Little Papaya did badly in her studies and ended up selling papayas in the market.

Big Papaya managed to attend a pre-university institution.

Big Papaya and Little Papaya are both fans of real-life getai singer Chen Jin Lang. They met at a getai show and became sworn sisters.

The Papaya Sisters practise in front of experienced getai singers Wang Lei (who impersonates Taiwanese Hokkien singer Chen Lei), Karen, and three drag queens. Real-life blind busker Chen Weilian, in a cameo role in this film, listens at the sidelines. Wang Lei criticises the Papayas for their poor singing skills, while Chen Weilian says they lack emotion in their singing.

The Papaya Sisters become the hottest getai duo in town.

Aunt Ling and Guan Yin cheer the Papayas amongst the audience. Guan Yin is also the photographer for the Papaya Sisters.

Big Papaya’s mother disapproves of her daughter’s decision to be a getai performer. She chases Big Papaya out of the home.

Aunt Ling comforts Big Papaya, and offers to let the latter stay in her home. Aunt Ling warns Big Papaya to be careful of her son, calling him a sex maniac.

In a fantasy sequence, Aunt Ling and the Papaya Sisters sit in a seashell under the sea, while Guan Yin swims around them. Guan Yin in his swimming trunks becomes an erotic object for the gaze of female and gay spectators.

The Papaya Sisters move from one public housing estate to another, to perform at getai shows. Chua Chu Kang and Sengkang are names of public housing estates in Singapore. In the background are state-built apartment blocks that are always in the rear view as Guan Yin drives his car — they never seem to go away.

Aunt Ling suspects that Guan Yin is in love. She teases her son about his pet cock and asks him whether he likes Big Papaya or Little Papaya.

Chen Jinlang, a real-life getai singer, appears on television. He has contracted cancer but struggles to perform in a wheelchair.

Gender and class in the
Singaporean film 881

by Brenda Chan

Film production[1][open endnotes in new window] in Singapore started in the 1920s and 1930s, and its film industry experienced a golden age from 1947 to 1972, when the Cathay-Keris studios competed with Shaw’s Malay Film Productions in producing Malay-language movies.[2] The focus on producing Malay-language films stemmed from the fact that, prior to the country’s independence in 1965, Singapore was part of British Malaya and joined the Federation of Malaysia briefly in 1963.

However, Malay film production ceased in 1972, and throughout the 1980s Singapore did not have an indigenous film industry. It was only in the 1990s that a new generation of directors began to revive local film production in the island republic.[3] The renewal of film-making in the 1990s was in part supported by the Singapore government’s policy in transforming Singapore into a Global City for the Arts, as it recognized the commercial potential of the arts and creative industries in boosting the competitiveness of the economy after the Asian financial crisis in 1997.[4]

Three Singaporean movie directors have received academic attention either because they have produced commercially successful features or have been critically acclaimed in the film festival circuits: Jack Neo, Eric Khoo and Royston Tan.[5] Jack Neo’s Money No Enough (1998) still holds the record of being the top-grossing locally-produced movie, and ranks as the fourth top-grossing film in Singapore after Spiderman 3 (2007), Titanic (1997) and Jurassic Park (1997).[6] In contrast with Neo, Eric Khoo’s auteurist films do not do as well in the box office but have won several awards in international film festivals.

Royston Tan’s films depict people in the underclass who are alienated and abandoned in rapidly modernizing Singapore. His 2003 feature film on teenage gangs and juvenile delinquency, entitled 15, was heavily censored, earning him a “bad boy” reputation with the media authorities in Singapore. Royston Tan went on to direct a short film called Cut in 2004, which used satire and camp aesthetics to criticize and mock Singapore's censorship policies towards the arts and media. Needless to say, Cut also displeased the government.[7]

This paper examines the articulation of gender and class in the popular Singaporean film directed by Royston Tan, entitled 881. 881 is a musical that relates the story of Big Papaya and Little Papaya, two girls from working-class backgrounds, who aspire to perform in getai (a Mandarin word that literally means “song stage”) shows staged during the annual Hungry Ghost Festival celebrated by the Chinese community in Singapore. The two girls finally succeed in becoming the Papaya Sisters, the hottest singing duo in getai performances, after being endowed with powerful voices by a getai goddess. In their efforts to battle their getai rivals, the Durian Sisters, the Papaya Sisters are assisted by Aunt Ling and her son, Guan Yin. The movie ends tragically with Little Papaya dying from cancer, leaving Big Papaya to continue her career as a getai singer.

