We Could Have Danced All Night- Play And the Anatomy of Coming Out

This, like a few other essays that I’ve written over the years,was first published on Poskod.sg,

We Could Have Danced All Night: Play And the Anatomy of Coming Out[1]

The first time I saw strobe lights was at Play. That’s probably not true. But the first strobe lights I truly remember, green lasers that burned themselves into the back of my head, were at Play. They back-lit a man dancing in that way gay men dance: beautifully, with self-conscious un-self-consciousness. I was entranced. It was before the club updated its light fixtures, back when it was dark and truly seedy, and all I could see was that shadowed mass dancing in his little hotspot like a junked-up Green Fairy, dancing for what seemed to be hours in my liquored judgment. It was probably only one song. I never saw his face. And in a blast of chemical haze from a cheap smoke machine, he was gone.

In a similarly entrancing way, Play the Gay Club and Bar, has gone. A few weeks before it shut down its Tanjong Pagar Road premises (saying this suggests there will be another premises), there was a shocking social media announcement, met by disbelieving, mournful hashtags. The space has most likely been ceded to an upscale restaurant—one of several encroaching on the area from Tras, Duxton and Ann Siang—that offered double or triple the rent. In a dignified manner, in Play’s final weekends, those who cared snaked around it to pay tribute. Old hens and cocks turned up for one last claw-scratch on the storied dancefloor, the boi bois and ger gers chanted and perspired inappropriately to the end, the bar ran out of alcohol, the front of house nonetheless charged cover, the lights came on, and a week later, it was all gutted, fetid queer trace elements flung out to compost in the seedy Tanjong Pagar streets.

The first time I went to Play, I didn’t actually go in. I was driven past after work by some gay bosses of mine at a nearby café where I was part-timing as a cook. All I remember of that drive-by is seeing an attractive gay couple holding hands, walking on the streets outside Play. Right there, gazing smugly from the street as we drove past. It was a magnificent vision of gay nonchalance in the heyday of Thio Li Ann’s parliamentary assaults on homosexuals. It’s also the picture of what I’ve heard some activists say (or maybe it’s just an echo of what was going through my mind that very moment) about apathetic young gays who couldn’t care less about oppression if they could party at then-hot ‘n trendy Play and hold hands at Tanjong Pagar.

I was going through an awkward phase at the time where I was resignedly—occasionally even happily—gay but stayed chastely in my room, away from the influence of other gay men. As it turned out the café I was working at was “gay friendly,” but as a mark of protest, or fear, I stayed in the kitchen for the most part, making mounds of tiramisu. I drank my cocktails at home and watched lots of porn, thinking to myself that I didn’t want to be one of those homosexuals, the kinds I saw with increasing frequency on the street, out and proud, tight-teed and beautiful, whose body language told me everything I knew about their sordid and prolific sex lives and aimless, over-saturated parties.

It was only years later that I actually went into Play. It was my first year in university, and the curiosity finally got the better of me. I was with a friend from school who would later become my best friend, and even then, as he was leading me through the maze of Chinatown streets, I was skeptical. When I first saw him in school, he was coursing through the Arts canteen with a bunch of obviously gay men in tight polo tees and shorts. He was wearing sunglasses. I was terrified. “A gay bar is a snake pit,” I had written precociously in a play around the time.

We drank strong beers from a 7-Eleven, I was overly chatty, and we went in.

We danced for a while, redeemed our drink coupons, made small talk with new friends, nodded politely. I fussed about my drink, stirring my jug of ice with my straw. Eventually, my friend left me alone on the dance floor. He’d gone to smoke (I never knew he smoked) and for the first time, I stood about staring at men sucking face in real life. It was simultaneously hotly erotic, terrifying and sad. For the first time, I saw myself in the light of other gay men and felt— with my bad hair, unbridled chubbiness and awkward shuffling—deeply, deeply unattractive.

It was then that I witnessed my phantasmagoric strobe light vision. I was looking up from my unfabulousness towards the stage and saw him, my C21st Green Fairy, shrouded in darkness, perfectly hemmed into his own skin, but dancing his inner gay light throughout the club and into my Long Island Iced Tea heart. “Welcome to the rest of your life,” he seemed to say, like a gay patron saint, willing everything around him to orgasm, “welcome to the rest of your life”.  I stood about un-dancing, un-danced-with, unsexy and un-kissed on this night full of expectation, and I looked at him and felt a self-conscious mixture of envy, hatred and homecoming.

