25 May 2010

Peep! Peep! Bugis Street….Peep! Peep! Bugis Street – By Peter Chan

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):

'T
he Experience'

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.

32 comments:

Icemoon said...

The 1967 photo looks like Malabar, not Bugis St.

Did the food and entertainment spill over to the whole Bugis Junction or just localised to Bugis St.?

Peter Stubbs said...

If memory serves, and I believe that it does, makan stalls etc., were not confined to Bugis Street. It was an entertaining place to visit during the mid to late 60s. Somewhere I still have a small flashing lantern I acquired there in 1968.

One interesting thing is not mentioned in the blog. That is the young boys who went from from stall to stall challenging the less than sober to play games of noughts and crosses. There was of course money, a few cents, involved. I never saw one of the boys lose. A draw also meant that the boys won the cash.

Tom said...

I remember Bugis Street very well, the lads and I use to go there after we had a few Tigers at the Brit.club if you where a single guy you always enjoyed your self better than married lads they would leave the street early at night, I still remember A Indian lady her name was Mary she was a very nice woman I think she had a small shop in the street , she would look after us and tell who was who in the Street, The Ladyboys would come into the street at 12 0 clock at night you would hear them coming they always made alot of noise, Peter mentioned
the dance of the flaming A.H. that was true but I never got to see it because when the show was on the street would be mobed, I will tell you their will never ever be a street like Bugis I have seen afew streets when I was in the Queens Own Highlanders , but you could not beat Bugis street for a laugh, and the young boys who played noughts and crosses beat me every time.

peter said...

There was one other place, I presume a continuation of Bugis Street (Victor has to correct me on this). Albert Street was a food haven but not as rowdy as Bugis Street. "Fatty Weng", a pot belly cook/owner was the pin-up boy of Singapore tourism.

Andy Young* said...

Not too far from the Optician's shop called, Ning Kwong, the Jubilee Cinema which is next to the Java Restaurant and the row of record shops selling singles, EPs and LPs. Hope I am not too far away.

Correct me if I am wrong.
Cheers.

Icemoon said...

ehh, I thought Albert Street was near to night soil collection? What kind of food haven was that!?

peter said...

Icemoon

That night soil center was on Rochore Road (now the gap bteween Fu Lo Shou and Albert Complex. The old Albert Street I was thinking was on Albert Court and beside Golden Wall Center.

I hope you didn't bring ppl to the worng place.

Anonymous said...

Icemoon,

In "the good old days", there was this man, on a bicycle, who sold a delicious stew called Lok Kai Yik. He would pass by calling, at the top of his voice, "Lok Kai Yik! Lok Kai Yik! Lok Kai Yik!"

We, boys at that time, would joke, that from a distance, it sounded like he was calling, "Tong Tahi! Tong Tahi! Tong Tahi!"

Thimbuktu said...

Hey Peter,

Alas...that scene of the drunk sailors on the top of the public toilet at Bugis Street performing striptease show ; )

Oh yes, you also remembered the Military Police (MP) to chase after servicemen having a fun.

How did you ever managed to get hold of this rare photo? These guys must had repeated this public show so often becos I happened to visit Bugis Street with friends during our young days for dinner.

Thanks Peter.

peter said...

Timbuktu

Did you know the public toilet was a stage for the transvetites? I didn't know but was I was informed by some good contacts in an architecture's firm that the original design was to incorporate/retain this building as part of the present old shop facade of Bugis Junction. The owners dropped the idea because it was a taboo.

Thimbuktu said...

Hmm...interesting. The Bugis Street "public toilet roof-top stage" showtime in the old days is all over. So were the funky audience gone...the entertainment scene and tourist taste in olden days Singapore has changed.

Lam Chun See said...

Mike Robbins who just shared his memories of 1960's Spore at my blog also recalls with fondness those noughts and crosses boys. Looks like it's hard to forget being beaten by kids at anything.

Victor said...

Icemoon, yes the first photo (circa 1967) is of Malabar Street. The infamous public toilet (not in picture) was also in Malabar Street, just to the right of the photo.

The food stalls were mainly on both sides of Malabar Street which ran at right angle across Bugis Street.

I have never seen the "noughts and crosses" game played in Bugis Street. Here we commonly call it tic-tac-toe.

peter said...

