Anyone who is at all familiar with Singapore, in reality or reputation, will find the concept of Singaporean erotica rather difficult to believe. Who could be publishing erotica in prudish, politically restrictive, cleanliness-obsessed Singapore, where one can be fined for chewing gum or not flushing the toilet, where I once saw a movie ("Cave Girl" with a young, nubile Daryl Hannah) so severely censored that characters showed up in the credits that I'd never seen on the screen? In fact, the publishers of Best of Singapore Erotica received special permission from government censors to produce and sell this book, with the stipulation that it had to be sealed in cellophane to protect those who might be offended or corrupted by its salacious content. It was with considerable curiosity that I tore off the wrapper and began to sample what the authoritarian city-state had to offer in the way of sexy writing.
What I discovered was a collection of stories, essays and poems that help clarify why Singapore has a sex-hostile reputation. Legal restrictions on homosexuality and other "deviant" sexual acts are only the beginning. The obstacles to satisfying sex in the city-state appear to be many and formidable: ferocious upward mobility and a punishing work ethic; shortage of affordable housing, which leads to young adults living with their parents in situations with little privacy; traditional values that favor security over romance; and finally, a complex, multi-racial class hierarchy with social distances that are near-impossible to bridge.
In spite of, perhaps even because of, all these barriers, some of the authors represented in this volume do succeed in creating arousing and emotionally involving tales that I would classify as erotica. One of my favorites is Ricky Low's "Clean Sex," in which a successful young Chinese businessman falls in love with an Indonesian housemaid, only to lose her when she's accused of stealing the expensive presents he has bought for her. Another highlight is "Naked Screw" by Alison Lester, which portrays an initially confrontational but ultimately sensual encounter between a free-spirited ex-pat who likes to walk around her apartment without clothing, and a traditional South Asian laborer who claims that her nakedness offends him. Meihan Boey's "A Dummy's Guide to Losing Your Virginity," in which she chronicles her methodical approach to finding and bedding her first lover, is a clever comic gem:
"Feel free to fit us both into any convenient category of human behavior. Rest assured, I will not complain. Complaining, I find, is the refuge of the weak and unimaginative who have neither the courage to put up with shit nor the wherewithal to get out of it."
"And Then She Came," by Jonathan Lim, is a creepy yet unquestionably sexy story of a helpless student "not sober enough to be superstitious," who attracts the attention of a voracious female ghost. Aaron Ang's "A Perfect Exit" is a sweet, sentimental and finally surprising story of geriatric lust. I also enjoyed "Self-Portrait with Three Monkeys," by Chris Mooney-Singh, although it is more a character study than a story, the heroine a middle-aged career woman who consoles herself for her loveless couplings with an orgy of art. Another notable contribution is Weston Sun Wensheng's "An MRT Chronicle," a wry commentary on the trials of being young and horny in a society that offers no privacy at all.
Some of the other stories in this collection, however, made me suspect that the authors had not had much opportunity to sample currently available erotic literature. Some entries like Robert Yeo's "What We Did Last Summer," Gerrie Lim's "Walking the Dog," and Emilio Malvar's "Expeditions in the Twilight Zone," are dispassionate essays about sexual topics that are moderately intriguing but hardly engage the senses or emotions. Other tales like "Do You Have a Toothbrush?" by Lee Lien Mingmei, Rachel Loh's "Body Drafts," and Felix Chong's "Dancer from the Dance," are little more than descriptions of sexual encounters, with little if any plot. I suppose that in Singapore, the impact of simply having sex might be enough to make a story seem worthwhile, but for a reader who has been spoiled by the likes of M.Christian, Alison Tyler and Marilyn Jaye Lewis, just sex is not sufficient. Finally, there is Richard Lord's "The Phoenix Tattoos," which has the makings of an incredibly intriguing story, but which simply ends without resolution, intensely frustrating, for this reader at least.
Best of Singapore Erotica also includes a handful of poems. Most are, in my opinion, undistinguished, however Jonathan Lim's Speedo Dream is an exception, a sleek, streamlined homoerotic meditation:
i could not breathe
air whispered thinly around me
whispered sins that sounded like heaven
i longed to lick the salt off that skin
coat the smoothness with mine
All in all, Best of Singapore Erotica is uneven, but worth reading, not only for sensual thrills but also for cultural education. Although some contributions seem amateurish, the editors deserve respect for making an attempt to foster the development of erotic writing against considerable odds.
I noted that the book is available online from Amazon.com. I can't help but wonder if it arrives securely wrapped in cellophane.