The so-called “Gay Majority”

There’s been a lot of nonsense from various quarters about “tolerating the gay person” but not the lifestyle, and supporting gay people who “accept the status quo and don’t push their agenda.”

Let’s not even get into whatever-the-bejeezus a “gay agenda” or “gay lifestyle is”. Hello, do you even know any gay people? No, Dick Lee doesn’t count.

I don’t have a single gay friend who doesn’t wish to settle down, get married, own his/her own home, and have dinner with his/her in-laws. Some want children, some don’t. Exactly like my straight friends.

I know this may come as a shock to some of you. I also know that my perspective is different because I went to college in the Bay Area, and came to know many friends around me who struggled with their sexuality and eventually came out.

I know what happens when society rejects its LGBT population. The ones you see fighting in the courts, speaking out online for their rights, these are the minority who have learnt to be comfortable with who they are. But it doesn’t mean that the majority “accept the status quo.”

Want to know how they feel? They’re all around you, you’ve just never noticed them. They lead double lives: playing straight at work, even pretending they have “wives”, taking it ‘like a man’ in the boardroom. Some of them break up with long-term lovers, date women, get married, have children. Others remain single for a lifetime. But every single one of them desires love, a family, and to be accepted.

Just think about that. How does it feel to lead that double life? To pretend to be someone you’re not? To know that you can never show your real self, because everything you’ve ever had could be taken away in a second? How does it feel to know society rejects the real you? How would you feel?


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The NLB & Much Ado about Penguins

The-National-Building-Singapore          penguin

What is the role of our public libraries? Following the removal of two seemingly innocuous children’s books and a strange clarification by the National Library Board about “adhering” to a”pro-family” stance, I decided to examine the charters of some of the world’s greatest public libraries. Since Singapore Inc likes to benchmark.

The New York Public Library calls itself “an essential provider of free books, information, ideas, and education for all New Yorkers”. The British Library defines itself as “a world-class cultural and intellectual resource” and “custodian of the nation’s written and spoken heritage.” On the other side of the globe, China’s National Public Library takes on similarly patriotic aims, declaring its mission as “enriching our country’s soft power.”

I tried searching for our National Library Board’s charter. I couldn’t find it (leave me a message if you do). No wonder their clarification was so half-hearted. You have to read in between the lines, but it’s there:

“Five million books”

“arduous task”

“complete adherence”

Translated: we don’t really want to do this, but we have to be seen as toeing the line. So how? Check borrowing record. Aiyah, no one borrow lah, what’s the fuss. Okay, take out… (my own interpretation of events)

The world’s greatest libraries are cultural institutions, not cultural police. They are institutions for public learning and enquiry that serve men of all stripes and colours. Most importantly, they defend freedom: freedom of access for all users, and freedom of information without bias or discrimination.

There are many good reasons why the NLB should not get involved in “cultural policing.” Where does the buck stop? Why stop at protecting our children? Don’t our teenagers need to be protected? Our library has various sections devoted to assorted human sins, including an entire collection on recreational drugs. Want to research the intoxicating effects of methamphetamine, or learn how to cook ice in your own kitchen? Visit the library!

Just imagine: if we took out every book that offended someone in Singapore (5 million books in its collection, remember?), what would be left? I suspect this would be the only book left standing–remember our primary school moral education classes?


I love our National Library. I even called it a “national treasure” in an earlier blog post. I’ve spent hours there in between the stacks. I love their reference library; the accessibility of their collection online; I even love their friendly and book-nerd librarians.

I will give NLB the benefit of the doubt. I do suspect that the librarian involved had no clue about the guile and calculation behind the so-called “pro-family” letter, and that said letter would never have come to light had the complainant not trumpeted his success online. (There is another point to be made here about the misappropriation of “pro-family” by our dear government, but that’s a debate for another day). Somehow, I feel sorry that they’ve gotten enmeshed in the sights of daft bible (or Koran) toting movements.

Our public libraries are a valuable resource that should remain above race, politics and religion. Their primary goal should be to provide the Singaporean public with access to the widest possible range of reading materials, not to pander to demands from specific audiences. Getting involved in cultural wars should be the farthest from its responsibilities.


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What is art?

