When we sit down with Pam Oei at LASALLE’s Lowercase cafe, she’s warm, smiley, and offers to buy us coffee. “I got discount here,” she announces, before shuffling off to place the order.
After the interview, she will rush straight to rehearsal for her show at the Singapore Theatre Festival opening Jul 18.
Faghag, a one-woman cabaret detailing Oei’s experiences with gay men in her life, is the 46-year-old actress’ playwriting debut. And likely no one will give her flak for it, given that Oei is a prominent and vocal part of the gay community—and has been since day one, having been part of the very first Pink Dot back in 2009. Every year since, she’s been the marshal at the annual protest, gathering people in Hong Lim Park to come together, and light up their pink torchlights in solidarity.
And even before Pink Dot, she’s made her presence in the community felt. “This is a Happy t-shirt,” she says, referring to the popular gay bar in Tanjong Pagar that was open from 2004 to 2006—now replaced by Kilo Lounge. “I was a bartender there.”
Actually, she was a regular performer and attendee, heading down every night and forming a bulk of the stand-up acts throughout the week. She sang, did a night for the bar-club’s Piano Night series; she even did a comedy act stripped down to her lingerie.
“You can’t do this in a straight bar! You feel safe, you see. It’s a very different dynamic at a gay bar—you can wear ridiculously skimpy outfits and feel very safe; and the boys love it, you know,” she said.
According to Oei, many of her pieces then were written and tailored for the gay crowd. One such segment has even found its revival in Faghag; the theater veteran added that it was a skit that “really did bring the roof down that night”. Old photographs from her time at Happy will also be put up as part of the show.
Oei at Pink Dot
In Faghag’s limited run of seven shows, one happens to fall squarely on the night of this year’s Pink Dot. The show has hence been pushed back to 10pm—to give Oei time to do her duties as marshal, see to the light-up at 8pm; then race down to LASALLE to “sing a lot of songs after shouting at 25,000 people”. It was a necessary inconvenience she insisted on.
“I sat down with the producers and I said, ‘It’s not possible for me to be running a show called Faghag, and not be at Pink Dot. Nobody’s going to come to a show at 8pm called Faghag and not be at Pink Dot,’” said Oei.
So is the play political?
Not really, said Oei. “But does it deal with (Penal Code) 377A? Yes it does; it must,” she added.
“I would call it comedy, but I think there are some very serious points of the show as well. For example I talk about children, and how it’s important for me; for my son to grow up in a world where everybody is treated equally. My point also is that children are not born bigots or homophobes; they’re made. And it’s we who make them into bigots and homophobes.”
For someone who cites comedians and gay icons like Margaret Cho and Australia’s Pam Ann as her heroes, Oei herself has a wealth of material and real-world insight to share. All seven shows of Faghag have already sold out—largely to gay men, Oei speculates. Could she, then, be Singapore’s very own gay icon? Well she’s certainly earned her stripes—all six colors of the pride rainbow.
Our colorful conversation continues below (edited for clarity).
What is a “faghag”?
A faghag is simply a woman who has many gay friends; like, just a lot. A faghag is a term of endearment actually. I address the term in the show—so a “f*ggot” is obviously derogatory and no one uses it; and a “hag” puts in your mind a vision of a very ugly woman. But a “faghag”, used together, is a term of endearment.
The show is basically tracking my journey as a faghag—when I started being a faghag, how I ended up being the annual marshal of Pink Dot, counting down everybody to the moment they light up their torches etc. Maybe the younger generation doesn’t know the term, so I’d like to bring it back.
Are faghags born or made?
I think it’s a bit of both; and also it’s circumstantial. I talk about how one of my very first big crushes in Singapore turned out to be a gay man, and how as a 12-year-old I was crushed, when I found out, but I accepted it. I didn’t go like, “What do you mean; gay?” I completely accepted it. And of course, I stumbled into the world of theater, which is a very gay world *laughs*
Why this story, and why now?
I think that through the years, I have definitely attained the faghag badge. I’ve been there for many milestones: I was there at Happy; I was there in 2007 when we tried to repeal 377A. I was one of the three people who delivered the letter to PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana; I was there when they decided to keep 377A. I was there at the first Pink Dot, on a stool, trying to gather everyone around me into a circle; I am there every year ever since. By the end of this year, I would have ben to six gay weddings.
And we’re at the 10th anniversary of Pink Dot—I don’t know whether it’s a celebration, or if we should really be protesting harder. People forget that Pink Dot is a protest. So the fact that we are here, 10 years later, still holding Pink Dot at Hong Lim Park, means that 377A is still there. And it shouldn’t be.
