Content Warning: Homophobia
Ask anyone who’s lived through the nineties for the television series that best represents Singapore, and many might respond with Phua Chu Kang (1997-2007). Phua Chu Kang, a sitcom featuring its eponymous Singlish-slinging contractor (Gurmit Singh), is so deeply tied with this generation’s idea of Singaporeanness that Chu Kang has become shorthand for national solidarity. Just think of how Chu Kang fronted the SAR-Vivor Rap during the 2003 SARS outbreak in order to restore public confidence. One might say that Chu Kang represents true Singaporeanness, but what does he actually say – or not say, about Singaporean identity? What sort of Singaporeanness does this character actually stand for?
Phua Chu Kang‘s ideal Singaporean identity is implicitly coded as masculine and heterosexual. This falls in line with what seems to be a national trend towards idealising conservative and patriotic machismo. I’ve discussed this concept in my other piece on how army films advance a Singaporean identity that is masculine in looks and spirit. Interestingly, Phua Chu Kang‘s ideal Singaporean shares quite a few traits with the ideal Singaporean soldier. In both the sitcom and the army film, the ideal figure is defined in terms of straight masculinity and contrasted against threats to manliness, namely effeminacy and homosexuality.
Inside/Outside, Us/Them, Real Male/Fake Male
Stories entertain, but entertainment is always linked with power. Storytelling is the drawing of a circle. The storyteller draws society into a circle around himself, but not everyone can reach this circle’s centre. National identity is produced and perpetuated through the telling of stories that prize some traits over others. While Phua Chu Kang seems to merely point out a pre-existing ideal Singaporean identity, the show actually formulates this identity through the interactions of its protagonist.
What, then, does Phua Chu Kang say about Singaporean identity? Let’s first look at how the show constructs identities by portraying differences. As far as the sitcom is concerned, identities become most apparent when set off in conflict against their polar opposites. Chu Kang is “more Singaporean” because he speaks Singlish and is unashamedly down-to-earth, unlike his ang moh pai brother Chu Beng (Edwin Chong, Season 1; Pierre Png, Season 2 onwards) and sister-in-law Margaret (Tan Kheng Hua). This basic definition of Singaporeanness clues us in to how Phua Chu Kang defines ideal Singaporean identity: it does so by creating binary oppositions.
Binary oppositions are ways of thinking that simplify concepts into true/false, good/bad, us/them. Crucial to the binary opposition is an assessment of whether each side of the divide is good or bad. While one side of the binary opposition is seen as good, natural and positive, the other side is seen as bad, unnatural and negative; one side is everything that the other side is not. In the case of Phua Chu Kang, good/bad is mapped out onto Singlish/English and local/Western. “True” Singaporeanness takes the side leftwards of the “/”, and “false” Singaporeanness the other. If we take this structure as a basis for thinking about the other binary oppositions that the show uses to formulate a “true” Singaporean identity, what else comes to mind? What are the other qualities that the show implicitly associates with Singaporeanness?
The binary opposition of True Singaporean/False Singaporean can be mapped onto Macho/Feminine, and Straight Man/Gay Man.
Let’s think back to the Phua brothers, Chu Kang and Chu Beng. Clearly, Chu Kang is the show’s “true” Singaporean; we laugh with him and at Chu Beng. Departing from his low-SES background, Chu Beng studied for his architectural degree in Australia, and it shows. He goes to the opera with Margaret, speaks polished English, and lives in the realm of the mind – he designs, Chu Kang builds, in a planner-doer relationship that curiously mimics the coloniser-colonised dynamic.
Crucially, this behavioural split is complimented by a temperamental split; while Chu Kang is seen as a “man’s man” who has no qualms about being crude and direct as long as he gets the job done, Chu Beng is refined to the point of effeminacy. Even from their youth, Chu Beng has been described as “Chu Kang’s sissy younger brother”. Chu Beng’s sophistications rolls over into impotence, which is translated into effeminacy, which is then presented as a foil, an Other, to the “us” that is masculine and Singlish-slinging Chu Kang.
Therefore, as much as language is the official distinction between the Phua brothers, this contrast is accompanied and enhanced by the implicit gendering of “real” national identity as masculine by default, and “imposters” as feminine cultural traitors. When we think of how Phua Chu Kang emerged in the wake of the rise of the “Asian Values” discourse, in which Singapore positioned itself as a bastion of moral righteousness against the supposedly licentious decadence of the West, it becomes clear that Phua Chu Kang plays into a discursive strategy that aligns legitimacy and state power with normative masculinity. To be morally upright is to be assured of one’s masculinity, and having your masculinity drawn into question becomes a signal for a defective cultural misalliance.
