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Secretly Filmed, a Forgotten Movie That Portrays Singapore as It Was

By Bianca Husodo

Pictured on the most right is Ben Gazzara, who played the main protaganist of ‘Saint Jack’ (1979), an American pimp residing in Singapore, named Jack Flowers. On the left are local actors Osman Zailani and Judy Lim. This scene was shot at the now-demolished Chequers Hotel in Novena.
 
Courtesy of New Horizons Picture Corp.
Pictured on the most right is Ben Gazzara, who played the main protaganist of ‘Saint Jack’ (1979), an American pimp residing in Singapore, named Jack Flowers. On the left are local actors Osman Zailani and Judy Lim. This scene was shot at the now-demolished Chequers Hotel in Novena.

The film “Saint Jack” opens with a languorous pan along the Singapore harbour at dawn. The camera’s gaze glides from archaic bumboats to the speeding traffic on the streets beside the monolithic General Post Office Building. There’s no music; its absence filled with the early rumble and exclamations of a stirring city — patiently waiting for the story to unfold.

It’s obvious that this is not the modern, gum-free, skyscraper-crowded Singapore.

Filmed in 1978, “Saint Jack” was the first Hollywood movie shot entirely on location in Singapore. The film is the American director Peter Bogdanovich’s cinematic adaptation of Paul Theroux’s 1973 novel of the same name. Auteurs the likes of Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino had cited the movie as a notable inspiration to their work.

The central subject of the film is Jack Flowers, a middle-aged American pimp — played by Ben Gazzara, clad in a brash range of batik shirts for the most part — who has dreams of starting a brothel. But he also happens to be a saint, as the storyline would like to suggest. Navigating through the slippery, changing landscape of Singapore in the ’70s, Flowers encounters a confection of characters. He’s on a genial first-name basis with the transgenders and sex workers at Bugis Street. He’s the middleman between the latter and American G.I.s who are in town for R&R. He eventually gets into trouble with a group of triad mafioso in Chinatown for building his own bordello.

Courtesy of New Horizons Picture Corp.A scene at Empress Place Seafood restaurant, which was located at what is now known as Boat Quay. Left to right: the director Peter Bogdanovich, actress Monika Subramaniam, cinematographer Robby Müller and the actor Ben Gazzara, who played the film’s protagonist.
A scene at Empress Place Seafood restaurant, which was located at what is now known as Boat Quay. Left to right: the director Peter Bogdanovich, actress Monika Subramaniam, cinematographer Robby Müller and the actor Ben Gazzara, who played the film’s protagonist.

Although trailing the narrative through a foreigner’s perspective — not a coloniser but a dejected outsider that’s as squashed and choked as the locals are — “Saint Jack” is an unfiltered peek into what once was the underbelly of Singapore, the sordid post-colonial traces within the city that the government wanted to obliterate.

The movie, with its unflinching depiction of hookers and triad culture, cuts through the laboriously crafted image that the government was putting forth of Singapore. A majority of its local actors was a diverse pool of amateurs cast from the streets. It painted over its careful, rounded outlines with raw, sharp edges — portraying an unseen part of Singapore that was wild and untamed. It’s hardly any surprise then that “Saint Jack” was banned in the very country it was shot in.

Prior to “Saint Jack”, films that were shot in Singapore treated the country as merely a background for outsiders to take centre stage against. Singapore has no inner life or subjectivity in these films — interchangeable for ‘the Orient’, or “an exotic hot zone”. In these films’ narratives, things tend to only happen to foreigners; locals fade as blurry extras. “So Darling, So Deadly” (1966), a kitschy Eurospy flick, was one of several film foreign film productions that was shot on location in Singapore in the ’60s. The narrative mostly comprised of Caucasians, while the locals simply chameleon into the setting as food sellers, customers, workers and people on the streets. Meanwhile in 1967’s “Pretty Polly”, a young English girl on a tour of Asia arrives in Singapore and falls hard for a charming Eurasian guide. Local extras were hired to play the service staff at Raffles Hotel, some given a few lines. But “Pretty Polly” proved to be a stale period piece, representing a Singapore that barely existed beyond the palatial confines of colonial architecture. 

Courtesy of New Horizons Picture Corp.Stills from “Saint Jack”. Clockwise from top left: The Singapore River, lined with docked bumboats; inside a shophouse at Amoy Street; the lobby of then-York Hotel at Scotts Road; Amoy Street.
Stills from “Saint Jack”. Clockwise from top left: The Singapore River, lined with docked bumboats; inside a shophouse at Amoy Street; the lobby of then-York Hotel at Scotts Road; Amoy Street.

Ben Slater, a film historian and the author of “Kinda Hot: The Making of Saint Jack in Singapore”, writes that this was not the Singapore that Bogdanovich, Saint Jack’s director, was seeking. He wanted to capture the real thing — or perhaps, what was left of it.

