Long before I kick the bucket, Bugis Street shall always be in my mind. Bugis Street was the street for good food and good-time “ladyboys”. Ask any British Servicemen what he remembers about Singapore, it was Bugis Street and the “Great Trishaw Race” down North Bridge Road.
It’s the beginning of a new busy night at Bugis Street. Street vendors seen here making preparations (c1967).
How did I get to know Bugis Street? Back in the early 1960s, occasional Saturday night outings were a prevailing family practice - my father and my Tai Pak (eldest paternal uncle) took our grandparents out, each person taking turns to pick up the tab. Bugis Street was one of the places we went. There were street food stalls and in some places there were Chinese restaurants with open-air dining at the roof-top terraces. To get a feel of the ambience, you take a walk down the alleys of Lockhart Road in Hong Kong and look up those three-storey buildings. If you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of roof-top terraces in old black & white Hong Kong movies.
Left photo – “Ladies of the Night” standing close to the public toilet. Right photo - Many would have remembered this public toilet which is now inside Bugis Street shopping mall. This is the famous flamingo dance on top of the public toilet (c 1963).
As we made our way through the crowd, we kept looking at those tall heavily made-up ladies, some standing and some seated on the laps of Royal Navy sailors. My auntie cautioned us to stay close to the adults otherwise we would be kidnapped by those “aunties”. Whilst the adults enjoyed the sumptuous Cantonese meals of suckling piglet, shark’s fin soup and Hor Yip Fan (lotus leaf rice), my cousins and I had better ideas. Here we were up on some “skyscraper” looking at the skyline and the streets below.
Left photo - British military provost on street beat (c 1967). Right photo – ANZUK and U.S. Coastal Patrol (c 1974).
Now we come to the question why “Peep, Peep”? That was because the British military provost blew their whistles and quickly rushed to break up rowdy and drunken sailors or army boys. Sometimes you see the military provost dragging a drunkard lad with a baton close to his neck. There was something special about those military provost guys; they wore shorts, walked with metal-studded boots and red armbands. There was one time we saw this crazy group of British lads armed with cans of Tiger beer climbing up a public lavatory. Many attempted to climb but many fell because they had far too many drinks. When they climbed they were cheered on by others. Once at the top of the public toilet, some went dancing which I now come to know as the “Dance of the Flaming Ar**h***”. I am not sure what was stuck inside but I tell you it was burning alright. After the British pullout in 1971, ANZUK and the U.S. shore patrol provost took over policing Bugis Street until 1975. After 1975 I believe our Singapore Police Force took over.
The impact of Bugis Street could not have been under-estimated. If one thought that Patpong in Bangkok had a reputation, then look no further than the joint promotion by Thai International and Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now Singapore Tourism Board). This is really strange when Singapore Airlines should have been promoting our tourist attraction.
The Bugis Street Experience promoted by Thai International and Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (c 1970s):
Every night in Singapore, they close off one of the streets to the traffic and throw it open to the people. The result is Bugis Street, a wild conglomeration of music, laughter, food stalls, fruit markets, satay stands, outdoor restaurants, pedicabs, beer vendors, hawkers, kids who play noughts-and-crosses for money (and never lose), students, drifters, eccentrics, hustlers, drag queens and even the odd punch up. It's a place that's always happening and it'll never give up before you do (the character in the picture is singing Santa Lucia - in passable Italian at 3.30 on a Sunday morning).
Bugis Street is an untouched leftover from Singapore's boisterous past. It was an Experience then, and it's an Experience now.
Singapore bade farewell to Bugis Street in 1985 and its demise was even reported with great regret by the The Economist and London’s Financial Times. That was the year the transvestites moved out, some say to Changi Point which has become an attraction today. After the Bugis Street site was up for URA land sale, many debated whether the new Bugis Junction shopping and hotel complex should incorporate any of the old culture and perhaps Singapore’s unofficial tourist attraction. Of course when you were a tourist, you voted with your dollar but the government thought otherwise.
So there is little of Bugis Street remaining except by token name and a drag show at Boom Boom Room, which is by the way not even in the Bugis Street area.