When we think also of how Chu Kang’s authenticity and Chu Beng’s cultural traitorship is portrayed in terms of “how Chinese” they are, we also notice that this national identity is rooted in both masculinity and implied Chinese ethnocentrism. Our measure of how Chu Beng has defected from his roots comes in terms of how he doesn’t understand Hokkien and Chinese proverbs, and how he spurns local, or more accurately, Chinese dishes and hobbies in favour of European things. Think of the phrase banana, which implies that Chineseness is at the root of an assumed Singaporean identity. Phua Chu Kang‘s Singaporeanness is thus not just male, but Chinese.
Heterosexuality and the Gay Threat
However, this isn’t to say that Chu Beng is beyond hope. Chu Beng, who is often the butt of the show’s jokes, is still presented as lovable at the end of the day. However, according to the masculine logic of the show, it is the gay that is so foreign to national identity that it can only exist in exile. In the logic of the show, homosexuals disrupt the cultural and gendered boundaries that separate Us from Them. This mode of thought was common in the Asian Values discourse, and remains relevant today, when online homophobic hate groups continue to describe queer Singaporeans as dangers to society. In a cultural framework that knits authenticity and upright masculinity into each other so tightly, homosexuality inevitably becomes a threat to constructions of national security.
During the show’s midsection, Ralphie (Lim Yu Beng) appears as an over-the-top metrosexual fashion designer who is heavily coded as gay. Constantly making saucy jokes and lewd passes at the show’s straight male characters, Ralphie is portrayed as unworthy of trust, unworthy of inclusion, and unworthy of Singaporean insidership. Phua Chu Kang presents The Gay as an agent of hostile instability to a national identity that is developed within the logic of straight gender.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in 5×18, “The Adventures of Captain Contractor and Plumber Boy”, when the cast takes on superhero personas. Ralphie transforms into Diva Man, a supervillain embodying the limp-wristed disco aesthetic that stereotyped gay men of the time. When Captain Contractor wields his Magic Screwdriver, Diva Man gasps and says in admiration, “my, that’s a big one“. Later, when Captain Contractor threatens to actually use the Screwdriver against his foes, Diva Man says, “ooh, me first!” Ralphie/Diva Man is a villain who stands in defiance of the show’s national archetype because he is a combination of all the traits that Singapore must expel from within itself: he is atas, and worst of all, gay.
Beyond Phua Chu Kang
Phua Chu Kang made us laugh, but we must examine what it means to laugh. Humour, especially in sitcoms that thrive on stock characters, is based on inclusion and exclusion. Laughter is divisive because it separates those we laugh with from those we laugh at. When we laugh, we construct tribalistic circles that are also barriers to entry, telling those we laugh at that they cannot join us in these communities. This is why humour is dangerous; by appearing mindless, it exploits what appears to be “common sense” to draw divisions that we then interpret as funny. These people on the outside don’t deserve sympathy but laughter.
Beyond the exhausted trope of Singlish/English being a marker of authentic Singaporean identity, it’s interesting that hidden within Phua Chu Kang‘s structure of humour is a division based on true and corrupted straight masculinity. On a level that’s hidden from first sight – on a level that structures our conceptions of “us” against “them” – Singapore’s media identity during the turn of the millennium was founded upon the exclusion of effeminacy and homosexuality. More specifically, with its implication that this maleness is also Chinese, we notice that Phua Chu Kang‘s Chinese male ideal falls well in line with a sort of Confucian patriarchal state ideology.
As mentioned before, this idea that Singapore’s “soul” is best embodied within the body of a macho straight male is one that extends beyond Phua Chu Kang and into other mediums such as army films. Even when it’s not obvious, gender is lurking everywhere. It plays into and deepens our biases of how genders should operate. As mindful watchers of Singapore screens, we should ask ourselves who we exclude when we laugh, and what we can do to bring them back.
Credits: Screenshots from Phua Chu Kang on Toggle; some ideas on binary oppositions and national identity loosely inspired from various sources, including Edward Said’s Orientalism.
This article was inspired by “Ethnic Representation on Singapore Film and Television” by Kenneth Paul Tan, in which Tan conducts a survey of racial and gendered archetypes that occurred across Singapore media. Tan’s chapter is part of Beyond Rituals and Riots: Ethnic Pluralism and Social Cohesion in Singapore, edited by Lai Ah Eng, Eastern Universities Press, 2004.
About the Writer: Ben is interested in how films and society relate to each other. Phua Chu Kang and its politics has always fascinated him deeply, and was in fact the topic of his undergrad literature thesis.
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