Bugis Street no longer taboo

It was a film about Singapore's transsexuals that caused major controversy back in the 90s.

Bugis Street was made in 1995 and shown for a short time in local cinemas, before it was banned.

But the movie, directed by Taiwanese director Yonfan and starring Vietnamese actress Hiep Thi Le and local actor Ernest Seah, recently saw light of day at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) as the newly restored Bugis Street Redux with an R21 rating.

Seah, 50, felt vindicated as he finally got to see his work being celebrated on the silver screen last month, after the ban was lifted.

Seah, who plays transsexual Lola, recalled how he was ostracised by neighbours and strangers who had frowned upon his role back then.

Lola has the majority of love scenes in the movie - one with a sailor and others with her durian-touting boyfriend - played by Hong Kong actor Michael Lam.

Seah told The New Paper: "I had a really hard time twenty years ago because it was just so taboo to play a transsexual.

"The neighbours would ask my mother, 'Why your son like that?'

"Even people who didn't watch the movie and who heard about it from others would say harsh things about it.

"When I went out, strangers would give me THAT look. My mum was very upset."

But last month was a turnaround of sorts for Seah.

He and some of the Bugis Street Redux cast were treated like stars as they walked the red carpet at the SGIFF.

And after the movie was screened on Nov 28, they received raucous applause from the audience at the sold-out show.

Seah, who told the audience at the post-film Q&A session that even his mum had given him flak for playing a transsexual, said: "We have been embarrassed long enough.

"Finally, people can see that this is a film done 20 years ago about a forgotten group of people that existed in Singapore in the 60s.

"Actually, Bugis Street is popular overseas. In the US and Europe, people still recognise me to this day for playing Lola."


He joked that to this day, he gets unpleasant stares on the streets of Singapore, but this is because he often plays bad guys such as pimps, rapists and murderers on local TV.

Seah recalled how in 1995, when he first heard that there were open auditions for Bugis Street, he had auditioned for the role of Lola's boyfriend, which went to Lam in the end.

Lam became a monk six years ago and is living in Hong Kong.

On how Seah scored the meaty role of Lola, he said that it was because he had told Yonfan that "I would become anything you want me to be."

So why was Bugis Street Redux shown at the SGIFF after being banned for 20 years?

Festival director Zhang Wenjie told The New Paper that this was because he wanted to celebrate how this made-in-Singapore film laid the groundwork for the resurgence of Singapore cinema in the 90s.

"Yonfan made the bold switch to independent film-making with Bugis Street, with a script helmed by the then-unknown Fruit Chan.

"Its fearless and moving portrayal of the lives of a marginalised community exemplifies the spirit of the Singapore International Film Festival, and it was a great honour for our festival to celebrate its legacy on the occasion of its 20th anniversary.

"The full-house screening of Bugis Street was an emotional experience as many of the cast members have not met since the production of the film and it was the first time some of them saw the film on the big screen."

And why was the ban finally lifted on Bugis Street two decades later?

Apparently, it was a reflection of the times.

Said a spokesman for the Media Development Authority Singapore: "Bugis Street Redux passed clean for SGIFF (with an R21 rating). It was once banned in the 90s, but is permissible under today's standards."

I had a really hard time twenty years ago because it was just so taboo to play a transsexual. The neighbours would ask my mother, 'Why your son like that?'


This article was first published on December 9, 2015.
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