Yawning Bread. January 2007

Saint Jack slays two myths




There are two arguments that are unlikely to be popular with bloggers and online forummers. The first is that Singapore can and does change; hardline government policies can be rolled back. This may not be a popular idea since it robs some of us of the certainty of knowing that there is something irredeemably evil about the regime here. It would be most inconvenient for our cherished outrage if anyone were to demonstrate that the oppressor is after all, amenable to change.

The second is that 'foreign talent' -- Singapore-speak for better-educated migrants -- do contribute in important ways, sometimes in ways that no Singaporean is able to. Often reviled in our blogosphere and online forums as priviledged stepchildren of the callous, monstrous regime, the story behind Saint Jack demonstrates how foreigners can contribute well beyond merely the mercantile, adding to our own sense of place, history and identity. We would be poorer without them.

* * * * *

The film Saint Jack was based on a novel of the same name by Paul Theroux, who taught at the University of Singapore from 1968 1971. It was a period when Singapore revved up our industrialisation and urban rebuilding. Theroux was a witness to the steady demolition of the older parts of the city, erasing forever the earthy life of an entrepot port, grimy in the day, seedy in the night, mercenary always. He had a sense that it was a period worth capturing, as it was surely going to pass.

At the same time, Theroux was also a witness to an interesting, if hidden, period in Singapore's commercial life, when we were one of the primary Rest and Recreation (R&R) centres for American GIs then fighting the Vietnam War. [1]

Despite my youth, even I was aware of this. I vaguely knew that a hostel complex at the junction of Bukit Timah and Farrer Roads (where today Serene House stands) was where US soldiers on R&R were housed. Not far away, up on a hill reached via Shelford Road, was another complex, though it was only last year that I learnt the difference between the two: Shelford was for commissioned officers.

Singapore's economy benefitted greatly from supplying the American war effort. Our shipyards serviced navy ships, our petroleum companies provided fuel, and a whole range of service industries, from nightclubs to taxis to pimping, grew fat on others' misery.

The story in Saint Jack captures the some of the atmosphere of early 1970s Singapore remarkably well. Of course, there were many other facets of Singapore then as well, but too often, it's the darker underside that we try hardest to forget, only to regret decades on that we have kept nothing of that side of life.

Set against a background of triads and washed-up British ex-colonialists in a steamy maze of a city, both the novel and the film have at the centre of the tale, an American who survives on pimping. Jack Flowers is a man with a good heart -- he treats his girls and his friends well -- but he is caught in a business with very few scruples.

The book was widely believed to have been banned [2] and so when, in 1978, Peter Bogdanovich, then an acclaimed Hollywood director, decided to shoot the film on location in Singapore, he had to do it by stealth. He wrote a more innocuous story outline, titled Jack of Hearts, in order to get permission from the government. 

The lie was sustained long enough to complete shooting -- the crew was here for 6 months -- but sooner or later, the truth would come out. It was Bogdanovich himself who revealed it in a press interview back in the US that the film had been made under false pretences. As everyone expected, the Singapore government was livid, and the film banned. It "put Singapore in a very bad light," the government said. [3]

The Straits Times further reported that officials "were aghast at its portrayal of Singapore as a fleshpot of a country, rife with gangsters, pimps and prostitutes." [4]

But we were that, and it's funny how we're at last beginning to appreciate the truth about our history. We were then the finest bordello of the East, with girls, boys and -- especially and -- anything in between.

* * * * *

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, Starring Ben Gazzara, Denholm Elliot.

Significant local parts played by Monika Subramaniam, Judy Lim, Joseph Noel, Bridgit Ang, Diana Voon, Tan Tee Boon, Edward Tan 

I first saw Saint Jack in the late 1990s when the government relented slightly and permitted the Film Festival to hold a single screening. It still remained on the banned list; just that a one-time exception was made.

I don't think I was the only one in the hall bowled over by the film. It had a taut storyline, yet with rather restrained treatment, despite the potential for many scenes to explode into violence. There was considerable tension running through the film, leavened with some quirky humour.

But most of all, I saw in it its value as a documentary, of what one side of Singapore was like in the 1970s. Bogdanovich filmed all his street scenes in real locations, in Amoy Street, Clarke Quay, Collyer Quay, Orchard Road, Bugis Street and even the old Paya Lebar Airport, places now changed beyond recognition. He captured the flavours and smells of these places, with real Singaporeans in them, including the transvestites and vibrator-vendors of Bugis Street. Other scenes had real taxi-drivers and a cathouse madam acting in them. It was a slice of history, I believe, found nowhere else.

In 2005, when my friend Russell Heng was preparing a talk, he had great difficulty finding photographs of Bugis Street, and he expressed his concern that we as a society were not careful about archiving our own history, but here in the film was a scene, very realistically set in that infamous catwalk of a street. Moreover, it was followed by a scene in a Telok Kurau house of assignation, where 2 transsexuals performed a "show" completely nude. And we thought such delights were invented in Bangkok.

Thus Bogdanovich, through this film, has added to our stock of cultural history, as Theroux's book did. Could any Singaporean have done what they did? Most certainly not.

Kinda Hot: the making of Saint Jack, by Ben Slater, 2006.  

The third foreigner in this tale tells us why. He is Ben Slater, who is currently living in Singapore. He wrote a book Kinda Hot: the making of Saint Jack in Singapore detailing all the difficulties and creative solutions behind the camera. Reading it, you'd realise no Singaporean could have marshalled the resources Bogdanovich and his producers did, to shoot a film halfway around the world, where there was no film-making infrastructure to support them. Everything, from lights to cameras, had to be sourced from elsewhere and shipped in. There wasn't even a sound-stage to mock up a location.

But more, there was that gumption to submit a fake script and make a film about Singapore behind the authorities' backs.

Ben Slater's book is yet another layer added to our cultural history, recording and explaining how things came to be how they were. He brings to life the ordinary Singaporeans who walked off the street into an audition, ending up playing the roles of prostitute, gangster or barman for all posterity.

Together, Theroux, Bogdanovich and Slater's works have enriched our cultural capital. They will serve to remind us where we've come from. Triads once roamed our streets, and bumboats (broad-beamed river boats and lighters) jostled with each other on our waterways. We were not always a prissy, puritanical society.

And we may soon be past that again, for DVDs of Saint Jack are now available at HMV, rated M18. I am told that no scenes have been cut. Indeed the nude transvestites, nude American GIs and the nude male and female hookers are all there. Quietly, the ban has been rescinded. Some things can and have been rolled back.

Yawning Bread 



  1. Pattaya was another major R&R location. Before the invasion of American GIs, it was a sleepy fishing village; after that, it became what it is today. The services provided by Pattaya gives you can idea of what Singapore provided to the US military too, albeit not quite on the same scale.  
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  2. However, recent research by Ben Slater has found that it was not so. It was just that few copies were imported and sold, and was largely ignored. 
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  3. Source: Kinda Hot, by Ben Slater, page 180 
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  4. Ibid  
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