a childhood girlfriend with whom she shares her first sexual experiences before the friend becomes a fundamentalist Christian? How much is this is based on her real life?
Loretta: Much of the play is based on true life published accounts of AC's life however it's our job as artistes to make the journey a compelling one and hence certain artistic licence have to be taken. For example, in illustrating the school system that Annabel Chong went through, we have Cheryl Miles playing the role of a dogmatic principal interrogating AC. So while the presentation is highly farcical, the issues explored are real i.e. the stress or emphasis placed on academic excellence. In another instance, the revelation of her rape is played a lot more subtly with her just alone on stage. This is of course a fact that can be played out in its full detail but I had opted to focus on just the actor to drill home the solitude she faced as a result of the incident. So much of the play is based on her real life but its style of presentation is the stuff that YS's wettest dreams are made of …
Yi-Sheng: It's definitely fictional - we've got weird encounters with superheroines along the way - but as I was writing, I realised it was very important to explain to Singaporeans the basic biography of Grace Quek/Annabel Chong. I kept on finding out bits of trivia on her life that I could incorporate, too - e.g., her parents were Chinese language actors before they settled down and became teachers.
As for the case of the "girlfriend," it's really a matter of conjecture. In her interviews, Grace mentions sexual curiosity and experimentation with her classmates in her all-girls' schools of CHIJ and RGS - and she later does identify as bisexual. It's plausible, therefore, that she might have had at least one girlfriend here. I made this girlfriend a hardcore Christian convert because I needed to describe how Grace was betrayed by her fundamentalist friends in JC, and also how she saw her other friends crushed by the pressure to conform in Singapore. I had to condense all the friends in Grace's life into just one actress. Casting constraints, you know!
æ: It's not widely known that she has claimed to be bisexual. In a 1999 interview with Nerve.com, she said that while she can't recognise or remember the names of the 150 to 200 men she has had sex with; she would be able to recognise and name the 25 to 50 women she slept with. What do you think this means? Has she said anything else that contributes to this?
Loretta: Probably means that women are way better in bed! Or quite simply look better or have more unforgettable names - hence my name Loretta.
Yi-Sheng: It could mean anything, really - I've lost track of the over-100 men I've slept with myself! But watching the later video she directed herself - "Pornomancer" - it seems that she viewed sex with women as something very different from sex with men. Sex with women was, for her, more intimate, less violent, almost friendly. But she loved the rough-and-tumble of sex with men as well - she was just an intensely sexual person, and gender probably didn't matter all that much for her except as one more kink on her sexual partner.
æ: As the playwright and director, what have you done to ensure that the play does not end up being in the same heap of "pornographic trash that exploits Annabel all over again?" to quote what you have written in your blog?
Loretta: How do you know this is not going to be in the same heap of "pornographic trash that exploits Annabel all over again"? But seriously, as a female director taking on this play, I am careful to not merely make this into a sex fest with gratuitous flesh scenes. What helps is having a clever, witty intellectual writer, Ng Yi-sheng who brilliantly weaves politics, social commentary, performance art, familial drama in equal parts so that the "sex" when it does happen is not merely a "money shot" but there because it fuels the narrative. The characters, the plot and the unraveling of the action thus becoming more compelling than merely having the actors take of their clothes. In fact when she does take off her clothes, many of our test audiences were in tears.
Yi-Sheng: First up: I don't think there's anything wrong with pornography. I have loads of pornography in my home: DVDs, jpegs, novels, comic books. I've written pornography and been photographed in compromising positions.
What is truly trashy, however, is the Singapore media's coverage of her life. She's been lectured at, harangued, raised as a cautionary figure - all without an attempt to empathise with her; to truly ask what motivated her life - while editors take advantage of increased sales, amped up by her reputation of scandal, excess and sensation.
251 will not be trashy because it treats Annabel as a complex figure, and tries to understand her. But let's face it: we are taking advantage of her name to sell tickets, so we are exploiting her to an extent. Still we're doing it with her consent, and we're not going to offer viewers a mere flesh parade - oh no; the organs we want to stimulate are their hearts and their brains.
æ: Chong is said to be living a reclusive life as a Web designer in the US after quitting the porn industry in 2003. Did the production team seek her input for the play? Did she have any comments?
Loretta: I definitely went on a chase to hunt her down and finally did through her friend writer Gerrie Lim who became a good friend in the course of this production. She's fully aware of the play and knows that she's in no position to stop the play and has fully relinquished her persona as Annabel Chong. Once a performance artist herself, she respects our need to create our art and only cautions us albeit wittily to go easy on Cynthia Lee's make-up.