The five companies co-investing in the production of 881 are Zhao Wei Films (owned by Eric Khoo), Mediacorp Raintree Pictures, Media Development Authority (the state’s regulatory body for film and broadcast media), Infinite Frameworks (a post-production company) and Scorpio East, a distributor of video entertainment.[8] The movie was screened in August, 2007, to coincide with the Hungry Ghost Festival in the seventh month of the lunar calendar when getai concerts are staged all over the island of Singapore. 881 attracted many middle-aged men and women viewers from the working class who typically did not go to the cinemas.

Big Papaya and Little Papaya want to form a singing duo to perform at getai concerts. Aunt Ling and her son, Guan Yin, help them in their singing practice. Aunt Ling has no choice but to take the Papaya Sisters to her estranged twin sister, the Getai Goddess. The Papaya Sisters ask the Getai Goddess to help them.
The Getai Goddess asks the Papaya Sisters, “Is singing so important to you?” The Papaya Sisters plead for the Getai Goddess’ assistance. The Goddess lays down five rules the girls must obey ...
... a) respect all spirits; b) be kind to people; c) watch their words; d) obey the rules of each getai; and e) stay pure, and love no man. The Goddess endows the Papaya Sisters with powerful magical voices.

As a result of aggressive advertising in the English-language media, the movie further intrigued many young Singaporeans to watch real getai concerts, which were usually dismissed as sleazy and low-class entertainment for older folks.[9] There was heavy coverage of 881, from production to premiere, in Mediacorp’s English-language news channel, Channel News Asia. STOMP, the interactive online content portal for Singapore’s largest newspaper (The Straits Times), also launched Getai A-Go-Go, which it claimed to be the only website about getai in Singapore, a few days after the opening of 881.[10] The bilingual website (in English and Chinese) provides dates, times and venues of real-life getai shows in Singapore, features profiles of prominent getai artistes, blogs of getai singers, and organises an annual getai awards ceremony, which continues to run in 2008. 881 was, and still continues to be, promoted in the website, with music videos/trailers of the movie available for viewing on the Internet.[11] The Straits Times, in its hard copy version, has also covered human-interest news stories about real-life getai performers. Prior to the release of 881, getai concerts are staged every year during the Hungry Ghost Festival, but never have they generated so much coverage and interest in the local English-language press.

881 emerged as the top grossing locally-produced movie and the 10th most watched movie in Singapore in 2007.[12] It was also screened at various international film festivals, such as the 12th Pusan International Film Festival 2007, 44th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival 2007, and 37th International Film Festival Rotterdam 2008.[13] The film’s international debut at the Pusan International Film Festival was sold out, and some 1000 fans turned up at a meet-the-fans session with the director and cast of 881.[14]

Given that the main characters of this film are working-class women, I want to understand how the film 881, as a popular cultural form, addresses and configures the working-class female. The working-class women in this film not only speak but also sing in Hokkien, a southern Chinese dialect that has been systematically suppressed by the Singapore government in its official campaign to promote Mandarin as the lingua franca of the local Chinese community. On the other hand, Guan Yin, the only major male character in 881, is a mute. The film presents moments of contradiction between male and female, between melodrama and comedy, between the English-speaking and Mandarin-speaking Singaporeans — all of which open up space for challenging and disrupting gender, linguistic and class hierarchies in Singapore. I will begin this paper by providing some contextual background about social class in Singapore, and will review existing literature about representations of the working class in Singaporean cinema, before proceeding with the analysis of 881.

Representations of the working class
in Singaporean films

Singapore is a small island republic at the tip of the Malay peninsula with a population of approximately four million. Originally a British Crown Colony, Singapore became an independent state in 1965. Its multi-ethnic society is made up of Chinese (75.2%), Malays (13.6%), Indians (8.8%) and others (2.4%).[15] As a colonial legacy, English is used as the language of government and commerce, and as the primary medium of instruction in schools. The other official languages in the nation, besides English, are Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, each representing the language of the three major ethnic groups in Singapore.

To alleviate high unemployment and widespread poverty in the 1960s, the government initially adopted the economic strategy of export-oriented industrialisation with a heavy reliance on foreign capital, especially multi-national companies (MNCs). Three decades later, Singapore emerged as an affluent Newly Industrialised Economy. Today it is one of the richest countries in Asia, with a per capita income of S$51,119 (approximately US$33,330.57) in 2007.[16] More than 80% of the Singaporean population live in public housing estates built by the government, most of whom own the state-built apartment flats that they live in.[17] Policies by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government are pragmatist with an overwhelming emphasis on ensuring economic survival and development.[18] Concomitantly the pursuit of higher material standards of living becomes “well entrenched as part of the ‘truths’ of being Singaporean.”[19]

Given its industrial capitalist economy, Singapore is a socially stratified society and Chang Han-Yin has identified five classes in Singapore:

