Singapore Sings

By Ben Slater

saint-jack-peter-bogdanovich.jpgSaint Jack, 1979

Saint Jack captured a moment in the covert, changing life of the island that has been overlooked, until now

On the morning of 30th of March 2005 I walked through my flat in Singapore with a mug of instant coffee, sat down, attached a tiny contact mic to my telephone receiver and dialled a number in New York. Moments later I was asked politely if I could hold for a few minutes, the voice, smooth and mellow, was incredibly familiar.

This was Peter Bogdanovich.

I’d been trying to set up this conversation for three months, and knew that until we spoke I could not properly begin work on the project that would preoccupy the next twelve months. For what seemed like a vast amount of time I sat in the living room in my pyjamas, the fan whirring above, and the sound of early morning life seeping up 12 floors. Bogdanovich finally came back on the line – “Before we start Ben, I just wanted to ask you why you want to do this, to write a book about Saint Jack.”

Flashback to August 1998. After a 24 hour journey I arrive in Singapore for the first time in my life. Never been to Asia, and I’m aware that the tiny tropical peninsula, with its reputation for order and control, is not anything like the Asia I’ve visited at the movies. In fact I don’t know much about Singapore beyond the usual wisdom – benevolent dictatorship, banned chewing gum, censorship galore and William Gibson’s devastating write-up of a long weekend along Orchard Road – Disneyland With The Death Penalty.

saint-jack-peter-bogdanovich-2.jpgSaint Jack, 1979

Paul, my host, wakes me at 8am the day after I land. He lives in a flat opposite one of the country’s richest families, the Khoos, their son Eric, he tells me, is probably Singapore’s most famous film director. We ride into town on a bus, my jet-lag casts dark shadows all around me, but I feel strangely calm, even after Paul tells me he’s leaving me on the bus. He instructs me to ride it until the end of the line, then catch a train back into town. I should be stressed, but I’m not.

The reason I was there in 1998 was to perform in a piece of experimental theatre, playing a ‘stranger in town’. I learn the local expression for Caucasian – Ang Moh – which mean ‘Red Head’ in Hokkien, one of the most widely spoken dialects among the 70% of Singaporeans who are ethnically Chinese.

Paul and his partner Kaylene tell me about Saint Jack, and the name is familiar. It was a novel written by Paul Theroux in the early 70s, and then made into a film in the late 70s. Set in Singapore, it describes the life of an American pimp living and working in the Lion City amidst the changing climates of vice and post-colonial drift. The film had been shot in Singapore, but, they tell me, banned and never screened there. Then, a year earlier, the Singapore International Film Festival had secured special permission to show it one time only. Paul and Kaylene wanted to my character in the performance to be a bit like the main protagonist – Jack Flowers, as played by Ben Gazzara. With no way to watch the film, I just had to imagine.

saint-jack-peter-bogdanovich-3.jpgSaint Jack, 1979

I was most struck by the fact that I had never seen Saint Jack. Since the age of 14 I had video recorded almost every film that played on television – good and bad. Saint Jack, although unavailable on video in the UK, had definitely played on late night ITV a once or twice over the years, and yet I had never taped it. Belatedly I realised that my bible for unknown films was the Time Out Film Guide, and they had panned it upon release in 1980, to such an extent that even the heady promise of female flesh was not enough to tempt this adolescent cinephile to watch a supposedly terrible movie.

But Saint Jack wasn’t terrible. When I finally watched it a few years later on a DVD ordered from America, I found it was a truly exciting discovery. By then my knowledge of Singapore had grown and deepened, I’d been there several times. Saint Jack was the film that Singapore needed. It captured places that didn’t exist anymore – the Bugis Street night market – which was once a celebrated gathering for transvestites. Boat Quay was shown as a working quay, teeming with boats, life and activity. Generally it depicted an energised, seedy old town – which was all but unrecognisable from Singapore today.

It also captured people. There were actually very few professional actors, most of the cast were local ‘amateurs’ and the way they interplayed with Ben Gazzara as the avuncular, wise-cracking but clearly end-of-his-tether Jack Flowers was a joy to watch. Not a trace of condescension or concession. As any filmmaker will tell you, to make a film that looks this relaxed is bloody hard work.

