Big Papaya’s mother still refuses to accept her.

Big Papaya’s mother, a former getai singer, breaks out in a heart-wrenching Hokkien song as she thinks of her daughter.

Guan Yin comforts a weeping Big Papaya, and the two end up kissing in the car. Big Papaya has violated the last rule that the Getai Goddess has set for her.

Aunt Ling breaks into a sorrowful Hokkien number as she sews stage costumes for the Papaya Sisters. There is a heavy dose of nostalgia in 881 – nostalgia for getai concerts, Hokkien oldies, and 1960s Mandarin films from Hong Kong. On the pillar in front of her sewing machine are pictures of famous Hong Kong film stars in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Lin Dai and Le Di.

Aunt Ling is finally reconciled with her twin sister, the Getai Goddess.

The success of the Papayas invites the jealousy of another getai duo, the Durian Sisters. The Durians are backed by their sugar daddy, who is a gangster.

Aunt Ling breaks up their fight and confronts the Durians' sugar daddy.

Aunt Ling leads the Papaya Sisters in a Chinese voodoo ritual that is supposed to curse the Durian Sisters, but she regrets her malice and they end up chanting blessings for the Durians instead.

The Durian Sisters throw ...

... flower darts (that resemble those in wuxia films) ...

... at the Papaya Sisters.

Although Neo’s heartlander films often contain direct critique of government policies, his narratives eventually lose their critical edge because they often have “feel-good” happy endings that buy into the success myth that “hard work will produce results eventually.”[29][open endnotes in new window] The corollary is that Neo’s films tend to reinforce the ideological hegemony of the government.[30]

As for Royston Tan, he is most famous for the film 15 (2003), which features five real-life streetboys (Melvin, Vynn, Shaun, Erick and Armani) who are involved in gang-fights, self-mutilation, drug trafficking and drug consumption. In one segment Shaun and Erick brutally punish a group of snobbish, English-speaking schoolboys who call them “Chinese hooligans.”[31] This film thus exposes the darker realities in Singapore’s orderly society, with its “hidden underclass” of a “Mandarin-speaking caste, separated from the English-speakers in a bizarre ‘merit-based’ intellectual apartheid.”[32]

 Singaporean cinema, from Mee Pok Man, to Money No Enough, to 15, has always emphasized class differences in Singapore society, by highlighting the struggle between the isolated and marginalized lower classes and the English-speaking, cosmopolitan, middle-class Singaporeans. In terms of gender representations in the Singaporean films I have discussed, Eric Khoo has been criticised for having his female characters in Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys subject to a controlling male gaze by the viewer, filmmaker, and male protagonists.[33] For instance, in Mee Pok Man, there are lingering shots of the naked body of Bunny the prostitute in bed, and the dead Bunny eventually becomes an object of Mee Pok Man’s necrophilic desires.

It is, however, not fair to say that the female characters in Eric Khoo’s early films lack agency. Bunny dreams of going to London with her English boyfriend, while Ah Gu’s mainland Chinese wife in 12 Storeys marries a Singaporean man as a route out of poverty in China. Both women are pro-actively trying various means to escape from poverty and improve their financial situation, compared to some of the male characters who are simply resigned to remaining in the underclass. Eric Khoo’s 2005 film, Be With Me, shows even greater effort in exploring the female subject. It is made up of three stories, two of which are revolve around females. One is a semi-autobiographic sketch of a deaf and blind woman, Theresa Chan; while the other documents two teenage girls’ exploration of a lesbian relationship.[34]

As for Jack Neo’s films, such as Money No Enough (1998), I Not Stupid / Xiaohai Bu Ben (2002), and its sequel I Not Stupid Too (2006), the narratives tend to be focused firmly from the male perspective. The most notable female roles in I Not Stupid and I Not Stupid Too / Xiaohai Bu Ben 2 are nagging, controlling, middle-class mothers. In fact, Selena Tan’s role as a bossy, fierce, English-speaking mother in I Not Stupid is a blatant personification of the authoritarian PAP government. Similarly, Royston Tan has been accused for the absence of women in 15. Ho Tzu Nyen notes that the five streetboys’ world appear to be “virtually emptied of women” and if the female do appear in the film, she becomes “a profound ‘other’ to be quickly annihilated”, such as the middle-aged women who are beaten up by the boys for staring at them with disapproving looks.[35] 881 (2007) breaks ground with its predominantly female cast, which radically departs from the earlier male-centric films of Royston Tan.[36] It is in this context of the cinematic representation of the working class in Singapore, that I shall now move on to a close reading of 881, with an emphasis on how gender intersects with class in the film.