Art to me is personal expression. Just like writing is the commitment of a thought onto paper; painting, sketching, or photography even is the physical realisation of an idea the artist has conceived in the mind. Art is beauty. It transforms and elevates the prosaic into something more desirable. In the hands of a talented artist, a commonplace, mundane scene is often rendered more vibrant, more enigmatic, more whole. But my friend Joshua recently expressed another opinion.

“Art is attention-seeking.”

We were talking about Ai Wei Wei, the infamous Chinese artist much touted by the West and a perpetual thorn in the side of the cultural police. Some of his works are pure genius, such as “He Xie” 河蟹盛宴 (‘He Xie’ alternately means river crab, a popular delicacy or harmony, the Party’s favourite buzzword and a euphemism for censorship). I don’t actually like the English translation, I prefer the more quixotic “The Harmony Banquet”—doesn’t that sound like the title of a novel? But some of his other works, like his parody of Gangnam Style left me yawning. Like, seriously?

But Joshua’s view was that ALL art is attention seeking. Art is not art without an audience, it’s self-masturbation (not quite his words, but you catch my drift). The whole point of art is to grab other people’s attention and make them think.

My husband thinks art is for the rich. It’s not an opinion he’s vocalised, but an underlying belief. Not rich as in wealthy, but rich as in those who have attained a certain level of material comfort. Certainly, Ai Wei Wei wasn’t poor. He grew up in a culturally rich environment, with access opened up via his father’s reputation to attend Parsons in New York.

When he (my husband) lived in Shanghai, he knew a wealthy man with a background in music, who spent thousands, maybe even millions of his own money organising concerts and charity benefits. Everyone on China’s A-List was his ‘friend’, from world-class pianists to movie stars to composers. But he had a fatal flaw: he lived life according to his passions, and made decisions based on his emotions, not logic. One day, someone snitched on him, and his empire came crumbling to pieces.

This man made another fatal mistake: he fell in love with a young, stunning and manipulative ingenue (yes, he’s married). Even while he sat in prison, he continued funding her lifestyle, facilitating her high life with the stars, when she was cheating on him with a prominent director the whole time. I suppose he believes art is love, and one day when he walks free, she will be there waiting for him.

What do you think? What does art mean to you?

Further reading:

Dissent Magazine has an interesting essay that discusses Henry James’ quote Art is Madness and proposes that art is actually created in sanity, not madness.

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South of the clouds, west of the ocean

yunnan research books

I thought I was going to continue yesterday’s post about writing, but my mind took a detour and ended up in China’s southwest frontier, where horses roam the wild plains, staggering peaks tower into the sky, and dreamy mists rise from ancient lakes …

But first, I would like to say something about our little heralded National Library. Until recently, the last time I used our libraries was more than a decade ago, back in school. How things have changed!

First of all, the reference libraries have a superb, updated collection that surprised me with their diversity and breadth. My (deep inhale) novel-in-progress has many scenes set in Yunnan, a place I’ve visited often, but the history buff in me wanted to make sure I’ve gotten the facts correct. To my amazement, the reference library had a whole shelf of recent publications on the history of the Southwest. There’s even a large Chinese language section which I plan to start on next. And what’s more, many of the books that can’t be loaned out have been scanned, and are accessible online, right from your home!

The study areas get ridiculously crowded over the weekend, I suppose because it’s exam season. But on weekdays, there’s plenty of space to spread out your books and maps on the large tables, plug your laptop into the convenient electric outlets, and spend the day writing, with lots of natural light flooding in from the tall floor-to-ceiling windows.

I feel like I’ve discovered a national treasure (or public good, in economic terms), and best of all, it’s free!


We’ve gotten hopelessly distracted. I wanted to talk about China’s Southwest, or what is loosely termed 云贵川, short for Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan. Most people, especially in the West, probably think of China as a giant colossus, a coherent entity united by its ancient wall against outsiders, bright red Communist flags flying from the ramparts. When the truth is China as a nation can be unwieldy, amorphous, and full of cleavages wrought by history, culture, and most of all, geography. As the great first line from Romance of the Three Kingdom reads: 分久必合,合久必分. What remains apart for long must come together, what remains together for long will fall apart.

