Queer and transgender communities in Singapore are – and remain – marginalized by a prevailingly conservative and paternalistic culture. But that does not mean that they must stay silent or remain unseen.
Film and theater director, producer and activist Glen Goei and film director Quen Wong are behind “Some Women,” an autobiographical documentary film by and about Wong, a trans-gender Singaporean woman. It will have its world premiere at the weekend as part of the Singapore International Film Festival.
While the prime focus is on Wong who, at age 46 years of age close to marriage decides to come out of her stealth mode, it also stretches out to connect with two other generations of trans women, one older, one younger and feistier. Using a mix of new footage and archival material, “Some Women” unearths some of the buried queer history of Singapore’s Bugis district during its heyday and the political consciousness of a frustrated Gen Z.
The film shows how gender identities that don’t conform with so-called norms have always existed, but remain erased. And by turning the camera on her hidden self, Wong lays claim to a lost sense of agency.
Middle-class and middle-aged Wong says she did not have an immediate need to rock the boat. “My story reflects the experience of many middle-class trans people coming of age during the 1980s who, like me, were quite happy to blend in with the crowd. We were focused on making our own lives better,” she says.
“For most trans folks, that means being able to get on with our lives and not be singled out. But, I realized there was a feeling of shame about revealing my whole journey as a trans person. Unlike many stories about trans people portrayed in the media, I have love, family and career. So why was I still in hiding?,” she asks.
“The stigma we face can be seen by our institutional erasure from mainstream media, school sex education programs and bureaucracies that will not recognize a person’s gender identity other than what they see marked on their paperwork,” Wong asks. “A case of trans discrimination in school in this internet age forcibly reminds us that much of that erasure remains despite Singapore’s developed nation status. Many trans people in Asia are forced to choose to remain invisible for their own safety and mental wellbeing.”
Singapore continues to criminalize sex between consenting males. But constitutional challenges have floundered as recently as 2019. The High Court rejected change, on the basis that the law continues to “reflect public sentiment and beliefs…[and is] safeguarding public morality.”
Wong took her camera and her smartphone into the streets. “We made technical choices to achieve a cinematic feel, such as favoring prime lenses with shallower depths of field, achieving a poeticism of composition and keeping the camera still for locked-down shots as opposed to the feel of a handheld camera.,” she explains. The archive footage is a mix of public historical records as well as some less cinematic iPhone-footage or personal diaries that give access to Wong’s more private and contemplative moments. A prominent use of voice-over borrows from the ‘confessional’ story-telling style, lending and gives the film a more personal and intimate feel.
Wong says she did not originally intend to be at the center of the film, but decided on the strategy after asking herself if she “had the right to make this one if I didn’t have the courage to also appear in it.”
Goei, whose directing credits include “Forever Fever” and The Blue Mansion,” has created a series of original, feature documentaries giving voice to marginalized communities in Southeast Asia. The first was “I Dream of Singapore,” an observational documentary about migrant workers who become casualties from workplace-related accidents. It premiered internationally and in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2020. “Some Women” is the second in the series produced by his Tiger Tiger Pictures.
It was made with the support of the Tan Ean Kiam Foundation – SGIFF Southeast Asian Documentary Grant (SEADOC) scheme in 2019 and the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) project award at Docs by the Sea in 2020.