Plot synopsis of 881

Big Papaya (played by Yeo Yann Yann) and Little Papaya (Mindee Ong) are both born in 1982. Little Papaya’s parents died of cancer when she was young, and she was to be stricken by cancer at 25. Big Papaya came from a dysfunctional family — her mother divorced her father, remarried and then returned to her first husband. Big Papaya did very well in school and attended a pre-university institution in Singapore, which meant that she had the potential of going to the university. Little Papaya, on the other hand, failed all the subjects and ended up selling fruit in a market.

Big Papaya and Little Papaya are fans of Chen Jin Lang, the most famous getai singer in Singapore (Chen was a real-life getai performer who died of cancer in 2006). The Chinese believe that in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the Gates of Hell open and ghosts roam the streets. Getai refers to open-air concerts that are staged in the seventh month to entertain the spirits, with singers, dancers and other entertainers performing on stage. Big Papaya and Small Papaya got to know each other when watching a Chen Jin Lang concert and became sworn sisters.

Big Papaya and Small Papaya want to form a singing duo to perform at getai shows. A plump seamstress called Aunt Ling (played by real-life getai host Liu Ling Ling), and her mute son, Guan Yin (played by Qi Yuwu), help the Papaya Sisters in their efforts. However getai veterans comment that the Papaya Sisters sing badly and lack emotion in their singing. Desperate to improve their singing skills, the Papaya Sisters seek help from Aunt Ling’s estranged twin sister, the Goddess of Getai. The Goddess wears a bright red sequinned gown with gigantic golden wings on her back, and dwells in a temple. She asks the Papaya Sisters, “Is singing so important to you?” In a reversal of the mermaid’s tale, the Goddess bestows the girls with powerful voices, on the condition that they must “stay pure, and no man love.”

Little Papaya goes for steroid injections in order to continue singing at getai shows. Guan Yin fetches Little Papaya from the clinic. He tries to hold her hand, but she brushes him away.
Aunt Ling tells the Papaya Sisters of her sexual exploits with Guan Yin’s father. Big Papaya feels guilty about her relationship with Guan Yin.

Big Papaya’s mother, however disapproves of her singing at getai shows, and drives her out of her home (an old HDB flat). Aunt Ling offers to let Big Papaya stay at her flat, but warns Big Papaya to watch out for her lustful son, Guan Yin. Guan Yin’s job is to chauffeur the Papaya Sisters from one getai stage to another in different districts in Singapore. In his leisure, he plays with a pet cock.

The Papaya Sisters soon become the hottest getai act in town. Although the sisters speak mostly Mandarin (one of the four official languages in Singapore) in the film, they sing Hokkien songs during their getai performances. Hokkien is a southern Chinese dialect originating from Fujian province in China, and is widely spoken by Chinese heartlanders in Singapore. The Papaya Sisters perform to canvass donations for Chen Jin Lang’s cancer treatment, when Chen appears on television in a wheelchair, vowing to live and die for the stage. Meanwhile, Little Papaya suffers from cancer herself, but she refuses to tell anyone that her body is failing. Chen Jin Lang eventually dies, much to the sadness of the Papaya Sisters, Aunt Ling and performers in the getai circuit.

Big Papaya falls for Guan Yin and kisses him passionately in the car, violating her promise to the Goddess that she must not let any man touch her. Little Papaya is also interested in Guan Yin, but she holds fast to the condition set by the Goddess. So when Guan Yin makes a paper doll for her and tries to hold her hand, Little Papaya rejects his advances.

The Durian Sisters taunt the Papayas. The Papaya Sisters retaliate by saying that the English-educated Durians ... ... cannot even lip-sync Hokkien songs properly. The two pairs of girls start fighting during the getai show.

The rise of the Papaya Sisters invites the jealousy of Durian Sisters, another female getai singing duo formed by a pair of twins. The English-speaking Durian Sisters (played by Eurasian twins Teh May Wan and Teh Choy Wan) lip-sync Hokkien songs in their performances because they are not proficient in Hokkien and speak little Mandarin. They try to attract audiences through their pretty looks and sexy stage costumes (such as bra tops). The Durian Sisters shoot darts at the Papaya Sisters and challenge the latter to a duel at the Lixing Stage on the 30th night of the seventh month.

On the night of the "‘battle," the Papaya Sisters compete with the Durian Sisters in a singing marathon with various changes of outlandish stage costumes. The Durian Sisters put on bra tops that look like spikes on the husk of the durian fruit, and shoot out “laser beams” from the spikes of their “durian bras” as they shake their boobs vigorously. The Papaya Sisters try to counter the “force” with the divine powers that the Goddess has given them, but Big Papaya is unable to summon the special power she is supposed to have. The Papaya Sisters eventually collapse to the ground, lying about a metre apart from each other. Little Papaya and Big Papaya call out to each other, with Little Papaya writhing in pain as she struggles desperately to reach Big Papaya’s hand. As Little Papaya faints, the getai audience are touched by the strong emotional bond between the two sisters.

