National Heritage Board criticised for 'whitewashing' history of Bugis Street

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On March 5, National Heritage Board several pictures of Bugis Street from the past and captioned it:

“While the bazaar atmosphere of Bugis Street continues today, the night bazaars of the 1950s to 1980s along the area dazzled a different way.

The street was originally located between North Bridge Road and Victoria Street, on the site where the Bugis Junction shopping mall now stands. Bugis street was popular with sailors and tourists, many of whom were British and American soldiers on shore leave. The place came alive at night with conmen, street hawkers, vendors and raucous charm competing for the tourist dollar till dawn.

‪#‎DidYouKnow‬ Bugis Street was also known as ‘Boogie Street’, due to the nature of activities in the area and the cabaret shows in the late evening.

Discover more stories of Singapore at ‪#‎RootsSG‬https://roots.sg/learn/stories

Some Facebook users are now alleging that the Government statutory board is trying to whitewash the history of Bugis Street.

Facebook user Ng Yi-Sheng writing on 17 June said,  “Stop erasing our LGBT history. If you don’t dare to say anything about the transgender women that Bugis was famous for, then don’t talk about it all.”

Garry Moss said yesterday: “How can we talk about Bugis Street history without bringing up the people who added the colour to the streets and really made it a haunt for tourists who visited back then….Bugis Street was renowned for its transvestites and transgendered women who entertained and walked it’s streets. Many of the sailors were there for THEM. Don’t erase and whitewash our history. You are killing everything that brought Singapore it’s colour.”

Lee Veron commented: “I really love the old rustic charm of Singapore. Nostalgic. Its so sad that nothing remains except commercialise shopping centers.”

And Jonathan Lim: “By willfully censoring the past, this organization comes off more ignorant than almost every other hit on Google; as well as the public itself, who KNOW full well what Bugis was remembered for and frankly, look to you for heritage and not moral ‘protection’.”

Another Facebook user Amy Tashiana said: “I was there with my sexy dress when i was 15-16yrs of age. It wasn’t a nice place with old streets and pasar malam filled with rubbish in certain lanes but in the middle of the night when all streets ah pek packed up, came all the girls with sexy attire and me with my feather fan and black lace gown. We were all upsets on the closure but i think its good when i think of it to get rid of the gangsters activities that ran wild in those days. Good and bad experience.”

Facebook user Goh Li Sian quoted an online source, http://womensaction.sg/article/lbt, to remind NHB about the history of the place:

“For a brief period following World War II, Bugis Street was known for its transgender performers and sex workers. Along narrow streets lined with hawker stalls and outdoor bars, trans women danced for crowds of tourists, many of whom were British sailors and American GIs. 1 The street was a famous tourist destination, its bawdiness and flamboyance very much unlike the sanitised attractions Singapore is now known for… Determined to “clean up” the area, government authorities began a crackdown on the area’s activities in the late 1970s. Sailors who resisted were arrested and deported while trans women were evicted from places of work and residence without warning. The initiative saw the Bugis Street with rat-infested drains and unregulated food and drink stalls give way to neat shophouses and a centralised bazaar. Survival was difficult for transgender sex workers after the crackdown, and many moved to areas still occupied today, including Little India, Chinatown and Changi.

The Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) attempted to restart “ah qua shows” on wooden stages in the 1980s to regain the tourism revenue they had lost. These shows were poorly received, cementing an end to the area’s colourful era.”

Another website, http://www.shootingfilm.net/2014/03/boogie-nights-at-bugis-street-singapore.html, claimed:

Bugis was renowned internationally from the 1950s to the 1980s for its nightly gathering of trans women, a phenomenon which made it one of Singapore’s top tourist destinations during that period.

In the mid-1980s, Bugis Street underwent major urban redevelopment into a retail complex of modern shopping malls, restaurants and nightspots mixed with regulated back-alley roadside vendors. Underground digging to construct the Bugis MRT station prior to that also caused the upheaval and termination of nightly transgender sex bazaar culture, marking the end of a colourful and unique era in Singapore’s history. This change helped improve Singapore’s international image as it began to be globally recognized.

In 1980, Parisian photographer Alain Soldeville visited Singapore and discovered a legion of androgynous beauties at Bugis Street. The photos can be viewed on his website. And here’s a selection of some of interesting shots, as well as Soldeville’s captivating description of the experience:

“In December 1980, I left Paris for a two-year trip to Asia and Australia. I had limited experience in photography. After spending a month in Bangkok, I arrived in Singapore where I checked in at a hotel located on the fourth floor of an impersonal tower. A few days later, around midnight, I headed for Bugis Street in a neighborhood of old Chinese houses from the colonial era. Within an hour, strange androgynous creatures arrived by taxi. Dressed in sexy, tight-fitting dresses or satiny pants, wearing heavy stage makeup and high heels, they took over the territory. The street seemed to belong to them and their dramatic entrance was followed by scrutinizing eyes. It appeared that most visitors were there to watch the show that had just begun.””