By the time I saw Saint Jack I knew a few key things about it. I’d read Theroux’s book, and knew the anger that underpinned the author’s own documentation of Singapore’s disappeared history. I knew that Bogdanovich had shot the whole thing on location, and that he considered the shoot a ‘life changing experience’. I knew that the film rights had been wrestled from Hugh ‘Playboy’ Hefner by Cybill Shepherd. I knew that the film had been partly shot in secret in Singapore. And I also knew that the first person to raise the idea of making Saint Jack had been Orson Welles. Each factoid hooked me in further. Seeing the thing only confirmed what I already believed, that this was a special film, an unfairly, unjustly neglected work, and that I would have to do a big project where I found out everything I could about the circumstances of its making.

singapore-sings.jpgSingaporean Cast with Ben Slater, right, March 2006

It was never a book that I had in mind, more ambitiously I imagined a documentary, which would open with a helicopter shot of modern Singapore, before dissolving into archive of the past. My pitch was: 1978, the end of two eras. The last gasp of sleaze and naughtiness in Singapore before the bulldozers and police moved in. And the death rattle of the New Hollywood era, as Bogdanovich, one of the guys who’d started it all, travelled as far away from Burbank as possible to make an independent film. Art and architecture. Different kinds of freedom. I even practiced my patter on Saint Jack’s cinematographer, Robby Müller when he came to the National Film Theatre. As he rolled up another cigarette, the Dutch master smiled in agreement. A commissioning guy from Channel 4 was less sympathetic – “‘Making ofs’ only work if everyone knows the film” he told me, “This one is too obscure, but Singapore is interesting…”

A few months later I moved to Singapore and proceeded to do nothing about it whatsoever. The charming, collapsing Jack Flowers continued to haunt me, along with other ghosts of Singapore’s past. But it took me another two years before I realised that if I couldn’t film the story behind Saint Jack, I could damn well write it. As I got deeper into the research and interviewing, the cast of characters was getting stronger. My initial belief that the story of the making of the film had a ‘West meets East’ dynamic was altered when I realised that the Americans were far outnumbered on the shoot by the Europeans, and the Hollywood people were in even more of a minority. The film’s chief backer Roger Corman had employed French producer Pierre Cottrell to be the main fixer for the shoot, and Cottrell, who had been a crucial part of the Nouvelle Vague (producing for Rohmer and Jean Eustache among others), had the numbers for the best technicians in Europe – notably Müller and a sound designer, the late great Jean-Pierre Ruh (IMDB his credits, you’ll be amazed).

paul-theroux.jpgPaul Theroux, 2006

The two of them, Peter and Pierre, did not get along, and when I finally got into contact with Cottrell, I found so many of my assumptions about the shoot (that had been supplied by Bogdanovich) completely turned around. With every person I spoke to new layers emerged, but Cottrell threw it totally out of wack, and a whole other tale emerged about the vast rifts between the Hollywood ethos and the European style of doing things.

As greater contradictions and conflicts arose it was Cottrell who told me that the story of Saint Jack was getting more and more like Citizen Kane, with me as the reporter, sifting through multiple versions of the same events trying to figure out how it all pieced together. No one told me anything that was wholly without contradiction. Everyone’s story had some minor flaws or mistakes, which made me have to carefully unpick what else they’d said. But I couldn’t get wound up by this, it was all part of process.

The idea of ‘truth’ was less important that what was remembered – and how it was recalled. I can’t say I ever got to be an expert at it, but every time I interviewed someone (and this was mostly on the phone from Singapore), I had a sense of prodding into people’s memories, and I was always left with the nagging feeling that if my questions had been slightly different, or if I’d called a few hours later, then maybe they would have told me something totally different.

Back to that first phone call. “It’s almost as crazy to write a book about it as it was to make the movie,” Bogdanovich tells me at the end of our first conversation. I’m still not sure if he was right.

Ben Slater lives, works and writes in Singapore. His Kinda Hot: The Making of ‘Saint Jack’ in Singapore is published in the UK by Marshall Cavendish. Go to for more information.