The Durians challenge the Papayas to a singing duel on the last day of the seventh month. The losers will have to retire from the getai circuit forever.

Guan Yin sells his beloved cock, so that his mother can have money to sew stage costumes for the Papayas, in preparation for the battle against the Durians.

Aunt Ling and the Papaya Sisters visit the Getai Goddess at her temple again.

The Getai Goddess gives the Papaya Sisters more divine powers by casting a spell on them.

In the conversation between Aunt Ling and Getai Goddess, it is revealed that both women have fallen in love with Guan Yin’s father. Aunt Ling sheepishly confesses that Guan Yin is the son she has conceived with the man whom her sister also loves.

The Durian Sisters seduce the crowds on the night of the singing duel.

Press reports of how the getai audiences are touched by the sisterly love between the Papayas.

Little Papaya is hospitalized. Big Papaya begs the Getai Goddess to save Little Papaya, confessing that she has violated the rules given by the goddess.

At the hospital, Big Papaya wants to explain to Little Papaya that she has kissed Guan Yin. Little Papaya hushes her and tells her, “Just be happy.” Little Papaya smiles and promises that she will always sing together with Big Papaya.

The Papaya Sisters embrace each other and begin to sing together. The camera revolves round the two girls as they hug each other, and at every turn...

...Little Papaya’s hair falls off, until...

...she finally dies in the arms of Big Papaya.

In the year that follows, Big Papaya sings alone at getai concerts.






With its core elements of song, dance, performance and revelry, the musical film embodies Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque. According to Bakhtin, the carnival refers to popular-festive forms of activity during which social order, hierarchy and authority are suspended and inverted.[46] [open endnotes in new window] When Royston Tan makes a musical about getai performances during the Hungry Ghost Festival, it further incorporates the Bakhtinian concept of the grotesque which has been closely associated with the spirit of the carnival. During the Hungry Ghost Festival, the working-class crowds gathered at outdoor concerts (getai) enter into the carnival mode of festivity, community and laughter (the getai hosts are fond of cracking dirty jokes). At the same time, the objective of the festival — to entertain ghosts released from Hell — is associated with death and taboo. As Bakhtin has written in his book Rabelais and His World, the essence of the grotesque is ambivalence towards life and death.[47] Bakhtin further explains:

"The grotesque...discloses the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order, another way of life. ...This bodily participation in the potentiality of another world, the bodily awareness of another world has an immense importance for the grotesque."[48]

In the same way, getai audiences acknowledge that they are watching the performances together with ghosts; the front row seats of the getai concert are left empty — supposedly reserved for the ghosts.[49]

Therefore, the spirit of carnivalesque and its oppositional impulses are already invested in both the genre and subject matter of the film 881. It thus allows Royston Tan to engage in a critique of prevailing hierarchies of gender and class in Singapore, while operating within the confines of mainstream commercial cinema.

The unruly woman in 881:
subverting the gender hierarchy

After watching 881, that which leaves the deepest impression for the audience is its theme of sisterhood — the intimate and intense emotional bond between Big Papaya and Little Papaya, and Aunt Ling’s care and support towards the Papaya Sisters, celebrate a form of female solidarity. And the sisterhood in 881 is one that can be potentially empowering as it is supposed to exclude men in their emotional lives, since the Papaya Sisters are to abstain from love and physical intimacy with men if they are to receive the gift of powerful voices from the Goddess of Getai. The sworn-sister relationship between Big Papaya and Little Papaya mirrors the relationship between Aunt Ling and her twin sister, the Goddess of Getai. In both cases, the sisterhood is temporarily broken, but finally reconciled. Big Papaya betrays the sisterhood when she kisses Guan Yin, shortly after Little Papaya reminds her that they have promised the Goddess not to let any man touch them. Aunt Ling and the Goddess have stopped talking to each other for 20 years because both have fallen in love with the same man. They finally stop bickering, and are able to face each other and their past. As for Little Papaya, she forgives Big Papaya for violating her vows, and remains united with Big Papaya in singing (after death).

