I first chanced upon the story of a school in Geylang set up by two cabaret women after World War II when I was doing my Master of Fine Arts studies at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts Asia.
I didn't think much about the story until a screenwriting assignment crept up on me. In desperation, without doing any research, I wrote a screenplay imagining the worst of the lives of these two women, how they had to trade their dignity for help to set up a school for children orphaned by the war.
For dramatic effect, I threw them into the lion's lair of roguish policemen and parang-wielding gangsters to be ravaged. My American professor read all 90 pages of my screenplay and gave me a B for the assignment.
I was miffed. "Why only a B?" I was close to grovelling. He said: "You failed to explore their real motivation in taking in all these children." That hit me. I was just like everyone else who'd assumed the worst of these women. I had not given them a chance to tell their real story.
Like all other survivors after the war, these two women probably yearned to return to a normal life, to get married, and to have children of their own. But they couldn't, because society had dealt them a hard blow. The moment they stepped into the cabaret world, they were written off as loose and immoral and not of good marriage material.
Four years after I completed my studies, I got a chance to research the world of these cabaret women when I was accepted as a Lee Kong Chian Research Fellow at the National Library Board.
A little background on the cabaret world. The "Big Three" worlds of entertainment in Singapore's past saw women breaking away from respected conventions to make a living through "lancing", a Singlish way of saying "dancing".
The New World Amusement Park was the first to open in 1923 in Jalan Besar.
Great World Amusement Park in Kim Seng Road opened next in 1931.
Happy World, located between Mountbatten and Geylang Road, was the last of the three to open in 1936. Its name was changed to Gay World in 1964 when cinema operator Eng Wah took over its ownership.
These parks were similar in offering entertainment like shopping, film watching and dining. But what really drew the crowds were the dance halls or cabarets.
New World was famous for its Bunga Tanjong, a cabaret that hosted bands playing Malay tunes and ronggeng.
Great World pulled in British servicemen and the middle class, with free films, Peking operas and wrestling and boxing matches.
Happy World was known for its Sarong Kebaya Nights at the Happy Cabaret.
During the war, all three worlds were converted into gambling farms. After Liberation, Western music came back. The cabarets resumed happy times, drawing young girls into the dance halls to work, helping their families to put food on the table. Single men, married men, couples and parties seeking after-dinner entertainment all came trooping back. Bands comprised quartets, trios or a hotchpotch of music lovers forming dance bands.
The repertoire of music played ranged from Broadway and Cole Porter to George Gershwin and music of the swing era - anything that drew in the masses, even local music played by keronchong bands. Some of the more popular big bands included Cecil Wilson, Gerry Soliano, H.H. Tan and Peggy Tan, Sid Gomez and Alfredo (Fred) Libio and his all-star Filipino Swing Band.
So why were these women drawn to work in the cabarets? Were they not afraid of family and friends frowning upon their choice of work?
SIT, CHAT AND DANCE
I decided to trace some of the surviving cabaret women. I got help from an unexpected source. I asked around and was directed to a man operating the photocopier in one of the libraries. He was once a customer of the cabaret, and was still in touch with former cabaret women. When I told him I was working on a research paper, he gave me a contact that led me to Madam Wong. The second woman I interviewed was Madam Wong's cousin, Madam Ong. These are pseudonyms, as the women preferred I didn't use their names.
Madam Ong, 75, recalled: "It was 1952. I studied only till Standard II. I was 12 years old when my mother took me into the cabaret."
When I probed, Madam Ong didn't seem ashamed of the fact that she was 12 when she got drawn into the profession. "The money was good. My mother kept all my earnings. All I had to do was sit, chat and dance. I was big-sized. No one could tell my real age. Customers were kind. They never forced me to drink hard liquor. I would drink only Green Spot or Red Lion orange crush."
Madam Wong, 69, said: "My adoptive mother, Nancy Ho, worked as a 'Mummy' in the cabaret. Her job was to look after the 'lancing' girls under her, and make sure that the clients do not try any funny business. These girls were also known as taxi dancers or mou luei in Cantonese. What I remembered about them was that they were tough women who had to adapt to hard times."
