Amidst the hustle and bustle of Chinatown in Singapore, there are pockets of quieter areas that are somewhat removed from the maddening crowds in your typical party spots.
Such places tend to be the preference for many who want a good night out surrounded by eateries, bars and even karaoke joints – and all within walking distance, if that’s your bag. In the ever-present hubbub of all the sights, sounds and smells of the authentic heritage area, there are some great spots for those who want good drinks and company, without heading to the more obvious options elsewhere.
And for many in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Singapore who embrace an alternative lifestyle, there are a plethora of entertainment nightspots in the area as well, where they can lay their hat down and enjoy a night out without any concern.
In these places, they can find those of their ilk who are cut from the same cloth, as well as the supportive atmosphere of friends and family – all gathering in conviviality. For owners and patrons of these places, this has been a haven for many who seek the freedom to be themselves, and sometimes away from prying eyes.
To Addie Low, the owner of popular bar and dance club Taboo, it's important for people who may feel marginalised or not fully-integrated into society to have a safe space to have fun. He says, having been in the business for 15 years now, that achieving balance amongst all parties is critical.
“We just want to have a bridge between the authorities, the public and the gay clubbers. So we started an area that you can call home. When you party, you do not need to have a second pair of eyes looking at you from top-to-toe, wondering ‘What’s wrong with you?’ At the same time, we don’t want the other side of the coin to say ‘Wow, my goodness, they are just getting out of hand.’ So everything is just inevitably putting two parties together, and we are just the link.”
Creating a safe space has not been an unfettered path throughout. In talking with the players in the scene, it becomes apparent that there have been obstacles that have circumvented the process.
Alfred Tang, manager of another go-to destination for gay clientele, Tantric, says that it is important for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community to have the freedom to be who they are and express themselves, without worrying about censure.
“We are just one step away from being truly loud and proud. Unfortunately, such individuals are so few and far between. Think about it, among all local celebrities we have only one who has clearly come out – and that is Kumar! Celebrities don’t usually do so, so who should we be looking up to as a positive example? Being gay person in a gay bar in Singapore, you can be out there, very loud and proud. But most times it ends there. It is only within the confines of the gay bar. I think gays should all come out – to family and to their best friends. That way, things will be much easier overall.”
Tang also says ‘pink dollars’ from the gay community should be respected as much as commerce from other subsets in Singapore, and that the potential of this group to contribute, due to being big-spenders in general, should be earmarked as well.
“It is definitely an ideal, a utopia not far from fruition I hope. There is so much potential in Singapore, which is raking in more pink dollars. Imagine if we could figure out a way to lure just 0.1% of the gays to this region, who are loaded with cash to burn. We built the casinos; well I say, why stop there? Recognising civil unions or gay marriages, changing the law when it comes to housing for gays, and addressing other such issues definitely will attract more business opportunities here.”
The Neil Road stretch of bars and clubs have been synonymous with a good time for a long time. From Taboo and Tantric, to Backstage Bar, May Wong’s Café, DYMK and Play, the list goes on. Mega-clubs like Zouk and Avalon are also a big draw for the gay crowd. And if you want to sing the night away, rest easy in the knowledge there is that option too, with é bar in Chinatown as well.
Owner Cecilia Toh says that while she does have straight customers, approximately 80% of her clients are gay and she says there should be no distinction made between them and straight people.
“Sometimes, when I’m very busy at work, they will say go rest, go have a smoke outside; we will serve for you! They also tend to really listen to you and be there for you. To me, they are family and friends, not just customers. I see no difference between gay people and others.”
However, while times are changing and more are becoming open to those who do not share the same choices as them, there are still those in the community who feel it is best to stay out of the glare of the spotlight. To them, for professional or personal reasons, they choose to remain in the closet. Therefore, the need for entertainment options where they can be themselves cannot be emphasised enough.
Freedom for all
Prashant Somosundram, co-owner of gallery café Artistry in Kampong Glam, spoke about living as part of the LGBT community in Singapore, and his hopes for changes that would help them integrate into the fold fully, without prejudice.
"I think the main thing we need to do is to eradicate censorship in Singapore. With more positive portrayals of the LGBT community in mainstream media, Singaporeans will be more informed about how they are still positively contributing to our nation's development. Furthermore, Section 377A should be repealed in order to ensure LGBT persons are not criminalised in the eyes of Singapore law. This will go a long way in eradicating the stigma attached to such persons.”
Having to be discreet due to extenuating circumstances remains the lay of the land for now, and in alignment with the long arm of the law – until such time that the Penal Code on ‘outrages on decency’ is amended. In the meantime, the nightspots of Chinatown and other such places allow the LGBT community here to meet like-minded people, without feeling like their actions might be under a microscope.
And while everyone is welcome to these tucked-away shophouses, on an average night, most clientele embrace an alternative lifestyle. It is quite a profound experience, to come to this enclave which has been retrofitted to retain the impressive architecture of the past whilst being decked out in modern-day fittings and décor.
From the more austere façade, you are greeted by flashing strobe lights once inside venues like Taboo or Tantric, with beat-thumping music, drinks a’flowin’ and so many free spirits, dancing to their own beat. The atmosphere is light and easy, and there is a palpable sense of wanting to let go – where having fun is the order of the day and the only thing on the agenda.
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