æ: Yisheng, you have been quoted as saying: "Annabel is iconic to all Singaporeans because she's a force of sexual chaos. Just to say her name is to suggest a taboo." At the same time, Singaporeans don't seem to be particularly keen on talking or remembering Annabel Chong. Do you think Singaporeans are collectively practising selective amnesia or is there something else at play here?
Yi-Sheng: No, I don't think so - I think we just have a short attention span in general. We're like a bunch of bored housewives, always eager for the next scandal to ooh-aah about - casinos, Tammy NYP, James Gomez, a female nude portrait in Soobin Art Gallery? Annabel Chong was the scandal of a decade ago - why remember her now?
I think art is important because it reminds people of the past; humbles us by recalling our follies. I bet a lot of readers now will remember reacting to the news of Annabel Chong with moral outrage - an outrage that seems a lot more misplaced now that they've come much more to terms with their own sexuality, and are less ready to condemn others for celebrating it.
æ: Some have expectedly called the production "cheap and vulgar" for using the name Annabel Chong to sell seats while others have accused the producers of 251 of exploiting the "past life" of a woman who's now trying to get on with her new life in private. What's your defense and is there a greater good in all of this?
Loretta: As the director, of course I would like to believe that there is a greater good in having spent sleepless nights and tedious hours at rehearsals. Even if it all comes to nought, it is my personally wish that the audience walks away with three things - Compassion, Love, Balls - not necessarily in that order. I think the challenge is the play from beginning to end was always trying to unravel the myth of Annabel Chong. It would be easier to build on a myth than to unravel it. Just ask around: everyone has heard of her, or knows someone who knows her but no one really knows her.
The challenge is getting to know the real Annabel - making her real, humanising her - so the script allows you that. You walk off feeling compassionate towards her - she had been gang raped and made to go through exorcism which really affected her and she did what she thought (whether or not we agree is secondary) was an act of feminist defiance and reclamation of her femininity - but it back-fired on her. You begin to love her almost - for her vulnerability and confusion and also learn that she has loved once before and in turn loves her parents very, very much- yes, a porn star can love too, we always seem to forget that. And finally, to walk away wishing we had her balls- not necessarily to do what she did, but at least having the daring to do what we believe - we may change our minds about it later - but the point is - we dared. So yes, I hope we all walk out less judgmental - we do not have to agree with her, but we definitely do not have to crucify her.
Yi-Sheng: I do actually think it's problematic. As a relatively new playwright, I'm still all idealistic and shit about drama; I don't think it should be sensationalistic and supercommercial just to sell seats, which you could claim is true for our representations of Annabel in the publicity. But - as Loretta so rightly pointed out - is it even possible to defame a porn star? How much can you say about Annabel Chong that could damn her further in the eyes of the Singapore public?
This sensationalism - which is, after all, an intrinsic part of Annabel's life - could actually work to attract people to watch a play that seeks to state her case, to redeem her name. I hope it works that way. Fingers crossed!
æ: Yisheng, you mentioned that Annabel Chong is regarded to be a gay male icon for performing her gangbang. How is that so?
Yi-Sheng: This was something mentioned on an audio interview that Gerrie gave us. Grace Quek noted that older gay men and younger gay men in America had very different reactions to her gangbang. Older gay men were disapproving, because they'd actually participated in similar gangbangs in their youth, and saw them as part of the AIDS epidemic. Younger gay men, living in the post-HIV-awareness world, were her fans - they'd never been involved in such a gangbang but secretly wished to be in a similar reservoir of cocks and cum.
In the end, many of us gay men worship female divas: strong, sexually empowered women with inimitable style, e.g. Madonna, Kylie, Teresa Teng. Annabel Chong was such a diva, possibly the most remarkable that Singapore's ever produced.
But in fact, Grace Quek was a friend way before she became Annabel Chong - she mentions that her gaydar was so good that she became the official gay couple matchmaker in Hwa Chong JC. She was involved in some early gay activism, following the progress of the birth of PLU, and her best friend in California (featured in the documentary) was a gay Asian-American drag queen named Allen - she used to dress up as a drag queen with him and they'd go clubbing together.
æ: Although Grace Quek (the person) has spoken out to say that her porn career was liberating and empowering to her, numerous critics have insisted that she was manipulated by the various men in her life. Which do you think is it?
Yi-Sheng: Both. Haven't we all had jobs in which we've had empowering moments, yet have also been forced to do what others want us to do? Grace Quek/Annabel Chong was strong, but she wasn't invulnerable. Pornography is, in the end, one of many jobs.
