Yawning Bread. July 2007

Entertainment news: Ian McKellen




I don't think Yawning Bread has ever carried entertainment news. I wouldn't know Posh Spice from tumeric. But in the last few days, I have received 3 emails asking whether actor Ian McKellen ever made it to a gay bar and what else he said on the subject.

The readers were following up on the mention I made of him in the article This month, the Christian rightwing finds 3 more villains.

Well, the short answers are Yes and Yes. Below you will find eyewitness accounts. However, as I set about organising my thoughts before typing words out on my keyboard, I realised that this is more than just entertainment news. These accounts hint at a larger story, and my thoughts on this score will bring up the rear of this essay.

But first, the blow by blow account of Ian McKellen's discovery of Singapore, in the best tradition of entertainment news -- the minutiae of celebrities' lives. As you may recall, McKellen was asked in a TV interview on Tuesday, 17 July 2007, what he hoped to see in his free time in Singapore.

He replied, "I'll be rather controversial. I'm a gay man, and I gather that that's not quite the proper thing to be although maybe the laws are going to change and I do hope they do change. I've been looking for a gay bar, if there's such a thing. So that's what I've been looking for.... If you've got any ideas...."

On Thursday [corrected: Friday] evening, he found his gay bar. Here's a report posted on Signel, the gay email forum:

Well, Sir Ian kept his promise he went to a gay bar in Singapore, even after giving his all at a stellar performance of King Lear tonight that must have been exhausting. I had been invited to the cast party after the performance tonight and was introduced to him and managed to have a nice chat. He then asked me to accompany him and some other cast members to a gay bar and said that he had been invited to go to Mox by the owners and asked what type of place it was, and what the other clubs were like. He didn't want any place too noisy and I said Mox would be an ideal place if he wanted to relax after the performance, so that's where we all ended up after the party.

I wasn't even sure whether anyone at Mox would recognise him but I underestimated his fame... there was a huge crowd waiting and as soon as he stepped out of his car there were screams and cheers coming from the roof deck above. The owners of Mox were all there to welcome him, as was Bernice, and they were really gracious hosts. He received a fantastic reception when he walked in, cheers and applause and hoots and flashbulbs clicking away. It was really terrific to see. Frances Barber, who plays Lear's daughter Goneril' said as we followed behind, "Oh, he's loving this, this is fantastic!"

As expected, he was mobbed with a crush of fans crowding around his table, posing for photos, asking for autographs and even hugging him. What impressed me was that he was so gracious and warm and friendly to every single person, listening to them, asking them about themselves and engaging them in conversation. It was a stream of queens all intent to tell him what he meant to them and many thanking him for his recent comments on TV and in the papers about homosexual rights in Singapore. The poor man was so busy posing for photos, signing autographs and talking to everyone that he barely had time for a drink but he seemed to be really enjoying meeting all the guys.

I also made a point to tell him that he must watch a gay play as well and he said that he'd been invited to Asian Boys but wasn't sure what it was about. I raved about it and said he really shouldn't miss it as it would show him a bit more about gay life and history in Singapore. He asked if they had matinees as he could only make it in the day, and I said there were, on both weekend days. He said he would make it a point to go watch it on Sunday then.

We finally left around 3:45 am and I was lucky enough to get a big hug from him when we said goodnight. What a great guy!

McKellen was not just the celebrity receiving acclaim. He was an agitator in his own right. Earlier in the week, he told Class 95 radio, "Just treat us with respect like we treat everybody else and the world will be a better place, I think."

"Coming to Singapore where unfortunately you've still got those dreadful laws that we British left behind ... it's about time Singapore grew up, I think, and realised that gay people are here to stay."

Then he did an interview with Reuters [1]. To the question whether he was aware that Singapore senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew has said it would be difficult to repeal the law on sexual acts between men because of popular opposition from the country's conservative majority, he responded, "Yes. Then he must expect gay people not to come here, he must expect gay people to emigrate, he must expect no company to have their gay employees work here."

That Reuters report was distributed around the world.


Sunday, McKellen went to watch the latest play by Alfian Sa'at the guy the Ministry of Education felt was unfit to be a teacher. The eyewitness account continues:

... yes, he did go to Happy Endings: Asian Boys Vol 3 on Sunday! He slipped in quietly minutes before curtain call and sat with the playwright, Alfian Saat; the MD of the Singapore Repertory Theatre (which brought in King Lear) Gaurav Kripalani; the director of Asian Boys, Ivan Heng and Glen Goei. Thanks to Ivan, I'd gotten seats right behind Sir Ian and could see his reactions to the play. He watched the play very intently, and seemed to really like it. Later, he told me that it had moved him very much, and that it reminded him of his own life and his own coming out. He said that there were scenes from the play that he would remember for the rest of his life.