Hmmm Victor. At least you got good local knowledge cos your house next door. So to confirm, all the food stalls were on Malabar Street and nothing was on Bugis Street? So why they didnt call the place Malabar Street instead of Bugis Street?.

peter said...

Victor

Pse confirm that first photo's background is Middle Road.

Tom said...

Victor so the street with tables and chairs and food stalls where in Malabar street not in Bugis I think you are right because the Name Malabar rings a bell, so the lads and I when we went that area we must have into went Bugis first and then turn into Malabar St.
yes Victor you are right I do remember Malabar you just jog my memory I wonder why we call the whole area Bugis?.may be you where one of the wee lads that beat me at ti-tac-toe if you did I wont my money back HaHa.

Icemoon said...

Peter, Middle Road is ke-blakang. Background of first photo is future Blanco Court.

Today, Malabar Street is subsumed into the indoor shopping area. Only the end connecting Middle Road is left. If the toilet is at junction of Malabar and Bugis, not sure how they could have incorporated it indoor.

peter said...

B4 Blanco Court was Rochore Road and then Swatow Street.....I am not following what you say Icemoon...

Icemoon said...

Peter, you will understand upon seeing this pic :)

peter said...

How come I never see this "modern shops" when i waked from Bras Basah Road to Queen Street bus terminus for Green Bus Company? i see Dr Chan Ah Kow Clinic, (walked inside) Johore Road and even the night soil center but never these shops?

Icemoon said...

Can somebody explain what anon meant by Lok Kai Yik and Tong Tahi?

Anonymous said...

Peter,

It would be interesting if you could blog about Johore Road and its back alleys.

Anonymous said...

Peter,

Dr. Chan Ah Kow used to stay in a large house with a tennis court along Mountbatten Road. Am I correct?

Is his family still staying there?

What about his clinic? Has someone else taken over this clinic?

Edward said...

Is this Dr Chan Ah Kow the father of our swimmer Patricia Chan who once won 8 (or 10) gold medals at a Pesta Sukan carnival? Is he the father of Alex Chan, also a state swimmer? I thought they lived in Katong. Perhaps I got the Chan's mixed up.

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing a large sign 'Chansvilla' on their fence while passing along Mountbatten Road.

peter said...

Chanville sold and sub-dvidided into smaller bunaglwo plots. The original hosue still remains.

He got one son who is a doctor - Roy Chan - but he is a skin specialist at National Skin Center (???)and he is not a GP. I guess clinic business must have been abandoned.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Prof Roy Chan is the director of the National Skin Center.

Cool Insider said...

I remembered Bugis Street during the era when Boom Boom Room was in its heyday and Kumar and gang caused a riot with their rambunctious shenanigans on stage. The pasar malams are still there today, but the colour and life appeared to have ebbed away quite considerably. There is always a dilemma in development on how much to keep and how much to discard, and while the process of gentrification does lead to higher real estate values and swankier shops (like Illuma), you do sometimes lose a little of the original colour and character of the place.

It will be interesting to see how things pan out. For sure, I am very interested in this part of the neighbourhood in view of its richness, colour and authenticity - whatever's left.

peter said...

Can somebody explain what anon meant by Lok Kai Yik and Tong Tahi?

Literal translation from Kantonese could mena:

Old Chicken wings...
The other one too obscene to say in print. It got to do with "Cut open....."

Victor your thots?????

Victor said...

Peter, Lou Kai Yik (卤鸡翼) is Cantonese for braised chicken wing while I think Tong Tahi is Malay for the nightsoil container.

peter said...

alamak!!!!

Cant recall such delicious Cantonese cuisine in that place.

The Malay word shld have been Tung Taiyee = "night soil". Intonation different could mean something else.

barrie holland said...

I had many enjoyable nights eating and drinking in buggie st when I lived in Johore Bahru we would drive down int singapore maybe 3-4 nights per week go ice skating and bowling and then relax in buugie st watching life go by and laughting our heads of as unsuspecting tourist would pick up with the cissy boys, not knowing who they were. We new most of them and what they were and they would often sit drinking with us waiting for there next unsuspecting clients, this was back in the early 70,s. how things have changed all over singapore since then