Exploring Yangtze: Not visible but not invisible

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One and half years back, I explored the (now-closed) Yangtze Cinema. I posted something on Instagram, but did not think to write a post about it. I’m writing to share my experience of the place as well as my thoughts.

Yangtze Cinema is (was) a famous softcore porn cinema showing R-rated films, and the last of its kind in Singapore. Because it was unable to compete with the other cinemas in the late twentieth century, it needed to differentiate itself if it wanted to stay in business. They started with “skin flicks, of the light-hearted Asian variety. Art-house sauce from Hong Kong, Japan and Korea was gently introduced at first, became popular, and then that’s all they showed.”[1] The cinema is a known wanking-den for old men in the heart of squeaky clean Singapore.

I stepped into the complex. It was eerily quiet because most of its tenants had already moved out. The place resembled an L4d2 set with its empty corridors and shop spaces. The cinema was on the top floor. There was a small lounge area next to box office where guests could purchase snacks and drinks. Men were already sitting around, with cups of tea and coffee, waiting for the next show to begin. They were silent. The only noise came from the TV in that lounge area, playing a random film that everyone’s eyes were glued on. I don’t think they were actually interested in the film – it just gave them something to pass the time before they could enter the cinema halls.

I wonder what went through their minds as they waited. Was it anticipation? Loneliness? Yes. The place reeked of loneliness.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting so I stood around the box office as I looked around. It was a deeply uncomfortable experience because some of the men kept glancing over at me. Others blatantly stared. I was an object of their gaze and I could feel it on my skin. I was out of place there – too young, too energetic, too… female?  I realised the source of my discomfort was partially rooted in that fact that Yangtze was a male-dominated space. As a young female brought up in a largely patriarchal culture, men were not taught to not objectify with their gaze. Instead, we (as women and even girls) were taught not to put ourselves in positions where we would become the objects of said gaze. If he’s looking at you, it’s probably your fault for being there. I thought it was quite brave of me to venture into the highly gendered space of Yangtze Cinema, but my bravery had limits. I explored no further than the box office.

I pondered deeply on themes revolving around gender, sexual deviance, age, and its intersections with spatial practices. If these old men knew how to use the internet, would they still require the cinema? Why was the cinema male dominated? Did older women not require sexual gratification as well, or did their loneliness manifest in other spaces? Yangtze cinema occupies a physical space, in the heart of Singapore, and gave old men sexual comfort and refuge from loneliness. Singapore has been presented as a ‘clean and green’, morally conservative, city. However, dingy spaces like these expose the dark underbelly of lived experiences and deviant meanings that coexist amidst the superficial ‘cleanliness’ of a city.

According to Foucault, heterotopias are spaces of otherness that function under non-hegemonic conditions. I think this cinema qualifies as a Foucauldian heterotopia.

Yangtze cinema is a heterotopia of crisis and deviation where norms are suspended and the forbidden is embodied. The cinema is filled with mostly old (retired?) men, and functions as a space where certain deviant activities are performed out of sight. Being of old age, these men are in a state of ‘crisis’ in relation to society. Their activities are deviant insofar as it is not sanctioned by the conservative social and moral norms in Singapore. The cinema is a space that is isolated but not entirely public (a ticket is needed for entry). It is site for the men’s forbidden ritualistic practices where they are able to relieve themselves of loneliness and sexual frustration. The cinema also has a quasi-eternal character in relation to the changing urban landscapes of Singapore. Since it started showing R-rated films in the last twentieth century, not much has changed in terms of its spatial characteristics (i.e. its practices and appearance) – It is a relic of the past existing in the present.

Perhaps some find Yangtze a contradictory space that challenges hegemonic representations of Singapore. While I agree that it challenges hegemonic representations, I suggest that it is no contradiction. It merely exposes a different facet to Singapore. Like brothels, illegal rave parties and gambling dens, these facets of deviance all coexist but do not appear to those who do not seek it.

What is not visible is not invisible.

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Photo credit: Jing Hui, via Photo Journalist
[1] https://coconuts.co/singapore/features/curtains-yangtze-cinema-sticky-end-chinatowns-last-public-wanking-den/

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