The Bugis Street you know today—the maze-like three-storey complex that touts itself as Singapore’s largest street-shopping location—is actually a copycat. Gasps! In fact, this new Bugis Street lies on Albert Street, a stone throw away from the original.
It was Singapore Tourism Board’s attempt at bringing back the once exotic atmosphere of Bugis Street. The new Bugis Street is much more of a shopping heaven for tourists and locals though, quite unlike the original. That said, where is the old Bugis Street now? It lies within Bugis Junction, an integrated development combining a shopping mall, an office tower and a hotel. It is cobblestoned, air-conditioned and squeaky-clean. Of course, looking nothing like it did in the past.
Before the 1950s, the Bugis area was where you would find Singapore’s pirates: seafaring people from South Sulawesi province in Indonesia, known as the Bugis or Buginese. Yup, that’s how Bugis got its name. The Bugis were among the first groups of people to arrive in Singapore after the British established a trading settlement on the island in 1819. They were maritime traders known for their fierce character and sense of honour, and often raided English and Dutch ships.
It is believed that the term ‘Bogeyman’, used to frighten children into good behaviour, came from ‘Bugi Man’, which references the Europeans’ fear of the merciless Bugis pirates.
In the early 19th century, prior to the Second World War, Bugis was home to a large number of Japanese brothels. By 1905, there were 633 Karayuki-san working in 109 brothels (officially), highly concentrated along Bugis Street, and its neighbouring Malabar Street and Hylam Street. The number is believed to be far larger though, ranging in the thousands when including the unlicensed prostitutes.
Now, here comes the juicy part. In the 1950s, transvestites (people who dressed in a manner traditionally from the opposite gender) began to rendezvous along Bugis Street. This inconspicuous little back alley would transform at night, becoming the place for cheap booze, good food, and men dressed in scandalously tight clothes.
Transvestites and transsexuals walked—or should I say, sashayed—down the street, putting on a show for the throngs of tourists, celebrities, soldiers and seamen coming from all over the world, hoping to catch a glimpse. It was Bugis drag that put Singapore on the world map. There was even a saying among Westerners, that it was easy to tell which were the real females: the transvestites were drop-dead gorgeous, while the rest were real women.
Some would tease and sit on visitor’s laps, posing for photographs for a fee, while others tried to hook up with half-drunk sailors and Americans for a profitable business exchange. All sorts of frisky things you could ever think of were happening in Bugis — from stripteases to the you-know-what in public toilets.
Infamously, Bugis Street was where you could watch ‘The Dance of the Flaming Arseholes’. True to its name, sailors (obviously drunk) would jump onto the roof of the equally infamous public toilet, located at the junction of Bugis Street and Malabar Street, and dance with a flaming roll of paper stuck up their nether regions till they couldn’t handle the heat. Indeed, it was quite the sight.
Until the 1980s, Bugis Street was the craziest place to be in town. But by the mid-80s, construction of the Bugis MRT Station and urban redevelopment of the area put a stop to the nightly transgender bazaar culture.
Albeit crude, the history of Bugis was definitely colourful, and pretty unexpected, given Singapore’s reputation of being fairly conservative. Of course, it is best that such traditions stay in the past and remain a part of Singapore’s unique history.
Bugis today is classy, and way more than just Bugis Street. For what to eat, drink and do in Bugis, read our local’s guide to Bugis here.
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At Culturally, we offer customised hands-on cultural experiences for you and your loved ones to enjoy and have fun whilst learning about other cultures! Check out our full list of experiences available in Bugis here!