How Bogdanovich acquired his filming permit for a manifesto that spotlights the seedy parts of Singapore from a stringent government that was determined to present an unblemished image for its fledgeling nation turns out to be quite the anecdote: he blatantly lied to the government. Bogdanovich, along with a few key team members, concocted a bogus script for a movie titled “Jack of Hearts”, a decidedly neutral romance ersatz that managed to include many crucial scenes in “Saint Jack”, which the government deemed safe enough to accept. Of course, in hindsight, this subterfuge played a large part in solidifying the eventual ban of the film in Singapore.

From the collection of Patricia Kirkham. Courtesy of Ben SlaterThe film crew, shooting at the Singapore River.
The film crew, shooting at the Singapore River.

Nearly 20 years after “Saint Jack” was made, in 1997, the Singapore International Film Festival decided to mark its tenth anniversary with screenings of long-forgotten Singapore-made films from the ’70s. Philip Cheah, the festival director, first saw “Saint Jack” through a “very poor” video copy that was lent to him by Eric Khoo, son of Khoo Teck Puat, who as a young teenage lad had hung around on the set of what he thought was “Jack of Hearts” in his father’s hotel.

Cheah had to persuade the Singapore Board of Censorship that the festival should be permitted to show it, stressing its value for historical reasons. Permission was granted — but only for a one-off screening.

“I thought it was quite incredible,” recalls Cheah in Slater’s book, referring to his first time watching the film. “You saw all these places that exist in your memory, but which you cannot see anymore. This makes it a Singapore film.”

From the collection of Patricia Kirkham. Courtesy of Ben SlaterBehind the scenes of “Saint Jack”, the film’s cast and crew on set at a now-demolished building in River Valley (left) and at the old York Hotel (right).
Behind the scenes of “Saint Jack”, the film’s cast and crew on set at a now-demolished building in River Valley (left) and at the old York Hotel (right).

The 114-minute movie is slow-paced, taking its time to soak in a Singapore that’s jarringly unfamiliar. Diggers and construction teams had, in fact, begun slowly chipping away at the old city when “Saint Jack” was filmed. 

As time passed, the physical world of “Saint Jack” was demolished, erased and prohibited. Gone were many of the addresses that the crew shot. Bugis Street’s transgenders were flushed out to Changi Village, at the far eastern tip of the town, leaving an absence of their defining razzmatazz. The triad-teemed Chinatown was eviscerated by the development of shopping centres and new residential housing. The old York Hotel was torn down, replaced by a shopping centre. Jack Flowers’s apartment at 21 Tew Chew Street near Boat Quay, 51 Transit Road where he has his drunken tattoos and 40 Bras Basah where we see him leave the parlour are all nonexistent. The roads are still there — but the shophouses and residential buildings have been replaced.

By the ’80s, Singapore had become a clean slate: Demolition and rebuilding were a permanent fixture anywhere you looked. Whole communities were uprooted and relocated, eradicating ways of life along with the kampongs, or villages, that huddled outside the city centre. Gradually, the crowded and chaotic image of colonial and early post-colonial Singapore was replaced by a more regulated and decongested facade of a First World metropolis. Singapore obtained itself a skyline, a stock exchange and an odourless river.

Courtesy of New Horizon Corp.Towards the end of “Saint Jack”, an expansive panoramic pan of Singapore’s horizon, in which the absence of gleaming skyscrapers is apparent.
Towards the end of “Saint Jack”, an expansive panoramic pan of Singapore’s horizon, in which the absence of gleaming skyscrapers is apparent.

The official ban on “Saint Jack” was lifted in 2006. Since then, there have been many screenings of the film in Singapore; its 40th-anniversary screening took place in 2019 at the Oldham Theatre. It has, however, remained as an esoteric documentation of a bygone Singapore, unheard-of to many locals. Juxtapose “Saint Jack” to the polished up rendering of Singapore in Hollywood’s more contemporary all-Asian blockbuster “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) — where a dream version of the city is made of all glass and artifice — and the latter easily pales in comparison. 

When “Saint Jack” was released in London in 1980, K.C. Goh, a journalist who watched it there, submitted an opinion column to The Straits Times. “The consensus among Singaporeans I know who have seen the movie is that it was amazingly true to life in its portrayal of Singapore’s underworld and the seaminess of the late 1960s or early 1970s,” writes Goh, “and more delightful, the capture of authentic Singapore English in all its unadorned glory, as she is spoken. [The film is] not pretty, not flattering, but no misrepresentation.”

More often than not, authenticity transcends our familiarity with the modern. The rawness of “what is” is more alluring than the sterilised perfection of “what should be”.