In the film, the Papaya Sisters converse mostly in Mandarin, whereas Aunt Ling speaks Hokkien and a smattering of Cantonese, another southern Chinese dialect. On the other hand, Guan Yin, the main male character in 881, is a mute. Although Guan Yin is dumb, he is not truly reduced to silence. The movie opens with Guan Yin (played by Qi Yuwu) “narrating” the backgrounds of the Papaya Sisters with his “internal voice” (as he is a mute), as a sort of prologue to the story. His “internal voice” as voiceover provides a running commentary on the Papaya Sisters’ lives throughout the movie. He articulates their feelings:

“The Papaya Sisters loved each other; it’s a love that will keep them together.”
“Little Papaya’s body was failing, but she said nothing.”

In addition, the “voice” of Guan Yin in the movie is not the voice of the actor Qi Yuwu, but the voice of the director Royston Tan. It appears that the working-class women in the film are spoken for by the working-class male protagonist and the male director. The following comment by Guan Yin in one of the scenes in 881 is most telling: “I don’t know if it happens to every getai singer. On the stage, the songs are irresistibly powerful. But in real life, there is only silence.”

In a media interview, Royston Tan explains, “Through (Guan Yin), I put myself in the movie. It is my perspective — what I see and interpret of the local getai scene.”[50] The story of the female getai performers is therefore presented to the audience through the eyes of Guan Yin. This is further reinforced by scenes in which Guan Yin takes pictures of the Papaya Sisters when they are performing on stage. Towards the end of the movie, Guan Yin is seen taking photos of Big Papaya and the “ghost” of Little Papaya on stage, and then looking at old photos of happier times when the two sisters perform together.

On the surface, the women in 881 are subject to the controlling male gaze of the male protagonist (Guan Yin) and the director. The character of Guan Yin, however, is far more complex and ambiguous than being merely the screen surrogate of the male director looking into the lives of the Papaya Sisters. Throughout the film, Guan Yin is dressed in tight-fitting singlets and shirts intended to show off the lean, taut, muscular physique of actor Qi Yuwu. Because he cannot speak, his body thus becomes an erotic object to be gazed at, by female spectators and gay male audiences. “Guan Yin” in Mandarin is literally translated at “shutting out sound,” but it also sounds like the name of the Goddess of Mercy worshipped by Chinese. The goddess Guan Yin (also known as Kuan Yin) originates from a Buddhist deity in India, which entered China with male attributes, but was later transformed into female form.[51] Although Guan Yin in 881 takes on the male form in corporal appearance, he is simultaneously a symbol of queerness that threatens the hegemonic dichotomy between male and female in society.

The Papaya Sisters are late, but finally make their grand entrance in the costumes of classical Thai dancers. The Durian Sisters shoot “laser beams” from their “durian bras.”
The Papaya Sisters try to counter the “force” but Big Papaya finds that she is unable to summon her divine powers. Little Papaya manages to fend off the Durians by herself, but her nose begins to bleed. The Durians have not been defeated. They re-emerge after another change of costumes, and shoot another round of lasers at the Papayas.
The Papayas collapse to the ground. Big Papaya tries to reach out her hand to touch Little Papaya. Blood flows from Little Papaya’s mouth, like swordsmen who sustain “internal injuries” after a battle in a wuxia film.

There is another textual element in 881 that destabilizes the gender hierarchy of male over female, and that is the insertion of the character of Aunt Ling. Aunt Ling is a fat seamstress who sews the Papaya Sisters’ stage costumes and gives them emotional support throughout their singing career. She houses Big Papaya in her own home when Big Papaya’s mother chases her daughter out of the house. When the Papaya Sisters get into a catfight with the Durian Sisters at one of the getai shows, Aunt Ling rushes in to break the fight and chastise the Durian Sisters' sugar daddy. Not only is she loud and fat, Aunt Ling constantly provides comic relief in the movie, for instance she misuses the word “techno” to describe a cat on the street, and constantly jokes about how sexually obsessed Guan Yin’s father was. Furthermore, Guan Yin often plays with a pet cock and Aunt Ling continually teases her son about his “cock,” generating a kind of in-your-face bawdiness in the film. When lewd jokes are being made by a woman, it disturbs conventional notions of men directing dirty jokes at women, and temporarily unsettles the social hierarchy.[52]

