Saint Jack, or How I Understood Singapore’s Past through a White Man’s Eyes
Rediscovering what's lost in Singapore via a once-banned 1979 film
By May Ee Wong
Sometime in 2002, before returning for my Honours year in university, a female friend and I had gone on a two-week backpacking tour of Vietnam. Having reached the end of our trip with only two days left to see Ho Chi Minh City, we found our way to the backpackers' area on a rain-soaked evening.
After putting down our belongings, we went to the cafe just across the road for dinner. We had no idea of the cafe's local history or its cultural significance until a melancholic, taciturn American, who was seated next to us, unexpectedly broke into our conversation with a laconic observation about the unsuspecting Scandinavian couple a table away. The man, who was in his later middle-aged years, turned out to be an academic-literary type of figure. What struck me most about him was the sense of jadedness he exuded while he monotonously explained the reputation of the cafe for being the place for expatriates to observe the world go by in the city.
Joined halfway by his friend, another American middle-aged man who was sunnier in disposition, the two proceeded to discuss with us the nature of life in Ho Chi Minh City, its rapid development and their general reluctance to move on to places like Singapore. Before long, they were discussing their experiences in the Vietnam War.
"I still think you're CIA," Jaded Academic accused his cheerful companion. CIA Man also asked if we would like a joint, because they could easily get it off one of the boys selling it at the end of the street. "They give massages as well," he quipped.
This was a place in which time stood still while the rest of the world rushed on – Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon, a world privy to the middle-aged expatriate and unknown to us young Asian girls from Singapore: a circle of American and European men sitting around the tables with buxom Vietnamese women streaming in between them, teasing the men back sometimes coyly, sometimes maternally. The spectre of the '70s still hung around them like a dim aura, as the smell of rain and cigarettes and the dusky yellowed light reflected on the rain-washed streets from the overhanging streetlamps imbued the scene with a strange magic.
Saigon that night was the site of the Southeast Asian imaginary for both American expatriates, who could capture an image frozen in time of Southeast Asia in a way that no native would (and neither would the young Singaporean female whose childhood had been propelled into the era of tele-technologies and massive urban redevelopment). This was an encounter with lost history, however idealised with dirty glamour.
Likewise, recently released from a ban of almost two decades, Saint Jack is a piece of lost Singaporean history, personally reclaimed in the chic and modern cinematheque of the National Museum of Singapore and viewed with the same disjunction I had experienced during that night in Saigon. A relic which was produced in 1979, the film was adapted from a Paul Theroux novel of the same name and was directed by the American auteur Peter Bogdanovich. For fear of persecution from the local authorities due to the risqué elements in the film, it went under the name Jack of Hearts while it was filmed.
Set mostly in areas such as the Singapore River and Chinatown, the story of Saint Jack centres on Jack Flowers (played by Ben Gazarra), the American pimp whose indifferent demeanor eventually reveals a more poetic soul. With desires to set up his own brothel, Jack also accepts a proposition to facilitate a steady stream of prostitutes to American soldiers serving in the Vietnam War, his entanglements culminating in a final job to incriminate an American politician. He is a character set in the mould of Graham Greene's sinners with some of Humphrey Bogart's Rick in Casablanca thrown in, although Jack, despite achieving some form of moral resolution, never comes across as dashingly heroic as Rick does.
The tone of the film is decidedly underwhelming. The film mostly consists of long slow takes through areas of Singapore as Jack shows the good-hearted and unassuming British accountant William Leigh (Denholm Elliott) around. They reveal Singapore in its pre-clean-up glory: scenes of the Singapore River area which is littered with the blackened decayed facades of crowded shophouses, juxtaposed against the masses of sampans and bumboats which dominate the waterway. We see the many tables which spill into the middle of the Chinatown street and the pushcart stalls that we now simulate as our heritage, depicting a Singapore that I vaguely remember from pictures in geography textbooks in schools, but have never personally experienced.
