Pilgrims at Tanjong Pagar
Once upon a very recent time, before the Wear White campaign, there was an event called Red Dot. Both of which were actions targeted against Pink Dot 2014 which happened yearly since once upon a less recent time in 2009. (And if you think about it, it’s somewhat ironic because white and red make Pink.)
Yet before this once upon a recent time, and once upon a less recent time, there was Tanjong Pagar.
If you still have no idea what I’m talking about: I’m trying to tell you that Tanjong Pagar is really a gay space. In the day, it is scoured by Shentonites—the cold and professional white-collar class working in the Central Business District. But when the sun sets, it is transformed into the holy land of Gayrusalem, with pilgrims in tight polos, singlets, T-shirts and Bermuda shorts strutting down Tanjong Pagar Road and Neil Road—too loud, too proud.
There are a few names that it goes by: TP. The Hood. I call it the Gayrea.
The first time I went to the Gayrea, I was with a bunch of straight friends—surprise, surprise. We went to Taboo for its liqueur buffet: $25 to drink all you want. Situated near the end of Neil Road with its entrance illuminated by ultraviolet lights, none of us actually knew that Taboo was a gay club. Given that the bouncers were dressed in tight-fitting black tees with slight hints of leopard prints, I should have guessed.
The second time I went there, a gay acquaintance inducted me into Play, the now-defunct club typically for gay twinks. I realised for the first time how awesome gay clubs were. Unlike the straight clubs which I frequent, Play actually plays danceable pop music and not crappy trance beats.
There are a few reasons why I like clubbing at Tanjong Pagar. Firstly, the men are less territorial. A straight club is often characterised by men shoving each other in territorial aggression, men taking advantage of women, men grinding women until they get a hard-on. This is not seen in a gay club. Every straight woman I know who goes clubbing tells me that they feel much safer in a gay club because the men typically treat them with respect (since they are presumably uninterested in them).
Also, the men dance better.
I really like Tanjong Pagar. It’s a common sight to see a man and a woman making out in a straight club because the man is incredibly horny and the woman is incredibly drunk. In the clubs of Tanjong Pagar, a man and a woman make out because they are romantically involved (presumably a straight couple hanging out with their gay friends), a man and a man make out because they can, and a woman and a woman make out because they want to. And this does not happen just inside the club but outside of it and along the streets. A church is nearby, but there is no one there to pass judgment, no one there to declare hell upon these unholy pilgrims.
I know I am romanticising this. Lesbian women can gallivant visibly in most public spaces with their hands held together and their heads held high because you can never tell if they are girlfriends or best friends. But I would be trespassing heteronormative space if I hold the hand of someone of my gender. TP is the only place I feel comfortable enough to hold the hands of another boy.
It is no wonder that Tanjong Pagar at night holds a lot of memories for many gay men. It’s a common point where all our dots connect to. I dare say that (even before there was Pink Dot) all gay Singaporean men went there as part of a rite of passage; but it is not necessarily the starting point of our gay trajectory.
The starting point of my gay trajectory happened at the Substation along Armenian Street.
My story began humbly at the Substation office on the second day of my internship in 2012. After sticking enough stamps onto parcels, one of my colleagues suggested that I help to set up the gallery for the last exhibition of the year. It was December then.
The artist curating the exhibition was a skinny little figure. He deployed me and his (ex-) students to set up the gallery space for his exhibition. It wasn’t love at first sight per se, but his mysterious quietude attracted me and I grew to be obsessively in love with him. I was a straight man then, so the confusion and the all-too-common coming-out angst mingled predictably with my feelings for him.
People like me always try to downplay the big deal that our affections entail. We try to make it logical: I like him because I have never seen anything like him before. I like him because he’s a nice person, and he is passionate about his art. This is not a ‘liking’. This is an admiration. It won’t last. It will fizzle out. I am not gay because I still enjoy watching straight porn. Then the next day comes and the next and the next and you suddenly realise that this soreness in the heart isn’t quite going anywhere.
The next few days saw me either running errands for him or sitting with him in the gallery, accompanying him as he waited for visitors to his archival work. I would work overtime, clocking extra hours just to be with him in the gallery. By then, I had already gotten over myself and come clean with myself: I did actually like him, not in the friend-friend kind of way, not in the omg-you-are-my-idol kind of way, but in the I-actually-do-like-you-and-that’s-right-I-am-so-freakin’-gay kind of way.
It took me many days to figure out how to let him know. On the second last day of his exhibition, I decided that it was time to take the plunge. I knew that if I didn’t tell him then, I might never have the chance to again. One of my tasks as an intern was to purchase takeaway dinner for the artist whom the Substation housed in the gallery. So I wrote a note on the back of the receipt for his Asian Tofu Salad:
I like you. Do you want to date?”
(I know! It’s such a terribly douchebag way of letting someone know your affections right?!)
I wrapped his change in the receipt, hoping that he’d unwrap it and ‘see’ what I wanted him to know.
He asked me to keep the change.
My plans were utterly foiled. There was this sense of mild relief, but also a pathetic feeling of helplessness. For just one nanosecond, I did think of forcing the receipt on him, but I was just too timid to push it into his hand. I was still pondering if I should just confront him there and then, before the gallery door was pushed open by a visitor. I had no chance after that.
In the end, I found him on Facebook and told him over its chat function. He did not say yes.
It has been about a year and a half since that epiphany at the Substation. Even though he did not say yes, we still chat and hang out together from time to time. It is all very platonic now. I do still have some romantic inclinations towards him, but that fervour and that fixity have since diminished.
It took a while before I started joining the pilgrims at Tanjong Pagar. Acknowledging that part of oneself is one thing, but to put oneself out there like other gay men—that takes a bit of effort. But once I started going to TP, I couldn’t stop. It’s a place that reaffirms your identity somewhat: that it’s OK to be who you are, because you aren’t the only weirdo around.
I recently visited the Substation again. Well, not exactly visiting. It was more like a passing through. The building still stands dignified as before: its imposing huge-ass door still looks aged and fragile; the graffiti at the side of its building remains iridescent; it is still the same arts space for new artists to break out. (And for me to come out.)
I don’t think I will ever forget this place. On the last day of my internship, I formally thanked the staff and told them that I am thankful of the impact Substation had made in my life. Other than the artist, I didn’t think anyone of them really knew what I was talking about. I believe they still don’t, even after one and a half years.
Every gay man has a coming-out story, but I believe in a coming-out place, a place which links us to our rite-of-passage point at Tanjong Pagar; a place which reminds us that, before our collective memory in the gay space of Tanjong Pagar, we each have a space that is unique to our own gayhood.