And then he was gone.

Shortly after, I left alone, drunk and some kind of happy. I’d be back again and again. Play became a go-to for my friends and I, mainly because we were young and it was the young kids’s gay club (no offense etc). Sure, there were and are other clubs and bars, pop-up parties here and there, even a string of ridiculous Sunday night gay parties, but Play was where you saw avowedly straight friends from school tearing into their homosexuality as if eating a steak; Play was where you could entertain the teenage fantasies that you weren’t out in time to make real; Play was where the people in the leather leggings, sequined bustiers and astro-pink hair at Maxwell market were headed after mee-pok and you wanted to be where they were going. It was fun, and boppy, and candy-coated.

And there was something in the lights that was powerfully addictive. Something in the strobes. At first, it was the way those unnatural colours—purple, blue, green—ushered us into a world outside the quotidian, into a different kind of closet, a fabulous one, where “being yourself” was both an earnest mantra and a kind of ironic performance. It was a world, a brand new world both within and outside of the one our homophobic parents had built on rock and roll; we’d built our queer little world with strobe lights, K-Pop; fuck gender, fuck men. It was all the liberation we needed—surely that kind of dancing, that kind of transgressive intimacy, even for those short hours in the dark, was enough, the end-point, the Pet Shop Boys’s Western hinterland.

But eventually, every weekend began to feel like a continuation of the last, stretching out into one long smear of spent nights and false highs. And then it wasn’t so much an elaboration than identical Groundhog Saturdays coming and going in circles, like the concentric circles of gay social life. Under the glare of the post-party Maxwell market lights, we’d read the constellations of who’d slept with whom, who’d offended whom, who’d go home with whom, who’d share a cab with whom, and we’d return each weekend to hear the recitation again and again and again.

My disillusionment came in drips. At first it was the canvassing for attention, the drawling conversations at the smoking point that meandered and skirted around the hurt. Then it was the desperate, mechanical gyration. I saw it in others, then myself, dancing pointedly, with an eye honed on the game, and the taunting lyrics of those High Priestesses of Parties—Rihanna, Keisha, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Katy Perry—urging everyone towards some epiphany that never came. Because the lights would come on, and the unsuccessful fled like insects from the clarity. And then it was the touch of bodies, the way accidental brushes against taut arms and hard chests made me feel the inadequacy of my own flesh. Then it was the eyes, catching glances between beats, the way people looked through me, the way they only touched me to get past. My insecurity matured into bitterness, my loneliness into anger, and each week I swore I’d never come back.

But still, there was something in the lights. Those strobes had a kind of magic. They seemed to point into another dimension when I was drunk. Like, in a queer sci-fi way, they could pull someone or something out of the gay ether and make it real. I wanted them to pull out the unknown, un-met “he” who populated my emo poetry, the subjunctive lover I was told I would someday meet. The one who was “out there,” the guy who, in the counsel of an older gay man, was somewhere ripening to readiness for the day we’d finally meet. He was probably right there at Play, dancing between beams of light. I needed to get drunk and dance in the dark to clear the slate for that encounter. I was drawn back to that podium night after night by the promise that I would one night put a face to that shadow dancing alone in the green threshold between here and when; finally give him a name; give him shoulders to hold and a mouth to kiss; yank him out of the lonely subjunctive into the here and now.

When that never happened, I thought something must be wrong with everyone else in the club. Like they’d put up walls of flesh; blocked my second sight and karmic pathways. So I mentally checked out, said bye-bye, and left.

Years later, after I met my boyfriend, I started to enjoy going back to Play. I’d long abandoned emo poetry and with it also went the phantasmagoric vision, the overheated drama. Play became a just a club, one where, like at any other club, if I could ignore the people around me, get drunk and let loose, I would enjoy generally making a fool of myself. It opened my eyes to the fact that it was me, and not the club, that had gotten old. At 27, I’m a lot more comfortable in my skin. I’ve become less hysterical, less bitter, less dependent on the affection of strangers.