Oei with her fellow performers at Pink Dot 2011. Photo credit: Pink Dot SG Facebook
Size aside, how has Pink Dot grown?
In the beginning, the very first year, we were hoping that 1,000 people would come, and 2,500 people came. And every year the numbers just kept doubling. By the third year, it was no longer possible to make a dot, because there were just so many people in the park, there was no way you could fit. And through the years, as the numbers grow, it has also given people a lot of courage to either come out or just come down to the park and stand beside their LGBTQI friends.
I think as Pink Dot got bigger, it also got more pushback from the opposing side; people who want 377A retained. Of course you know that last year they pulled foreign financial backing, and also they erected the barricades. So we’ve had to face a lot of these challenges in recent years, but it’s still happening. I just hope that in my lifetime, we’ll be able to see really complete equal rights for the LGBTQI community.
Do you feel like queer culture might subconsciously be trending right now, and diluting the message?
Well it’s a start right? Turning up to Pink Dot in that heat is a start, of mindsets beginning to change. Once you get there, and you see so many LGBTQI people there, and you see how open the community is and the outpouring of love for the community, then you really might begin to shift your mindset. If you start seeing families—if you start seeing rainbow families there, and they seem perfectly happy—you really might start to think, well okay.
And if it becomes less of a big deal, then maybe the future is in the younger people who will just see it as a non-event; being gay is a non-event. I just think that starting at Pink Dot is a very good place to start. Even if you, so what, want to be seen? Good! Because showing up at Pink Dot means you’re putting your hand up and saying, “I’m going to be counted here; I’m going to be one of the 25,000 bodies here today.” But it takes 25,000 people to make 25,000 people. So every body that shows up at Pink Dot, counts.
Have you ever been attacked for being a straight woman pushing a gay agenda?
That’s the thing—there is no gay agenda. It’s equality. It’s just wanting to be equal—in the eyes of the law, in the eyes of your family, your friends, and your straight friends. A straight person never has to sit down with a close friend one day, and pluck up all their courage and go, “I have something to tell you; I’m straight.” So until the day that a gay person doesn’t have to sit down and come out to another person, we’re not equal.
When you start to realize that your gay friends and family don’t have the same rights as you… something started to awaken in me. I think from then on, I started to realize—no one chooses this; no one chooses whether you’re attracted to a boy or not. So when you realize that it’s not a choice, but you’re being penalized for it, then yeah.
How has your role at Pink Dot evolved over the years?
My involvement has ebbed and flowed, because there is a huge committee in place now. In the early years before they split emcee duties, I was the emcee. I used to help plan the concert. I have been an ambassador. I have performed at the concert with my band Ugly in the Morning. I’m not in the committee, but I am the marshal who counts everybody down. And I think that critical moment of actually counting everybody down to turn on their torch at the same time, is a very joyful role; to be right in the center of that mass of pink, and to unify everybody in that one moment.
Ugly in the Morning. Photo credit: Kelly Fan of Studiokel Photography
I think also because I’m quite well-known in the gay community, I’m able to do some things at Pink Dot that other people might be like, “Who are you? Why you shout at us?” The first year when it went from day dot to night dot, everyone was so excited to turn on their lights. Everyone had their torchlights on-off, on-off. And we had a relatively small sound system—and I was trying to get everyone to turn off their torchlights first, because you can’t have a light up if everything’s already up. A lot of people couldn’t hear me, and I was trying to pass the message on, and I think I shouted, “She can still see the lights! Come on, gay people are very anal!” So then there’s laughter; and I don’t think anybody else could have said them without being offensive, you know what I mean? I can say that with love, I can say that with confidence, and you know what? They’ll laugh—because it’s true; a lot of them are damn OCD!
Who is Faghag for?
I think it’s for everyone. Obviously the gay community, the LGBTQI community will appreciate it more, because I’m telling their story. I think the straight allies will appreciate it too. And you know what, I think that even if you’re somebody who wants to see what a faghag is about, you don’t agree with it; I think you would enjoy it too—or at least get a little insight into what it’s like to be a straight ally. How it’s painful sometimes to be a straight ally and watch your friends go through what they have to go through.
It’s important for me to do this piece of work. I’m an actor; an actor is just to take on different roles. Just in this instance I am both an actor and an activist, rolled into one.
Faghag runs from Jul 18-22 at LASALLE College of the Arts, but you can catch Oei at Pink Dot on Jul 21.