The study of Chinese history is very much a story of unity and disunity. We can choose to see the cultural and linguistic similarities forged by centuries of sinicisation 汉化 policies dating back to the Qing empire, or even earlier, with Qinshihuang circa 200-300BC, which have created the image of a virtually homogeneous, ethnic Han nation. Or we can choose to see the differences, such as contrast between the prosperous water kingdoms in the old Kingdom of Wu and the parched grasslands in the north, a geographic and climatic cleavage that persists even today.

Until the Qing dynasty, and apart from a brief period during the Mongol conquest, distance ensured that the Southwest remained at arm’s length from successive Chinese empires. When the Manchus under Prince Dorgon stormed the gates of Peking in 1644, their immediate priority was fortifying their presence in the north. The Southwest, thousands of kilometres from the capital, was far from their minds.

But Wu Sangui’s rebellion in Kunming forced the Kangxi emperor’s hand. The war of attrition impoverished the Southwest; no wonder that the Kangxi emperor, in the middle years of his reign, expressed concern about its incorporation within the Qing empire:

“The four provinces of Guangxi, Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan are all border areas where soil is meagre and livelihood difficult. It is different there from the heartland areas where commercial traffic is heavy, and a vast variety of livelihoods are available.” – Kangxi Emperor, 1693, Da Qing Lichao Shilu

Recent publications by young historians C. Paterson Giersch and Yang Bin posit that the Southwest as an integral part of China—as we know it—is in fact very much a recent construct, with its roots in the expansion and conquest of the early Qing emperors. Yang Bin takes it a step further, suggesting that Yunnan’s history as written to date is too sinocentric (from a Chinese historian, no less!) and ignores the intricate links and many layers of ties that have bound Yunnan to Southeast Asia for centuries. Dai Yingcong also puts forward an interesting thought, that the Southwest and in particular Sichuan, rose in importance because of its direct proximity to Tibet.

Which brings us to the question that’s been on my mind, for years really. Why does Yunnan occupy such a special place in the Chinese imagination? For many Chinese, Yunnan represents escape. It’s a place far away from the competitiveness in the cities, the humdrum and materialism of everyday life. To them, its almost like Yunnan exists outside China.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many such people I encountered in my visits to Yunnan. It’s as if the place exerts a magnetic pull over all these lost souls, drawing them to its mystical mountains and magical lakes. In Lijiang I met Xiaotan, a girl in her mid-twenties who was reconsidering her marriage to a university classmate in Shenzhen. Little did she expect, on her departure, to be approached by Dora.

“Will you bring this back to Shenzhen for me?” Dora asked.

The box held a diamond ring, a promise made in earlier years to a man who was still waiting for her in Shenzhen. After a year in Lijiang setting up her own fashion design shop, Dora was certain she never wanted to leave again. She had found herself, south of the clouds, west of the ocean.

Read more: (excuse my poor citations, it’s been years since I’ve done this!)

Yang Bin, Between Wind & Clouds: The Making of Yunnan (Second Century BCE to Twentieth Centry CE)

C. Patterson Giersch, Asian Borderlands: The Transformation of Qing China’s Yunnan Frontier

Dai Yingcong, The Sichuan Frontier & Tibet: Imperial Strategy in the Early Qing

Wikipedia: Wu Sangui and the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, or you can also read 金庸的《鹿鼎记》

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What’s your story?


My writing history has been a series of fits and starts, no thanks I’m sure to my hereditary impatience. My friend Ben calls this the classic ENFP personality: chasing butterflies. Which is all a very nice way of saying I give up too easily. I don’t regret it for most part because I enjoy the lateral exposure: traveling to more places and experiencing more things than I ever imagined possible.

But lately, I find that things have a strange way of traveling around in circles. Yes, very much like Jobs’ ‘connecting the dots’ metaphor. Or perhaps the vector isn’t ‘things’, but us. We travel around in circles, at first in search of what we think we want, before gravitating back towards what we once had.

So perhaps we should start from the very beginning. Not the beginning of this blog, or my beginning, because I don’t think you want to hear about the fastest reader prize I won when I was eight years old, or the lovelorn poetry I wrote as a devastated eighteen year old. Rather, what I want to talk about is writing, and what it means to me.