Further reading into articles on the cabaret women made me realise that life for the "lancing" girl wasn't all hunky-dory.
An average cabaret girl could expect to earn about $200 a month, although the more popular girls had been known to take home $1,000 a month. As a comparison, a senior clerk working in the government back in 1952 would get $280 a month; $1,000 a month for anyone was a lot of money!
Women working in the cabaret were easily hired and fired. They had to be mindful of cabaret etiquette and maintain good customer relations. Discipline and patience were vital skills for survival. Working from 6pm to past midnight daily at the rate of doing one dance every three minutes, the girls were expected to know their music. A quick change in tune meant slipping from the foxtrot or quickstep into the ronggeng or joget. If hired to sit at a table for $13 an hour, she was expected to hold her liquor, accompanying between four and six customers in drinking.
Some cabaret women had professed to be able to throw up within 30-minute intervals, and return to the table to keep on drinking. The worst bit of working in a cabaret? When a jealous wife or girlfriend showed up to create trouble, the toilet would be the safest place to retreat to.
TAX DEDUCTIONS FOR COSMETICS
In the first meeting of the Singapore Cabaret Girls' Association held in 1939 at the Great World, 180 members were warmly welcomed; but the real test would be to reach out to "a potential membership of 500 girls". The early batch of mou luei (meaning dancing girl in Cantonese) hailed from Shanghai and Hong Kong; they too had been members of similar associations.
What could a member expect from the Singapore Cabaret Girls' Association? Strength in numbers and, more importantly, a united voice in fighting for the right to be treated with respect.
Exactly 10 years later in 1949, membership in the association stood at 600. When I asked Madam Wong what she recalls of her mother, Madam Ho, she said: "She was very active. She was always looking out for the girls."
As the chairman, Madam Ho had fought for her girls to receive a tax deduction of $125 a month "to keep up good appearances essential to their profession". The amount represented about 15 per cent of their total earnings. This was unusual as the tax relief would have meant an official acceptance of the association's recommendation that the girls' "dresses, shoes, hair setting and cosmetics" were an allowable deduction.
Following this recognition, Madam Ho successfully lobbied for the association to change its name to the Singapore Dance Hostesses' Association, which more accurately reflected what they did in their profession. In addition, she raised money for the purchase and furnishing of a clubhouse in Lorong 10, Geylang, for use by her dance hostesses.
Many people I spoke to about cabaret life wanted to talk about the most famous cabaret striptease dancer, Rose Chan. And in our conversations, although there was grudging respect towards Ms Chan for being so "daring" as to strip fully, the person commenting would invariably turn towards calling her an impolite term.
So it wasn't surprising when both Madam Wong and Madam Ong reminded me that I shouldn't use their full names when quoting them in this article. So that their friends wouldn't identify them. Prejudice wasn't something to be overcome easily.
Ms Chan had briefly worked at the New World Cabaret where Madam Ong first worked. Madam Ong recalled Ms Chan being looked up to among the cabaret women. She had a no-nonsense attitude and took obnoxious customers to task.
When I asked Madam Ong if she missed the glitzy world of cabaret when her fiance forced her to leave, she said no: "We were poor, I had little education, my mother was also a cabaret girl. It was the only job I could do. Once I left, I never looked back."
But dancing wasn't all that the cabaret women did. Not many people were aware that they were involved in charity.
In a report dated Aug 27, 1953, in the Singapore Free Press, an amount of $13,000 was raised by the Singapore Dance Hostesses' Association in aid of the Nanyang University building fund.
This was achieved through several charity night performances. Ms Chan was part of the act that raised this huge amount of funding.
In later years, Madam Ho found love and married a man she met at the cabaret. She also accepted Catholicism. Madam Ong married her sweetheart and went on to have five children.
Their "lancing" world was a coming-of-age story that reflected a slice of Singapore's unique history. Would these women have chosen to live their lives differently if they could relive their past? I think not.
This article was first published on April 30, 2016.
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