The film also highlights certain historical aspects of economic activity in the country that have been overlooked or blanched out in the construction of the greater narrative of progress, especially with respect to the larger region of Southeast Asia: the seedier underside of trade and commerce. These aspects are reflected in the constant stream of American GIs, with Singapore functioning as a servicing node for their sexual consumption, which frames prostitution as a cultural side-effect generated by the underlying geopolitical tensions of the Cold War. The matter-of-fact presentation of the prostitution scenes in the film undercuts any notions of erotic glamour and reveals sex work as it is: while initially beguiling, seduction, in the end, is nothing more than a cheap show of stimulating effects.
Nevertheless, for all its realism, this is a film which is a clear product of the American imaginary. Aspects of the film seem contrived, such as the portrayals of the Singaporeans and Asians involved. Amateur performances aside, the Singaporeans (save one or two) are grossly inarticulate, simplistic and somewhat coarse in character, although I acknowledge that since this film centres itself around the lives of the underbelly of society, such portrayals are, to some extent, to be expected.
Set pieces such as the scenes in the Colonial Den of Pleasure where all the Caucasian expatriates congregate to get drunk and get laid, and the scenes where the Chinese tong (secret society) confront Jack are sometimes uneven in direction, breaking the general rhythm of action. Exoticism is conflated with sex and violence, exploited in the iconic use of the midget tong leader threatening Jack with the ruse of having him choose porn magazines, in order to have the ang mo (the local term for Caucasian) driven to some unknown location and beaten up. This act itself is not shown but is more aesthetically suggested by the forceful inking of unknown Chinese characters onto Jack's arm.
To a certain extent, much like the Congo in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the Orient serves as a projection screen for Western anxieties. The film can be read as one which portrays the moral decline of the British/American expatriate, reflected in the careless decadence of Jack's customers, the death of the decent William (his Christian funeral juxtaposed with the Asian one outside the church), and the morally corrupt directives issued by an American military agent Eddie Schuman (played by Bogdanovich himself) which are carried out by Jack. Even the politician whom Jack seeks to frame at the end needs no prompting in sealing his own downfall, and Jack's eventual moral victory is claimed with an ambivalent admission of his own moral failure and the recognition that he is bound to the land that he has helped create an empire of vice in.
The event of the film itself could be seen as a nostalgic moment, a document of the time when the influence of the ex-colonialists seemed on the wane and the local authorities were about to gain headway in containing the influence of morally questionable elements in society and the unsightly, unhygienic aspects of the landscape to reform the country's image, ironically ushering in the permeation of the more subtle ideology of neocolonialism that is heralded by the establishment of the MNCs.
The world of Jack Flowers brings me back to the memory of the men I had met at that cafe in Ho Chi Minh City. Familiar with the local landscape yet ultimately foreign, hung over from their experiences in the politically-charged '70s, these men lived in a world slowly slipping away from their memories which became resurrected whenever they came together as a community, a world which had little place – and little relevance – for a person like me.
Yet, the world in which they had projected still lives in the fabric of our cultural understanding as unconscious threads which underpin the coherence of the Singapore narrative. For a moment, that one night in Saigon, and now, in watching the film, despite their selective frames, I am given a glimpse of a certain poetry which has become undervalued, these experiences becoming the projection screen of the young Singaporean imaginary.
During my conversation with Jaded Academic on the topic of the challenges of producing authentic local literature in a country dominated by shopping malls and chain stores, the quiet guardedness of his demeanour suddenly dissipated. His tone became gentle as he said, "Write what you know."
And as we follow Jack Flowers, writer-turned-pimp, weaving his way as our on-screen guide through the Singaporean landscape as it was in 1979, greeting locals and expatriates, men and women alike, it seems that in this part of the world, in some hubristic cycle, sometimes it takes the ang mo to provide a complementary sense to the locals as to who they are, because the locals are always too busy trying to construct themselves for the future by attempting to overthrow the white men's nostalgic grip on the past.
Saint Jack is available on DVD. It was screened at the National Museum of Singapore in November 2009 as part of its Cinematheque programme. Banned in Singapore in 1980, it was allowed a single screening without cuts at the Singapore International Film Festival in 1997. The ban was lifted in 2006.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 1 Jan 2011