He had to rush off for the evening performance of Chekov's The Seagull so he didn't stay long after the play but he stayed to meet the cast and posed for photos. Timothy Nga told me "I was hugged by Sir Ian! I can die happy!" The rest of the cast were similarly touched and I was so happy for them, that their hard work and passion for this play was witnessed by one of the world's greatest stage actors, and a gay one at that.

On Sunday night, just as I was about to go to sleep around 1 am, I was called by Gaurav of SRT, who told me that Sir Ian wanted to visit Powerhouse [2] and asking if I wanted to come along. I figured that if I stayed in and went to bed, I would kick myself, so I got up, dressed and cabbed down to Powerhouse. Gaurav had just arrived and told me that Sir Ian was on his way, riding with Ivan Heng and Robin Goh. And sure enough, they all arrived in a taxi in a short while, and I laughed out loud when I saw Sir Ian wearing the bright pink tee-shirt with the words 'Asian Boy' printed in front the souvenir shirt that was being sold at the play!

Unlike at Mox, few people noticed or recognised him, and he joined the others from the cast who had also come. A few people recognised him and asked for autographs and posed for photos, but the majority of the clubbers seemed oblivious. Incredibly two guys who saw him made rude ageist remarks in Chinese. But almost all the Malay waitstaff recognised him and he obligingly posed with them and signed autographs.

I then had a talk with him about gay rights & laws & attitudes in Singapore and saw just how passionate he was about the issue. He said that he got so angry when he hears the real life stories of other gay people's struggles and even shared some personal accounts of his own coming out. He then asked me what he could do to help here...

After the serious talk he said he wanted to dance so we all ended up dancing together on the podium no less! As long as I live, I will never forget dancing with Sir Ian McKellen, wearing a fuchsia 'Asian Boy' tee shirt on a podium in a gay club in Singapore.

* * * * *

In these details, you see a sort of case study of how bad press is created for Singapore. McKellen may be an unusually high-profile visitor, but he is not untypical as a gay one. For gay people, their identity as such is important to them, and to be treated as criminal by the law of the country is not something one can overlook.

As McKellen said to Reuters, "As a gay man invited here with the full cognisance of the government, how can they not notice that my right to have sex [is] inhibited by the country?"

"This happens to be a law that I find personally offensive," he added, "and I don't think it should be on the statute books."

Few heterosexuals understand this. Why must gays be so gay? they tend to ask. Why must their gayness and the the law matter so much to them? Why can't they be like us?

Doesn't it sound like Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady -- 

Why can't the Chinese be more like us? We are so honest, so thoroughly square; eternally noble, historically fair; why can't the Chinese be like that? Why does every one do what the others do? Why can't they learn to use their heads? Why do they do everything their parents do? Why don't they grow up like Westerners instead?

So McKellen lands here, he reads the highly prejudiced letters in the press, he mixes with gay Singaporeans and hears their stories. He watches a gay play in which Section 377A of the Penal Code is discussed.

What do you think he's going to say about Singapore after he's left our shores? He, the celebrity with huge access to the media all over the world?

Yawning Bread 


About Asian Boys Vol 3

Asian Boys Vol 3 - Happy Endings, is an interesting and quite moving story, based on another story.

That other story was Peculiar Chris, Singapore's first gay novel, by Johann S Lee, who has since given up on this country and migrated to the UK. In Peculiar Chris, a teenaged boy gradually becomes aware that he is gay while in school, eventually getting into a serious relationship with a 2nd lieutenant while doing his National Service. The novel ends with the lieutenant's premature death, and Chris flies off to the UK to further his studies.

In the play, Alfian imagines what might have happened with the characters introduced in Peculiar Chris 15 years on. Chris comes back to Singapore to find the gay debate raging. The girl in school whom he dumped when he realised he was gay has become a vocal champion of gay equality, but gay friends from his schooldays have turned out disappointingly. All the tensions within and without the gay community are represented and explored.

Asian Boys Vol 3 is currently being staged by Wild Rice at the Drama Centre, National Library.



  1. The Reuters story can be seen in Ian McKellen wades into Singapore gay rights debate.
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  2. Sunday nights are gay nights at the dance club Powerhouse.
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