copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

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.

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]

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] 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.”

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 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.

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] 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.

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.

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.

The working-class females in this film do not only speak, but sing, in Hokkien. Hokkien has been a “suppressed language” in Singapore,[71] because the Singapore government designates Mandarin (based on northern Chinese dialect) as the official language for the ethnic Chinese community in the country. Chinese immigrants in colonial Singapore were mostly from southern China and spoke a variety of dialects such as Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka, Hainanese and so on. Mandarin was not their native tongue, and Hokkien was the dialect with the largest number of native speakers amongst Chinese Singaporeans.[72] In 1979, the government launched the Speak Mandarin Campaign to encourage Chinese Singaporeans to adopt Mandarin as the common language in the Chinese community. Hokkien, along with other dialects, was thus banned in television and radio in Singapore. Television dramas and movies imported from Hong Kong and Taiwan had to be dubbed in Mandarin, from Cantonese and Hokkien respectively.[73]

The existing linguistic hierarchy in Singapore is such that English, being the official language for business and public administration, offers its speakers the greatest economic and political advantage; Mandarin is the official “ethnic language” for Chinese Singaporeans but is considered of little importance to educational and career achievement; while Chinese dialects are systematically marginalized.[74] The annual Speak Mandarin Campaign has been running for the past 30 years, and the Mandarin policy is so successful that the younger generation of Chinese Singaporeans (below 25 years old) have lost the ability to converse in Hokkien.[75]

From the 1990s onwards, dialects were allowed for artistic purposes in certain films and theatre productions,[76] as they no longer threatened the status of Mandarin. Although Hokkien has never been prohibited in everyday speech, it has now been “reduced to a language of the lowest-educated section of the working class and the illiterate,”[77] typically used when ordinary Singaporeans order food in the local coffee shops or from food hawkers.

Press discourse surrounding 881 credited the movie for reviving the dying Hokkien language in Singapore, as it had sparked interest in Hokkien music and getai concerts amongst young people in Singapore.[78] Part of the appeal of the film, therefore, lies in its “Hokkienness.” In fact, 881 follows after the commercial success of Jack Neo’s Money No Enough and I Not Stupid, both of which are known for heavy use of Hokkien in the films’ dialogue . Chua Beng Huat has pointed out in a media interview that using Hokkien in films creates a “rebellious effect” for it signifies a “return of the repressed.”[79] The viewing pleasure of the audience (especially if they are Hokkien-speaking heartlanders) is heightened when they hear a suppressed language such as Hokkien being spoken in a locally-produced film.[80]

However, in Jack Neo’s box-office hits, the adult males speak Hokkien and Mandarin, while the main female characters are middle-class and Mandarin-speaking. With Royston Tan’s 881, the Singaporean working-class female is finally able to break her silence in the realm of popular cinema, through the singing of Papaya Sisters and Aunt Ling’s extensive use of Hokkien in the film. The film places the Mandarin speakers and dialect speakers in alliance, and emphasizes their struggle against the English-speaking Singaporeans, reiterating a theme that has run through Jack Neo’s Money No Enough, I Not Stupid and I Not Stupid Too, as well as Royston Tan’s 15.

The local Chinese community in Singapore is bifurcated between the Chinese-educated / Chinese–speaking and the English-educated / English-speaking. Such a division was a result of the co-existence of English-medium schools and vernacular schools in Singapore during the colonial days. The vernacular schools for the Chinese, Malay and Indian students were important institutions in maintaining ethnic identities and boundaries.[81]

After independence in 1965, the Singapore government established integrated schools which housed students from different language streams within the same compound, and introduced compulsory bilingual education for primary and secondary schools. All students were required to study two languages, English and their “mother tongue,” that is Mandarin for the Chinese, Malay for the Malays and Tamils for the Indians.

At present there is still a divide between the English-speaking Chinese Singaporeans, and the Chinese-speaking Singaporeans who speak Mandarin and dialects. As English is the official language for government and business, the English-educated / English-speaking have access to better jobs with higher pay, and appear to be the elite occupying key positions in government. However, the Chinese-speaking community still constitute the majority, as Mandarin and dialects are still the most frequently used languages at home for 70% of the Chinese.[82] The Chinese-speaking community is further subdivided into a few groups: a) a small number of highly-educated bilingual Chinese who are well-versed in both English and Chinese languages, and are still able to secure well-paid jobs; b) older Singaporeans who were educated in Chinese-medium schools before the 1980s; and c) dialect-speaking Chinese who do not understand English. The second group experience frustration and resentment towards being discriminated in employment and being excluded from the ruling class, while the third group belong to the poor alienated underclass.[83]

In 881, the getai battle between the Mandarin-speaking Papaya Sisters and the English-speaking Durian Sisters is an allegory for the long-standing tension between the Mandarin / dialect speaking Chinese and the English-speaking Chinese in Singapore. By extension, it is also an allegory for the class-based contradiction between the working-class heartlanders and the middle-class English-speaking cosmopolitans. Contrary to expectations, the Papaya Sisters do not triumph in their singing duel against the Durians — Big Papaya loses her divine power and Little Papaya collapses from her illness. Royston Tan holds no fantasy that in reality, the English-speaking will still remain dominant in socio-economic position in Singapore society.