Loretta: I think it's a mixture of both. Life is never clear-cut is it? I think the impetus of the gang bang is to challenge the gender boundaries so what started out as a clever post graduate thesis soon became the talk of the town as it broke many taboos. However by the same token, she was also never taken seriously after the gangbang. Elsewhere I've been quoted saying that she has overestimated the average intelligence of the porn consumer and I still stand by that.
Manipulation may be too harsh a term to be used and applied on Annabel as she has always prided herself as being accountable so I would think that she would rather be known to have made an erroneous decision/choice of her own free will than be forcefully manipulated into an act against her will. So in short, I think she is a victim of the steep gender bias and patriarchy that sees women as sex objects but she did do whatever she could within her means to explode that gender inequality - for better or for worse.
æ: Quek's "Annabel Chong" persona has been blamed for reinforcing male-dominance and misogyny through pornography, as well as fetishisation of racist stereotypes against much of the often mentioned Western fantasy of Asian women's supposed "submissiveness." Will your play be addressing any of those issues?
Loretta: Whilst racial politics is not on the top of the agenda, it is inevitably addressed in 251. In fact, in the sex scenes that show Annabel Chong in "action," she breaks the Asian stereotype as demure damsel in distress but instead we see her as an aggressive go-getter that is able to seek what pleasures her. She is seen as the feisty Asian girl that is able to hold her ground on he own terms. Indeed, she can be read as a fetishised object once again, but if you have watched her adult films before, you will see that she clearly plays against the stereotypes as the submissive Asian femme - when that girl gets going, she can really be very hardcore and definitely challenging the notion of what is typically considered sensual and sexy by men.
Yi-Sheng: No time to talk about yellow/white race politics! Let's have an Asian American playwright like Chay Yew take that on. He can refer to Darrell Hamamoto's insightful essay into the role of Asian-Americans in pornography, The Joy Fuck Club. (I'm personally more disturbed that Grace lived in a world in Singapore in which all her friends were Chinese, but that's sadly common these days.)
It's frankly absurd to claim that Annabel reinforced ideas of male-dominance in her porn. In her videos, she's always the centre of attention, dominating the men, never a victim but a proactive partner in lust. Old-school feminists often dismiss images of kinky sex as misogynistic because they may involve women being tied up - but the truth is that some women (and some men) enjoy being tied up by some men (or women, or both). Annabel/Grace was/is one of those women - she loved to play with power and bondage in sex, both as the dominant and as the submissive.
æ: As a lesbian director and gay playwright, what are your personal takes on those accusations being heaped on the actress?
Loretta: Being lesbian or gay definitely makes you more empathetic with the underdogs and the marginal - but having said that, the accusations that have been hurled her way have been nothing short of evil and down right mean - at the end of the day, my take is that you do not have to agree with her, but neither does anyone have the right to insult her and humiliate her family. One of the things that have always bugged her about Singapore is our need to judge and compare notes - she spoke openly about the attacks from the public who would call and leave nasty voice mails or make prank calls to her family - she was not against them leaving nasty comments but always wished they could be accountable and just have the balls to leave their identity together with their insult. So my final word- we are all not saints so quit pointing fingers - realise that whenever you are pointing a finger out, at least three other fingers are really pointing right back at you- just try…
Yi-Sheng: For me, being gay hardly comes into the picture, aside from the fact that it's introduced me to a wider range of people with different sexual preferences than most.
I think theoretical feminists have every right to discuss those issues - more intellectual debate about anything is good in my eyes - but it's dangerous for feminists to condemn "deviant" sex, because that puts them in the same camp as the conservatives. And it's the conservatives who cause real oppression of women - denying women abortion rights in America, failing to recognise marital rape in Singapore. Annabel made the point herself: she's a woman deciding what she wants to do with her own body; why should anyone have the right to stop her?
æ: Last question, why do you think gay and lesbian audiences should see the play?
Loretta: Because she is iconic of Singapore and exploded the sex taboo- and is till date still a renegade in Singapore. She broke boundaries and frontiers that no men/women have done before and has always been a strong advocate for self-expression, freedom, liberty and accountability - all the things that we too promote in a gay community. Finally, the play itself has a lot of heart... so definitely do come and support all of us in 251.
Yi-Sheng: Because Annabel Chong was, as I see it, a sexual pioneer - in a time gay men in Singapore were still being arrested for cruising, and gay women couldn't hold their hands in public, she went ahead and dared to commit a sexual act that would leave the world in awe. That act made us talk about sex, and made us aware that there was more than one path to become an extraordinary Singaporean. She was a revolutionary. We live in her shadow.