“All the Hollywood, Bollywood actors and actresses wanted to come see us. At that time, Singapore had the most beautiful transsexual women in the world”
Walking down Bugis Street today, one would be confronted by a sight – that pretty much resembles the rest of Singapore; stores and food. What you probably can’t tell from visiting the concrete shopping haven today is that once, Bugis Street was known for a very different sort of appeal. Imagine a dazzling display of drag, put together with flamboyant performances on the most unexpected platforms, and you get closer to a picture of Bugis Street between the 1950s and 80s. Wanting to better understand the street, we decided to talk to someone who had experienced it in its prime first-hand.
The Start of Amy
Amy Tashiana realised, before she was 10, that she was not like other boys – she wanted to do very feminine things and knew, even then, that she wanted to be a female model. When she was 7, her mother passed away and after her father remarried, her inability to get along with her stepmother pushed her to run away from home at 13. This was when she met more people whom she could relate to – people who were more “immersed in the world of transsexuals”.
At 14, she began the physical transformation process by taking hormone-changing pills that helped her to develop breasts. When she got her call-up letter at 16, she was told that she would still have to go through National Service unless “something was done to [her] body” and so at 17, she got breast implants at Mount Elizabeth Hospital after saving enough from working odd-jobs. This was also when she began to frequent Bugis Street.
When one tries to picture a lively atmosphere, it is easy to imagine a place bustling with various practiced performances, lights and orchestrated music. In reality, Bugis Street was nothing like this, instead gaining its splendor from mere spontaneity which perhaps made it all the more charming.
“It was just a plain, small street but at night it transformed because the Chinese restaurants opened up tables, put table cloth and everything…excited lah to go there because [I was already half a woman]…[the place was just like a back alley] but it turned out like that because we wear so glamorously and walk there”
In this street, Amy was free to walk around in elaborate drag and display herself as she wished alongside other trans women who referred to each other as “sisters”. The nightly parades by Amy and her counterparts attracted throngs of tourists, celebrities, soldiers and seamen from all over the world, all of whom were eager to see these trans women in person. Many of them asked for pictures with these women while some formed lasting friendships or even romantic relationships with them.
While there were those among them who engaged in sex work, Amy points out that such vocations were not an inherent part of being a transsexual woman, with many of them never having engaged in providing such services. She herself worked as a showgirl and, after going under the knife at 21 to complete her sex change, pursued a modelling career with Carrie Models and became one of the top transsexual models of her time.
“It’s all individual, you want to be a writer or anything, it’s all individual choice. In Singapore we are very lucky because they let us have this identity so we can work [in other jobs] but in other countries like Malaysia and Thailand they are not so lucky…[The assumption that transsexuals are all sex workers] is just [a part of life]. People like to talk. They like to gossip”
Nonetheless, this individual choice was also significantly impeded by social factors:
“Those were also the times when companies didn’t understand about transgender. Nowadays you have transsexuals and transgenders working in make-up shops, they work in the office, now they’re more understanding. Last time they weren’t …[I went to] Berita Harian, tell the world, tell Singapore. Why are we not acceptable to work? We are normal human beings. We are just like you, only thing is that I am wearing different clothes…But now after I went through my surgery, you still don’t want to accept me, but who gave us all this identity? It’s Lee Kuan Yew and Professor Rajaratnam! You gave us all these legal things, you make it legalised, for what? Stay home? No, for us to go to work right?”
Dance of the Flaming Arseholes
One of the most famous spectacles that became closely attributed with the street was a performance done either nude or bare-bottomed, where entertainers danced on the roof of a particular public toilet and literally made their rears seem to come alight by sticking pieces of toilet roll in them and setting these on fire. Interestingly, we learn that this too was not a prearranged routine.
“[These were] sailors [who were] already drunk, then they want to dance so the coffee shop turn on music for them and they dance up there. To us it was nothing because we see that everyday, they were always trying to do things because they wanted to compete with us but we were more special because they just wanted attention but we were fighting for ourselves [to be accepted]”
The End of Bugis Street
While to Amy the street was an exciting new place for socialization, it had gained a notorious reputation with authorities over the years due to its associations with activities such as soliciting, and would not remain a part of Amy’s lifestyle for long. State disapproval of the street was no secret – in 1979 the Hollywood adaptation of the novel Saint Jack was disguised with a fake title (Jack of Hearts) and synopsis because the production crew was afraid that the government would not allow them to shoot the film in Singapore given its subject matter, which included homosexuality and the sex trade that occurred in Bugis. (The film was banned in Singapore in January 1980.)
As she went on to depart from the odd jobs of her teenage years to pursue a modelling career, during this same period, Bugis Street went through a transition of its own. In the 1980s, the government began a formal crackdown on the area, stationing a vice squad in the street and imposing heavy punishments on those caught soliciting. By 1985, the street had been demolished and the women who had brought colour to it in its prime were gone.
While its initial closure tragically brought an end to a unique segment of Singapore’s history, perhaps the benefit of hindsight and the maintenance of ties forged during the Bugis Street days has allowed individuals like Amy to look back on the shutdown with a lot of acceptance:
“It was good that they closed it lah, it was very dirty…It’s already more than 30 years ago…It’s good that we have finished with all that, you know, because we can evolve, we can do other things, we can change our style. If not we’re going to be in that street, we don’t know what we’re going to become. I would probably become, you know, one of those street girls hooking around, probably still drinking tequila or whatsoever, but now I stopped all that”
After retiring from modelling, Amy continued to be involved in the fashion industry, helping to choreograph catwalks and other performances.
Now 53 years old, she has ventured into a different but equally successful pursuit – cooking. She started a cooking show called Masak Apa Masak My Style and has a Youtube channel with over 19,000 subscribers. At the same time, she also plays the role of a “big sister” in the trans community, helping to resolve conflicts and giving advice to others, while still maintaining contact with some of the “sisters” whom she met during her time in Bugis Street.
Although the street’s closure occurred nearly 40 years ago, many continue to express displeasure over the shutdown, and particularly the manner in which the history of the street was preserved thereafter.
The National Heritage Board received backlash after posting an article about the street, with some accusing it of attempting to “whitewash Singapore’s transgender history” with its failure to mention the central role of trans women in bringing life to the street.
We may never know if this omission of details was committed intentionally, but what’s for sure is that a lot more can be done to legitimise groups like transsexuals by officially including them into the national narrative, especially in sections where they played a key unique part. In a state that boasts a meritocratic system that does not discriminate based on identity, people like Amy deserve to not have to fight harder to be recognised and accepted by virtue of who they are. Perhaps the first step to securing a better future for traditionally disenfranchised communities like theirs is to dignify them with a clearly acknowledged past.
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