But the musical genre has three fictional worlds that are closely intertwined: the stage, the dream, and the “real” world; the stage and the dream world allow the free expression of fantasies and emotions that are not possible in the “real” world.[84] Hence Little Papaya is resurrected as a ghost at the end of the film, and goes on stage to sing together with Big Papaya. The final scene shows Guan Yin looking at the photographs of the Papaya Sisters and going into a reverie, leading into a fantasy sequence of Little Papaya dressed in a glittering white performing costume, sitting on a crescent moon in “heaven.” In the “real” world, the Mandarin-speaking have lost the battle, but in the dream world the resilience and the determination of the oppressed lives on.

Of course, it is easy for critics to say that this is merely an instance of symbolic resistance from the working class, rather than real social change for the subordinate groups in society, just as Jane Feuer has commented on the genre of the Hollywood musical,

"… the musical presents its vision of the unfettered human spirit in a way that forecloses a desire to translate that vision into reality. The Hollywood version of Utopia is entirely solipsistic. In its endless reflexivity the musical can offer only itself, only entertainment as its picture of Utopia."[85]

Yet such a judgment of the musical genre fails to take into account that musicals could have implications for liberation in the realm of personal politics, and the deeper consciousness towards class conflict generated by the themes of musicals.[86] Furthermore, Chuck Kleinhans has argued that we should not ignore small commonplace acts of resistance, for they are the starting-point for the cultivation of solidarity amongst the subordinated classes. Kleinhans explains this in terms of the subversive potential of the slave plantation cakewalk in the United States:

"Of course the original slave plantation cakewalk didn't change the fact of slavery, and of course it didn't overthrow it, but it did grant a group solidarity, a humor and bonding in the face of adversity and oppression, and this is no small thing. Such social bonding is the fertile ground of resistance. There is a tendency to dismiss such everyday forms of resistance to oppression. But to do so loses sight of the importance of small forms, the familiar expressions of consciousness."[87]

Royston Tan himself is from a working-class background — his parents are food hawkers who speak in Mandarin and Hokkien.[88] Tan is the proverbial working-class boy made good, as he has managed to garner critical acclaim at various international film festivals as a director. Royston Tan has called 881 “a celebration of tackiness and tacky music and tacky fashion,”[89] even though terms such as “tacky” and “kitsch” are employed by the middle-classes to denigrate the cultural products and styles associated with the working-class.[90]

As Chuck Kleinhans has pointed out in his 1994 essay, people from subordinate classes often borrow symbols, words and styles from the dominant class only to turn these elements around to mock at the beliefs, values and practices of the powerful groups in society.[91] In the same way, when Royston Tan says that his film celebrates “tackiness,” it is an act of cultural appropriation. By dressing the Papaya Sisters in feather-laden and loud-coloured stage costumes, which could be decoded as excessive and tasteless by the middle-class, Royston Tan is also mocking at the “stuffiness” and pretentiousness of the middle class in their preference for more discreet styles in fashion. In another scene where Guan Yin and the Papaya Sisters are eating at a coffee shop at night, Big Papaya sits with her legs wide apart in a deliberately vulgar act that seeks to offend middle-class standards of propriety.

The film 881 is also a vehicle in which Royston Tan challenges hegemonic discourses of the working class in society. In her book Class, Self, Culture, Beverley Skeggs has discussed how the working class has often been represented as unmodern by the elites, with spatial fixity (or the quality of not being mobile) functioning as a signifier of the unmodernity of the working-class.[92] For example, living in public housing estates or residing in a certain district automatically marks a person as working-class, and working-class persons are named by the locations they come from. This is already employed by the Singapore government in designating the working-class as heartlanders, as those who are living in public housing estates, who can only make their living in Singapore. The geographical fixity of the heartlanders is then contrasted with the mobility of the well-educated cosmopolitans who are comfortable working and living anywhere in the world.

881 plays upon this image of the spatially fixed and immobile heartlander. The Papaya Sisters have to rush from one getai stage to another in various locations in Singapore. Guan Yin drives the girls around as they move from one getai to the next. As Guan Yin’s car drives on, blocks and blocks of HDB flats recede from view as Guan Yin drives past them, and the blocks never seem to end. No matter where and how much the Papaya Sisters move, their movement does not in any way alter their location in the “real” world. They are merely moving from one HDB residential district to another; they will never be able to leave Singapore. They are merely moving from one getai to another, but working as getai singers will not move them upward in the socio-economic hierarchy. However, on the getai stage (the sphere of fantasy in the musical), the Papaya Sisters can “travel around the world” through dressing up in costumes from different cultures, such as Japanese yukatas and Native American headdresses, thus undermining the discourse of immobility of working-class people.

Not only has 881 been able to appeal to the masses in Singapore, it has also attracted the attention and enjoyment of the English-speaking middle-class cosmopolitans, allowing the latter to take a closer look at the getai culture of the Hokkien-speaking working-class, which has hitherto been marginalized and ignored. This is no mean feat in itself. But one must note that curiosity and interest towards getai culture amongst movie audiences does not always last very long. Royston Tan released another movie in 2008, 12 Lotus, as a follow-up film to 881. 12 Lotus is another melodramatic musical film about a getai singer who is abused by cruel and heartless men throughout her life. The film only managed to gross about US$681,924 at the box office, compared to 881 which took in more than S$3 million (approximately US$1.96 million).[93] We will have to wait and see if the bad boy of Singaporean cinema returns to more controversial topics in his next feature film.

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