Ironically (or not), one of my earliest writing memories was rejection. It wasn’t even anything I’d written. It was my application to join the school newspaper. We don’t usually take in first-year students, I was told. And the teacher-in-charge doesn’t think you’d be a good fit. I suppose I was a rather mischievous thirteen year old, but what did that have anything to do with joining the school paper? They didn’t even give me a writing test.

As fate would have it, I did end up becoming a journalist when I turned eighteen. It all sounds very serendipitous now, but here’s what happened. I never did have good fortune with schoolteachers in Singapore, but what I did have going was friends who believed in me. They also happened to be the respective editors of our two school papers. One of them empowered me to organise a student conference that brought together peers from other schools and leading journalists based in Singapore. One of these meetings led to an introduction to Time magazine’s Asia bureau chief, and an invitation to intern with them in Hong Kong.

And so, the morning after prom night, I boarded a plane and embarked on (what I then thought was going to be) the next great adventure of my life. It led to my first published piece Boys Night Out, one of the first reports on Singapore’s vibrant gay community to appear in the international press. Remember, this was years before Pink Dot.

I wish I could boast that this kickstarted a glorious career in the press, or a glamorous Christiane Amanpour life traveling the world with my microphone. But that wasn’t quite what happened.


Instead, I was taught two basic things about journalism: slant, and newsworthiness. For a large part of my four day stint reporting back home, I followed a group of three transsexuals. I suppose, as a sheltered eighteen-year-old, this was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. Time paid for a top photographer to shadow me as we visited gay bars in Tanjong Pagar and interviewed my three queens over supper at Ann Siang Hill.

But nothing prepared me for the three words my editor threw at me on my return to Time Asia’s office: what’s your story? Wait, wasn’t it obvious? The trannies were the story. What’s so exciting about the trannies, my editor asked. Then, probably realising I was just an intern, he rephrased his question.

“Why would someone outside Singapore—an American in Texas for example. Why would he find this interesting?”

I probably gave a flimsy defence trying to justify my reporting trip. But then I realised he was right. Unless it was a lyrical expose about the lives of transsexuals, in the line of say Eric Khoo’s Twelve Stories, it wasn’t interesting. Even if it was, it didn’t belong in a news magazine, because there was no headline, no slant which would make the reader raise an eyebrow and think, “oh this is something I didn’t know.”

We struggled with the story in his office for a good thirty minutes. He made me recount all my interviews, forcing me to explain what I thought about each subject. Thinking about it now, he was probably trying to see the story, see gay Singapore through my eyes. What a pain that must have been for him! But towards the end, he stopped me in mid-sentence.

“I think this is your story.”

(what? oh great! which part?)

“Everyone thinks of Singapore as a strait-laced, boring, no chewing gum kind of place where bad people get whipped. I don’t think anyone realises that there’s actually quite a lot of freedom for gay Singaporeans. At least, more than most people imagine.”

At the very last moment (probably twelve hours before the deadline), I had my story. There was only one problem. None of our photographs were appropriate. Scrambling, I got on the phone with all my other contacts: the gay banker, the lesbian architect, the social activist. None of them wanted to be photographed. But at the last minute, one of them agreed, and we set up a meeting that very afternoon. By midnight, we had our photograph, and the story was ready to go.


The face of a gentle revolution

That conversation is why I consider Karl Greenfeld one of my best (and first) writing teachers. He taught me the most important question all writers should ask, one that I always remember when I write:

What’s your story? 

You can read Boys Night Out on Alex Au’s website, Yawning Bread. Thanks for archiving the story! I would post the version, but it requires a subscription.

(I’ve written for almost a good two hours now, and need to get ready for lunch. Part 2 will continue tomorrow … )

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My body is a reservoir
And you the rain
Released by a clap of thunder
We met in a flash of lightning

When darkness fell I swelled
Our senses bleeding into one
Yet parting naturally like morning dew
When hours later daylight came


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The Night of Typhoon Tokage

Would you have kissed me back:
The night of Typhoon Tokage?
I don’t remember what we said,
Only the stiff cotton and hard bedsprings;
The winds swirling, sealing me under
Your purple inflight blanket,
The rhythm of your words falling
softly beside me like the rain.

I don’t know why you’re asking me this tonight, only–
The regret in your kiss is
Two years too late;
Tomorrow we wake up friends again
You’ll return to her even if I wait,
Your back to me as I latch the gate.

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