Tonight I attended a function at the Intercontinental Hotel in Singapore. I arrived a little early so killed some time by wandering around the air-conditioned streets (yes, air-conditioned!) of the adjacent Bugis Junction. This was where Singapore's once famous Bugis Street was located. Although I have been to Singapore dozens of times since it was redeveloped in the mid-80s, I had never been to the 'new' Bugis Street before. The contrast between the old and the new is like chalk and cheese.
The 'old' Bugis Street was to where most western tourists headed on their first night in Singapore back in the 70s and early 80s. At the hawker stands along both sides of the street, the noodles were cheap and the beer was cold – but that wasn't what attracted the tourists – it was the nightly parade of transvestites up and down the street. Most of the trannies were there in a spirit of fun, looking to earn a few dollars by posing for photographs with the tourists, although later at night some would be there for more specific reasons, looking to pick up drunken tourists who at that time of night couldn't tell the difference between a man and a woman.
Actually, even those who were sober had difficulty telling the difference in the case of the Bugis Street transvestites - the saying was that those that were drop dead gorgeous were the trannies, the rest were the women!
In the middle of Bugis Street was a flat-roofed public toilet block on which the transvestites used to climb up (no idea how they got up there) and put on a 'show', which often involved removing some of their clothes. Then sometimes a group of sailors (Australian more often than not!) would climb up and in unison expose their bare bums to the crowd. It was all pretty uncouth, but it attracted hordes of tourists from countries where in those days you couldn't see that sort of behaviour in public. The local police used to occasionally 'raid' the toilet block, but in the main they let people get on with their misbehaving - provided they didn't start any fights or other trouble. I don't think the Singapore police today would be quite so tolerant.
Back in those days I suppose you would describe Bugis Street as sleazy. Today the best word that I can think of to describe it is 'sterile'. Everything is neat and tidy. The rats from the open drains are long gone, as have the transvestites. In fact the street looks so clean these days you could probably eat your dinner off the artificial cobblestones. Glass domes have been constructed over the streets of Bugis Junction so that they could be air-conditioned for the comfort of visiting tourists. Those who remember Bugis Street from sitting on the plastic chairs at the hawker stalls, perspiring in the evening heat and humidity, would find it hard to recognise Bugis Street today.
The air-conditioned streets of Bugis Junction for sweat-free shopping!
Bugis Junction looks more like a Disneyland shopping mall these days
The hawker stalls have been replaced with spotlessly clean food courts