Not all advice you get from locals is sound. Picking me up from Singapore’s airport, Hiro Mizuhara had told me not to believe the weather forecast predicting thunder – it hadn’t rained for months he pointed out.
The next day I was in the middle of the stunning Gardens By The Bay when the storm started. The downpour delivered three months worth of rain in a few hours, while I sheltered in the gardens’ enormous greenhouses.
The next day I read in The Straits Times of people thanking the heavens for the storms, dancing in the rain and ministers expressing their delight that the parched land had at last been given a drink.
But Mizuhara does know one thing inside out and back to front – Singapore’s LGBTI community.
An immigrant himself, who has only lived in the island state for four years, he has become a leading light of the gay and trans world.
A year ago he co-founded gay men’s mag, ELEMENT, with his straight friend Noel Ng, brightening up the scene.
And his Asian Pink Awards, which I was in town to support, have brought people together to celebrate the contribution a huge array of unsung heroes have made, from Japan to India and everywhere in between.
His awards, which Gay Star News was a media partner of, didn’t just give me a chance for a few days exploring the city but also united LGBTI campaigners from all over Asia. Many of them are leading lights in the field who knew each other by reputation but had never met before.
There is much work for the activists to do. I met up with Mizuhara again in the marble-lined foyer of the Carlton City Hotel where I was staying, but the modernity of the city’s buildings belies its traditional values.
He told me: ‘The community is comprised of different generations of gay people and every generation has had different experiences.
‘Now I would say Singapore is going the way western countries are going, rather than the way Uganda is going for example. But it will be a long time before we get full equality.
‘The only thing that can shorten that is for us to try harder, not by excluding ourselves from the mainstream society but by openly and continuously communicate to the public that despite of our sexual orientation we’re just normal human beings like the rest.
‘This is why ELEMENT is so different among the LGBT magazines. I would hope to see ELEMENT become a publication with the fashion and lifestyle contents like GQ magazine, thought-provoking feature stories and analysis articles on LGBT issues like The Economist.’
The general attitude in Singapore is that the government is not an aggressive opponent of LGBTI rights. Their view appears to be that the decriminalization of homosexuality, for example, would destabilize the island’s conservative values.
But on the other hand, they don’t want to unsettle the increasingly LGBTI-friendly international business community either. So lesbian, gay, bi, trans and intersex people are mostly unmolested by the authorities and it is family values rather than official interference that keep people in the closet and holds back progress to equality and full freedom.
Mizuhara told me: ‘The law criminalizing homosexuality might be changed one day but the fight towards zero discrimination is never ending. The new generation is more open but there are still people who are very discriminatory. And we discriminate sometimes ourselves, if we reflect and are honest with ourselves.
‘Traditional values are ingrained in you. It is a subtle programing from the day you are born. If it was not for the magazine and the wonderful people I have met through it, I might still have those discriminatory thoughts against some people.’
Trans people, in particular, can have it rough in this regard. And while there is an open gay men’s scene on the island, lesbian visibility is far lower.
Despite this, Singapore still has plenty to offer LGBTI travelers. Endless air-conditioned shopping malls boast all the world’s best brands; skyscrapers thrust themselves out of the ground at an even faster rate than the exotic plants in the city’s stunning gardens; and a rich mix of Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and international communities mean there is plenty to excite your palate, please sightseers and satisfy culture vultures.
The gay scene, when you find it, runs mainly along one side of one of the most excited traditional neighborhoods, China Town. On Neil Road the bars tend to fill up quite late, at around 11pm, although the clubs only open until 3am – everyone in Singapore has work to go to next morning.
Tantric attracts a mixed crowed but is particularly loved by Filipinos. The karaoke bar opposite it, while not gay, is also a popular hangout for LGBTIs.
Also on Neil Road, you’ll find DYMK. The initials stand for Does Your Mother Know? and the logo shows a traditional Chinese lady looking down her nose at you – an obvious play on winning acceptance in conservative families. It’s brighter inside, which Mizuhara jokes it allows you to see people’s faces, which can have some advantages the next morning.
Later on people head further along Neil Road to Taboo. Singapore’s longest running gay club, its small but on three floors and busy every Friday and Saturday.
Don’t believe holidaying or living in Singapore necessarily means going back into the closet. At the Carlton City I openly checked in as the editor of GSN and was warmly welcomed, they would have happily accommodated me with a partner too, and you are very unlikely to encounter any problems.
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