In other words, Aunt Ling exemplifies the figure of the fat unruly woman that have been present in popular culture ranging from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Miss Piggy of The Muppet Show, and Roseanne Barr-Arnold, star of ABC sitcom Roseanne.[53] In her book The Unruly Woman: Gender and Genres of Laughter, Kathleen Rowe identifies some significant qualities of the unruly woman in popular culture. Rowe notes that the unruly woman “creates disorder by dominating, or trying to dominate men;” her body is fat and her speech is “excessive, in quantity, content, or tone.”[54] In addition, the unruly woman is a joke-maker and her behaviour is associated with whorishness or loose sexual morals.[55]

Although Rowe’s discussion of the fat unruly woman is confined to literary and television characters from Western history and culture, the figure of the fat comedienne is nonetheless familiar to the Chinese audiences in Singapore, the most famous being the late Lydia Sum, a television host and actress from Hong Kong who was invited to act in the Singaporean television sitcom Living with Lydia in 2003. Lydia Sum was known for her body weight and domineering personality in Hong Kong showbiz. Similarly, Liu Ling Ling, who plays Aunt Ling in 881, has been a veteran host in the getai circuit for more than 30 years. Her fans like her because she accepts her weight and is not afraid of to make jokes about her large size.[56] She reprises her stage persona of the fat unruly woman in her role as Aunt Ling in 881, functioning as the perfect foil to the melodramatic heroines represented by the Papaya Sisters.

881 and the genre of the Mandarin musical

For working-class women such as Little Papaya and Aunt Ling, they exist at the lower rungs of society with little hope of access to material wealth and success. At the beginning of the movie, Little Papaya is seen sitting at her fruit stall in the market, smoking and staring into space. Thus becoming famous getai singers is a dream that Little Papaya and Big Papaya seek to pursue, one that gives them a possible route out of alienation and meaninglessness. As the press release for the film puts it, the getai “with all its pomp and pageantry is a respite from the emptiness and dreariness of (the Papaya Sisters’) own lives.”[57]

881 is reminiscent of an earlier Singaporean film directed by Glen Goei, known as Forever Fever (1998), which was picked up by Miramax and released in the United States as That’s the Way I Like It. Set in 1978 Singapore, Forever Fever was about a grocery clerk, Hock, who idolized Bruce Lee and joined a disco competition in order to win cash for buying a motorcycle. Hock incorporated kungfu moves into his dance and won the first prize in the disco competition.[58] While Forever Fever was inspired by John Badham’s 1977 musical Saturday Night Fever and would find resonance amongst international audiences with its soundtrack of disco hits such as Kung Fu Fighting and Staying Alive,[59] 881 has more in common with the Mandarin musical by employing the familiar figure of the ill-fated songstress, which has endured through Chinese cinema since the 1930s.

In his book Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, Stephen Teo has explained that the precursor of the modern Mandarin musical (gewu pian or gechang pian) was the chaqu pian.[60] Chaqu pian were typically melodramas or comedies with songs inserted into the narrative, sung by the lead actress, who often played the role of a songstress suffering in a tragic life (such as a nightclub singer).[61] Zhou Xuan, one of the earliest singing stars in Chinese cinema in the 1930s to 1940s, personified the “sing-song girl” archetype with films such as Street Angel / Malu Tianshi (1937) and Song of a Songstress / Genü Zhige (1948).[62] In the 1950s, the Mandarin musical genre changed from the chaqu pian format to the gechang pian format, and the latter was to bear a closer resemblance to Western musicals.[63] The queen of gechang pian was undoubtedly Grace Chang, also known as Ge Lan, who was well-known for her brilliant dancing skills in Mambo Girl / Manbo Nülang (1957), and for her role as a feisty nightclub singer in The Wild Wild Rose / Ye Meigui Zhi Lian (1960), a film that was loosely adapted from Bizet’s Carmen.[64]