One night at Play, I saw more clearly the boys in their late teens streaming in and out, bouncing about in their cliques, making too much noise, getting too drunk. On the way to the bathroom, I saw them huddled in a corner crying, making out with a different guy than their boyfriends. I saw them acquiring the postures, learning the language, putting together the complex semiotics of gay life. It’s a shitty school system, but it’s the only one you’ve got, and Play was one of the best we had. Gay men teach other gay men, not how to be homosexual, but how to be gay. And when we graduate from the school of gay socialization, it’s only to learn the blissfully simple point that gay people are people. And gay or not, people keep hoping, people keep thwarting, people keep going on until they learn to leave it all behind and grow up, bit by bit. Gay life is life. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind in the current epidemic of people who prefer to think otherwise.

Recently, on one of the last nights I went to Play before it closed, I found myself on the podium, drunk and happy, looking out across the small expanse. A wash of people seething in their emotions, melancholy, alone, lost, found, hopeful, desperate, awkward, un-kissed, un-fucked, un-initiated. And if I felt a twinge of sadness about the club closing, it was because it made me wonder where we’d all go for our screwed-up educations now, where we’d go to make stupid mistakes, act like fools, hate and love and betray and forgive, where we’d take our drama, where we’d take our silly expectations in a country with queer-oriented spaces already so far and few in between. That was the thing that was always special about Play; it was filled with young gays figuring things out with other young gays in one giant shit-show. And even if you hated it, the place brought with it a special comfort, its occasional sense of home.

But then a groove came on, the spirits kicked in, and the whole club—a haze of good feelings, bad feelings, boys and men—swelled with a rhythm of its own, almost bursting, and I stopped thinking.

And the strobe lights came on—green—behind me. And I locked eyes with a kid in the crowd. And then I was gone.

 

 


[1] This is an essay I wrote almost three years go, meditating on Play, the gay club at Tanjong Pagar, where Kilo is now. It had just closed at the time, and a lot of people were feeling the sting, myself included. If I’m not mistaken, the space occupied by Play had consistently played host to a bunch of queer spaces for quite a number of years, Play being the most recent and, three years on, probably the last for some time given the intense popularity of Kilo amongst a swish and well-heeled crowd amongst whom the predominant currency seems to be white straightness/straight whiteness.
The most distressing thing for me, at the time I wrote this essay, was the way this type of nightlife seemed to be inching closer and closer to the gay belt at Tanjong Pagar, which is smack in the middle of a real estate war between various satellites of Western capitals (New York leading the pack, so it would seem). Many people thought Play was only the first in a series of queer spaces to disappear. 

Thankfully, it hasn’t quite panned out that way. If anything, the remaining gay businesses along the strip seem to be doing better, probably because the traffic from Play ended up being channeled everywhere else. The sad thing, in my estimation, is that these bars and clubs seem to have met an even gorier fate. There’s a kind of undead pallor, a tragic staleness to the queer spaces that remain, even as they pack the crowds every weekend. It didn’t occur to me how little I was enjoying myself at these bars until one night I ended up at one of the hot new ‘straight’ watering holes in the area, and found myself thinking, incredulously, “these straight people really know how to do it”. The times, they are a-changing.

How do we describe a night out on the Singapore gay strip in 2017? Perhaps as a complicated economy of boredom: ennui feeds the traffic, and ennui is also allowed to linger in the decor, the music, the alcohol, the unchecked masculinity, the TVs droning in the background. The same barfly who’s there every night is liable to greet you with a kiss on the cheek, a wink, and a “here again?”, the tragedy of the joke being that it takes one to know one, the punchline, if there is one, hopelessly lost somewhere in the past ten times it was told.  

To be fair, all this is probably just me and my hunger for some variety; it’s a problem I’m facing being in Singapore in general. Many people seem to really enjoy the shit out of these gay old nights on the town, which is great. It’s just lately I’ve felt a kind of purgatorial, sometimes straight up existential, dread at being in those spaces. Definitely me, probably depression. All that said and done, an economy of boredom is nonetheless a powerful economy: dread or not, I turn up all the same, longing for the white noise of gay men, the potential for surprise, or sex (no longer salvation).

I suppose the big question is: what other kinds of spaces can the supreme creative force that is queer energy build and install? Where the spirit is perhaps gentler, friendlier, the landscape more diverse, where “older” doesn’t read as “predator”, and the music isn’t EDM? Perhaps it’s not a gay bar, or a club, perhaps it’s more happenings, less space.
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