Little Papaya is hospitalised due to her illness. Big Papaya begs the Goddess to save Little Papaya, but the Goddess says that it is her fate. “This is not her fate,” cries Big Papaya, “I was the one who sinned!” Big Papaya visits Little Papaya in the hospital and wants to confess her relationship with Guan Yin. Little Papaya simply smiles and promises that she will go on singing with Big Papaya no matter what happens. Little Papaya eventually dies of cancer, and in the seventh month of the years to come, Big Papaya sings on the getai stage alone. The ghost of Little Papaya is amongst the audience, singing with her. She then joins Big Papaya on stage. The movie closes with Guan Yin taking photos of the “sisters” performing on stage and reviewing pictures of the Papayas in their happier days.

A Frankfurt School take on 881

Royston Tan’s films and his persona as a director have been discussed in Kenneth Paul Tan’s recent book, Cinema and Television in Singapore: Resistance in One Dimension. In this book, Tan examines Singapore’s television and film industries using critical theory from the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School perspective.[37] By projecting Singapore as a Marcusean “one-dimensional society” in which advanced industrial capitalism becomes a totalitarian force, Tan argues,

"Even the art-house variety of films by Eric Khoo and Royston Tan are ultimately susceptible to being drawn into the logic of advanced capitalist-industrial society. In one-dimensional society, any thought, or cultural product that purports to critique the system is either exiled as dangerous or transformed and rechanneled into forms that ultimately support the system, even if they remain ostensibly critical of it. In one-dimensional Singapore, instances of real critical thinking can be quickly neutered, absorbed into the system, and transformed profitably into docile commodities that serve the system."[38]

Despite being seen as an iconoclast whose earlier films tend to resist the conventional image of Singapore as a clean, affluent and disciplined society, Kenneth Paul Tan asserts that Royston Tan can also be easily co-opted into the dominant system, whereby his films are able to serve the commercial strategy of Raintree Pictures in producing exportable films.[39]

One of the five co-investors of 881, Raintree Pictures, is the filmmaking arm of Mediacorp, a state-owned media company that holds a monopoly on free-to-air television in Singapore. Raintree Pictures is known for its overtly commercial strategy in producing films that would appeal to the international viewer in regional and global markets beyond Singapore. While Raintree Pictures regularly produces commercial films rooted in local culture that would appeal to the masses in Singapore, it also produces a number of local films with an arthouse feel, such as Chicken Rice War (2000) and The Tree (2001).[40] Raintree’s past attempts to break into the regional market have involved artistic co-productions with Hong Kong using actors and directors from Hong Kong along with Singaporean talents, as well as financing high-profile Hong Kong movies such as Infernal Affairs II (2003).[41]

Raintree Pictures saw in 881 “an imagery that enables Singapore to package itself as an oriental product for the consumption of a fascinated audience of international commercial art cinema.”[42] In 881, the Papaya Sisters and Durian Sisters are dressed in outlandish stage costumes that include short Japanese yukatas with geisha hairdos, Native Indian headpieces, Afro wigs, and Thai classical dance costumes oddly mixed with peacock feathers. As Daniel Yun, the CEO of Raintree Pictures, says, “I think (881) will be exotically appealing to a lot of people around the world.” [43]

Kenneth Paul Tan accuses 881 as an exercise in self-exoticization, one that packages the getai popular culture of working-class Singaporeans into an orientalist spectacle for bourgeois arthouse audiences.[44] If we are to analyse 881 from this perspective, it would appear that the film extends a trend that Olivia Khoo has observed of films such as Mee Pok Man, 12 Storeys and 15, that is, the “reproduction of an aesthetics of the poor in Asian cinema for the pleasure of international film festival audiences.”[45]

Although 881 contains exotic images that appeal to international arthouse audiences, its primary target audience is still ordinary Singaporeans. Kenneth Paul Tan’s analysis only covers the political economy of the production of 881 and fails to explain the popular reception of the movie among heartlanders in Singapore. By setting up Singapore as an ideal-typical one-dimensional society, Tan’s account forecloses any debate on the potential of 881 in resisting hegemonic representations of the working class and subverting hierarchical binary oppositions. I argue that we need to understand the transgressive qualities of 881 in terms of the various moments of contradiction in the film, as well as its generic features as a musical.

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