"(1) office-based bureaucratic class (legislators, administrators, managers, and officers ); (2) property-based employer class; (3) expertise-based professional class (professionals, para-professionals; technicians); (4) clerical skills-based clerical class; (5) manual operation-based working class (production and transportation workers, waiters and waitresses, sales workers, fishermen, and farmers). The first three classes, which enjoy more income, higher status ... and greater controlling power, constitute the upperdivision of the class hierarchy and the remaining two classes form the lower division (emphasis in original)."[20]

The complexity of class divisions in Singapore, however, has been conveniently simplified by the Singapore government into two broad categories: the heartlander and the cosmopolitan. These two terms first appeared in then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s National Day Rally Speech in 1999. The cosmopolitans refer to the elite English-speaking class in Singapore with an international outlook:

"They speak English but are bilingual. They have skills that command good incomes — banking, IT, engineering, science and technology. They produce goods and services for the global market. Many cosmopolitans use Singapore as a base to operate in the region. They can work and be comfortable anywhere in the world."[21]

The heartlanders, on the other hand, make up the majority of the population, especially those who live in the public housing estates built by the Housing Development Board (HDB):

"The other group, the heartlanders, make their living within the country. Their orientations and interests are local rather than international. Their skills are not marketable beyond Singapore. They speak Singlish. They include taxi-drivers, stallholders, provision shop owners, production workers and contractors."[22]

The heartlanders are also seen by the government as being conservative and more rooted in their cultural traditions, compared to the mobile cosmopolitans.[23]

The PAP government is known for its strong anti-communist stance and its wariness towards class-based loyalties.[24] However, class has been a recurrent motif in Singaporean cinema. The most prominent directors, such as Eric Khoo, Jack Neo and Royston Tan, have all dealt with working-class Singaporeans living in public housing estates — the so-called “heartlanders” — as the subject matter of their films.

Eric Khoo’s first feature film, Mee Pok Man (1995), is about a poor dim-witted noodle seller who is obsessed with a prostitute called Bunny. One night, Bunny is wounded from a car accident, and he takes her back to his one-room flat, hoping to nurse her to health. But Bunny dies in his home and the noodle seller ends up having a sexual relationship with her corpse. In the film, the Mee Pok Man’s world of a dilapidated HDB flat, old coffee shops, and prostitution in the red-light district is juxtaposed against scenes showing consumerist celebrations of Christmas in downtown Singapore, and white-collar office workers scurrying to work in the Central Business District.[25] Khoo’s second film, 12 Storeys (1997), explores the lives of three Singaporean families living in the same HDB apartment block. Main characters in the film include: Ah Gu, a middle-aged food seller who marries a wife from mainland China but the latter refuses to have sex with him; San San, a lonely spinster who contemplates suicide because she cannot get over her late mother’s verbal abuse; Trixie and Tee, two teenagers who are resentful towards the their domineering eldest brother Meng and his paternalistic attitude. [See Jump Cut essay on Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys.]

By highlighting dysfunctional and unhappy HDB residents suffering from loneliness, alienation and marginalization in Singapore’s urban environment, Eric Khoo’s films function as a critique and counter-discourse against the official image of Singapore as a clean, green, efficient, wholesome, affluent and cosmopolitan city, which the state projects to tourists and citizens.[26]

Jack Neo’s films, in contrast with those of Eric Khoo, depict not just failed lives, but ordinary Singaporeans’ struggles to succeed in a materialistic and achievement-oriented society.[27] Jack Neo wrote the script and starred in the wildly popular Money No Enough / Qian Bu Gong Yong (1997), which tells of the financial woes of three friends. Chew (played by Jack Neo) is a Chinese-educated manager without paper qualifications, who is passed over for promotion when his company hires a young, English-speaking overseas-educated “cosmopolitan.” He resigns in anger but is faced with a mountain of household bills to pay. Ong (Mark Lee) is a renovation contractor who is threatened by loan sharks. Then there is Hui (Henry Thia), a coffee shop assistant who has problems finding a spouse because of his low salary and ugly looks. The trio finally pool some money together to start a car-washing business, which eventually thrives and lifts them out of dire straits. Uhde and Uhde suggest,

“The film’s local mass appeal stems partly from the fact that its theme of financial hardship was...one that many viewers could identify with at a time when the entire region was facing a severe economic downturn.”[28]

The Papaya Sisters are saddened when they hear of Chen Jinlang’s illness. The Sisters have supper with Guan Yin in a local coffee shop. Big Papaya sits with her legs open wide. The Papaya Sisters try to raise funds for Chen Jinlang’s cancer treatment. Meanwhile Little Papaya is ill with cancer, too. But she does not tell anyone and tries not to show that she is unwell.
News reports of Chen Jinlang’s death. Little Papaya feels that she will suffer the same fate as her idol.

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