A sexuality-related secret

To this paradigm of secrets, we would like to add one more: a sexuality-related secret. This is a latent but ultimately absolute secret. It gives a fleeting glimpse into alternative lifestyles in Singapore, or rather, a possible instance of one. As pointed out in the second epigraph of the last section, the subject matter of alternative lifestyles in local films would fall within the “OB” domain of state discourse.[99] More to the point, the sexuality-related secret, as it were, comes out during San San’s first subjective flashbacks of her late mother (shot in extreme close-up), who throughout the film is relentlessly hurling verbal abuses at San San. (The late mother exists only in San San’s flashbacks.) Amidst the expletives, unkind words and derogatory names she threw at the daughter, the old lady said:

Ah Ling and I worked and saved for 20 years to buy this flat. We don’t even charge you rent for staying here. Why don’t you take care of this place?

What is most intriguing in these lines is the name “Ah Ling.” Ah Ling is a woman’s name, and it is mentioned only once in the film; that much is known. Beyond this, Ah Ling is an enigma. We learn in one of San San’s later flashbacks that her late mother used to work for Rachel’s (played by Neo Swee Lin) mother as a maid. From this information and from the Cantonese dialect she spoke, one could extrapolate that San San’s adopted mother used to be an amah. Though an extinct occupation category in contemporary Singapore, amahs were commonly found in affluent households in the past.

In her book, Sons of the Yellow Emperor, Lynn Pan observes that the domestic phenomenon of amahs in East and Southeast Asia began around the 1930s when young single women emigrated from Shuntak, a county in Guangdong, south China, to work as maids.[100] Amahs commonly tied their hair into a pigtail and donned a samfoo, which consisted of a virginal white top and a pair of black trousers. These were the amahs’ trademarks. More relevant to the present context, amahs were known to practice a sisterhood that celebrated spinsterhood. This practice has not been well-documented because, as Pan puts it,

They did not like to publicize [their] arrangements among people not of their persuasion; sisterhoods were private affairs, to be kept from the world as much as possible.[101]

This, together with their “emblematical, or enigmatical, method of communication,” helped shroud their private world with secrecy.

The pictorial book, Chinatown, gives a further glimpse into this private world when it recounts that amahs were:

... Cantonese women from the older generation [who] work[ed] in Singapore as domestic servants and remain[ed] unmarried. Many such women [would] pool [their] resources and share a cubicle to keep their personal belongings. It [was] also a meeting place. They usually ha[d] no relatives in Singapore and rel[ied] on each other for assistance.[102]

This anecdote sheds some light, albeit momentarily, on the secret world of amahs. First they had developed a support system for each other. As unmarried women who practiced sisterhood-cum-spinisterhood, they were not reliant on men for subsistence and livelihood. They were independent, which led to “gossip,” notes Pan: “[I]nevitably, some of the more passionate friendships were [thought to be] lesbian relationships”; or in Chinese, “mo tofu” relationships.[103] To mo tofu literally means to grind beancurd, or to crush soybeans with the two flat slabs of Chinese grindstones so as to extract soy juice for making beancurd. In some contexts, tofu is an euphemism for breasts; mo is also a pun for touching and fondling. Put the three Chinese words together, one gets an erotic picture: mutual touching and fondling of breasts.

Elsewhere, in her historical account of Chinese women in Singapore, Ann Wee (1996) similarly notes that some of the amah alliances were of a “lesbian” variety, though she concedes that there is “no evidence that this is a major theme in their dormitory life.”[104] The lack of evidence does not confirm absence; it may well be due to the amahs’ immense success in keeping their private affairs under wrap. To a large extent, the silent code of amah-sisterhood would help them in their secrets and their secret world.

If Ah Ling and San San’s late mother were indeed a mo tofu couple, then the latter, being an amah, would probably have had abided by that code of silence and accordingly kept their relationship from the public eye. There is, of course, no way of knowing that this was the case. That they had pooled their resources together to buy the flat nonetheless shows a deep and trusting friendship.

Local film viewers would also understand this act in the context of the HDB’s purchasing scheme, which absolutely forbids non-family members from buying a HDB flat collaboratively. What this means, then, in the context of San San’s household, is that the flat belonged to San San’s late mother, with San San listed as occupant not as co-owner since at the time of the purchase, 20 years ago, she would have been too young. Upon her mother’s death, she inherits the flat since she is “family” to the old lady. For HDB, an unmarried woman and a legally adopted child constitute a family unit.

Ah Ling, a non-family member, could never have been the flat’s rightful owner nor have had legal claim to it even though she had helped pay for it. That she had knowingly put in money for it for 20 years thus reveals an enduring close friendship between her and San San’s late mother, one built on mutual faith and trust. That they lived in the flat for so long similarly hints at an intimacy that was based on close partnership and companionship. Ah Ling’s physical absence in the film suggests that she might have been dead; San San’s late mother’s advanced age also alludes to this. Furthermore, Ah Ling figures only in the old woman’s speech and not visually present in San San’s memory. This implies that Ah Ling was also likely to have been closer to the mother than to the daughter. Finally there appears to be no men in their lives, and San San the daughter was adopted.

When compared to Meng’s sexual secret and Lili’s secret love, the enigma of Ah Ling and her relation to San San’s household is indeed most difficult to crack. What we have endeavored to do here is not so much insist on the possible existence of a mo tofu couple as the unspoken secret of this household. We hope also to show the importance of using inter- and extra-textual references to anchor the plausibility for such a reading. Such a reading strategy becomes necessary when dealing with latent/absolute secrets, or “writers’ blocks” that ensue from self-censorship activities, because we have no recourse to direct verbal speech or explicit visual clues as a means of disclosure. The name, “Ah Ling,” is a case in point. Although it appears in the direct speech of the late mother, it is in fact an indirect one because it comes to our knowledge only in San San’s memories. In this way, deciphering the film’s secrets requires a deconstructive strategy along the line of citizens’ interpretive strategies and resistant forms of communication within an authoritarian and censorious state.


In conclusion, families in 12 Storeys all harbor secrets one way or another. More pertinent is the film’s portrayal of the ways secrets, whether personal or household ones, are managed, along with disclosure, discovery and/or concealment. Secrets can adversely impact communication within families and contribute to dysfunctional relations among parents, spouses, children, siblings and neighbors. For Khoo, such widespread, persistent communicational dysfunction within families, between neighbors and among individuals points to a larger level of urban isolation and alienation. These motifs in his films attack the Shared Values national ideology and other state discourses.

In 12 Storeys and Khoo’s other early films, the neighbors avoid each other; the nation-state has not fostered mutual community support and respect for individuals. Individuals in turn are too engrossed with their own secrets to take notice of the world around them or to forge meaningful relations with others, within and/or outside the familial domain. Khoo’s early films create analogies to trace the disparity between the visionary endeavors articulated from the top and the reality of daily doldrums that anchor the everyday people firmly to the ground. By giving privy to the “lived” reality of HDB-dwellers who experience endemic urban alienation, 12 Storeys presents an alternative, albeit gloomy, way of seeing the nation-state: It is a sunny tropical isle high on economic achievements but low on other endeavors, especially human(istic) ones. The alterity of Khoo’s early films bears the mark of an honest and bold filmmaker.

Continued: Notes