Popular Mandarin songs sung by Grace Chang continue to be remembered with fondness today and is still being referenced in Chinese cinema, the most notable example being Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Hole / Dong (1998). The Hole features a man and a woman living in two apartments separated by a hole in the ceiling, surviving a virus fever that has overrun Taipei City. The movie highlights the urban alienation experienced by the Taiwanese. but provides a refreshing take on Tsai’s favourite theme by including fantasy song-and-dance sequences set to five musical numbers by Grace Chang, such as I Want Your Love/Wo Yao Ni De Ai (adapted from Georgia Gibbs’ I Want You To Be My Baby), I Love Calypso / Wo Ai Ka Li Su (from the Mandarin musical Air Hostess / Kongzhong Xiaojie in 1958) and I Don’t Care Who You Are / Bu Guan Ni Shi Shui (from The Loving Couple / Xin Xin Xiang Yin starring Grace Chang in 1960).[65]

Royston Tan’s 2001 short film Hock Hiap Leong has been regarded as a tribute to The Hole. The movie is about a young man who laments the imminent demolition of a 55-year-old coffeeshop. It also references Grace Chang’s I Love Cha Cha / Wo Ai Qia Qia (from Mambo Girl) in a dreamy song-and-dance segment with gaudy costumes and feather boas, transporting the coffee shop to the 1960s.[66] Although both Hock Hiap Leong and Cut employed camp effects for critique of public policy, the length of these short films has not allowed Royston Tan to reflect upon more deep-seated fault lines in Singapore society, and it was until 881 that Royston Tan could exploit the musical genre more fully.

As a film set in contemporary Singapore, 881 evokes nostalgia for the Mandarin musical in a more subtle way. Some of the getai costumes worn by the Papaya Sisters, such as the silver cabaret-style leotards and feather headdresses, are reminiscent of performance costumes in the Shaw Brothers Mandarin musical Hong Kong Nocturne / Xiangjiang Hua Yue Ye (1967) and its follow-up film Hong Kong Rhapsody / Hua Yue Liang Xiao (1968).[67] Both films were directed by Japanese director Inoue Umetsugu, and were among the last few Mandarin musicals before Hong Kong cinema was dominated by martial arts films in the 1970s.[68]

As Stephen Teo has pointed out, the romantic male leads in Mandarin musicals of the 1950s to 1960s tended to be weak and effeminate, playing supportive roles to the stronger female characters.[69] Similarly, in 881, Guan Yin is relegated to a supportive role — when the Papaya Sisters perform, Guan Yin is not the male partner dancing on stage with them. He is better remembered as a chauffeur for the Papayas and an errand-boy for Aunt Ling. As a mute he does not speak; although his internal voice narrates the story and feelings of the Papaya Sisters, he gives little explanation of his own emotions and romantic (and perhaps sexual) interest in the Papaya Sisters. In contrast to the silence of Guan Yin, the voices of women singing Hokkien songs pervade the movie — the Papaya Sisters singing Hokkien numbers during their getai performances, Aunt Ling breaking out into a sad Hokkien song as she sews the Papaya Sisters’ stage costumes, Big Papaya’s mother (a former getai singer) singing a heart-wrenching Hokkien song to express how she misses her daughter after she drives Big Papaya out of her home.

The “spirit” of Little Papaya is among the getai audience, standing next to Big Papaya’s mother. The ghost of Little Papaya joins Big Papaya on stage.

Indeed, the Hokkien songs in 881 are a central component of the film’s success. The film’s soundtrack was sold out upon release, and one of the songs in the soundtrack was amongst the 100 most viewed video clips on YouTube.[70] The Hokkien songs featured in the film include traditional getai songs adapted from Hokkien oldies such as Spring Breeze / Wang Chunfeng and Xue Mei Dreams of a Gentleman / Xuemei Sijun (originally a Hokkien opera excerpt). Some tracks are songs made famous by the late getai singer Chen Jinlang, such as The Last Breath / Zuihou Yikouqi (written by Chen) and The Wayward Son at His Mother’s Funeral / Langzi Song Qinniang (adapted from the Hokkien opera excerpt Five Drums Before Dawn / Wu Geng Gu). Chen’s songs describe his feelings when he was in jail, as well as the pain he experienced when he suffered from cancer.

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