Thursday, September 27, 2007

Authenticity, Crazy Horse and the Integrated Resorts/Casinos II

This is the full article which appeared in Lexean magazine earlier this year and which I wrote about in the previous post.
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The short, sad life of the Crazy Horse cabaret in Clarke Quay can be best understood by going back to 1980s Singapore when the Government inflicted death by upgrading, redevelopment and urban sanitisation on the original Bugis Street. At that time, the famous transvestites of the seedy area, rather than the Merlion, was Singapore’s claim on the world tourism map. But the bars, sex and wild, sometimes lawless, behaviour – by the largely Caucasian tourists, not the transvestites – were seen to be out of sync with an increasingly prosperous nation on its rise to First Worlddom. Neither did it fit in with the image of a disciplined work-force living in a clean and modern city whose idea of fun was a nice walk in the park or a quiet evening before the television rather than a rollicking good time with shockingly familiar hostesses (or worse) of doubtful gender. It just wasn’t our thing.

So out Bugis Street and their human attractions went. And followed a host of other blights on the new Singapore ranging from slums (thank goodness, for that) to neon signs with third untidy Third Worldly undertone. The facelift worked. Tourists continued to pour into Singapore, as ever rising visitor numbers attest. But they no longer come for the delights offered by a dirty, messy metropolis where almost anything goes, and certainly nothing spicier than chilli crab

Seen from this old/new Bugis Street perspective, we can find an alternative explanation for the Crazy Horse fiasco that goes beyond the onerous restrictions imposed on types of advertising allowed Eng Wah and its French partner. No doubt, the ban on placing ads with scantily clad pictures of women in The Straits Times and other media accounted partly for the absence of a rush for tickets that the investors anticipated. But there is another reason behind the closure that I have not heard mentioned. It none other than the lack of authenticity of experience associated with going to an adult cabaret like Crazy Horse in Singapore.

I have not seen the show myself, but having a troupe of semi-naked nubiles prancing about on stage is really quite incongruous with the squeaky clean image of Singapore that since Bugis Street days has become part Singapore’s brand. People just don’t come to Singapore for that kind of thing. It may be the real Crazy Horse, and what transpires within the walls of the auditorium may be as bona fide as it goes, but this transplant probably just didn’t feel right in Singapore. Sociologist and a researcher in the area of what makes cities creative Kwok Kian Woon said in a recent conversation: “It was a strange animal in the Singapore context.” In other worlds, Crazy Horse stumbled for reasons of location, geography and societal context.

I venture that if Crazy Horse had been in Bangkok, say, then the investors might have had a better chance of getting their money back. Sexual frisson is what people go to Bangkok for (though cities are complex and people actually visit the Thailand capital for a whole host of things including cheap clothes and basement-rates surgery and the wonderful temples and spiritual experience they can bring.) And that is what makes a Thai Girl or a transvestite/transexual show authentic there. Perhaps, if Crazy Horse had been in Orchard Towers or Geylang, the odds would have been more favourable. Clarke Quay couldn’t have been a worse place for an adult show. Imagine customers coming out of the show, flushed perhaps, to a row of restaurants that rather caters to a very different kind of people who would find Crazy Horse appealing, the proximity of Hooters restaurant notwithstanding.

Further, fears that the conservative silent majority would raise objects to the erosion of values did not allowed Crazy Horse to sell itself to be what it really was: a raunchy romp. True all the nudity comes in an “artistic” package. But there is a subtle yet important difference between a raunchy show that is artistic - and an artistic show that is raunchy. Crazy Horse plumped for the second, fatally. The closure of Crazy Horse is thus also due to its lack of authenticity in a second sense, the lack of fealty to what it really is compared to what people are told they are paying for. This is a failure of messaging, of marketing.

The whole attitude of the Government towards the show was also that was somewhat beyond the pale, that they didn’t quite approve of the dishabille. But they also made it clear that it is quite legitimate to take the audience’s money to fulfil their indulgence. The schoolmarmish, moralistic undercurrent just didn’t do the show any good at all in the end. I wonder how many potential patrons felt patronised.

Crazy Horse was here in Singapore, but we let it be known that it was not really part of us, not really us. Art Landry, a British writer on cities and the use of culture in their revitalisation, writes in “The Art Of City Making”: “The city is an interconnected whole. It cannot be viewed as merely a series of elements, although each element is important in its own right.”

The ironic thing about Crazy Horse’s branding is that – thanks to sleazy Orchard Towers and Geylang, thanks to bar-top dancing and a clubbing scene that is second most exciting in the world according to one global survey, thanks to a thriving gay and alternative lifestyle industry, Singapore has over the last five to ten years become a rather racy place. This is a reality that belies the image of good, clean fun that the Tourist Board spends so much money and effort purveying worldwide. For some people, the alternative lifestyle is authentic in Singapore because of what they hear about Singapore from non-STB, non-official sources – and what they experience and see for themselves when they come here for a taste. That is why homosexuals in the region and further away have made Singapore the gay capital of Southeast, even East, Asia, up or with Bangkok. That was until, of course, the Government banned the Nation party for what it said was the fear of Aids. All in all, reality has outstripped (pardon the pun) the squeaky clean perception that many people outside the know still have of Singaporeans, and which one hopes the Tourist Board will realise has become a liability as much as an asset.

The Crazy Horse debacle has implications for just one show. For instance, it is worth thinking whether the want-to-do-it-but-then-don’t-really-want-to-do schizophrenia that subverted its prospects from the start and the lack of authenticity of the show are going to rear their heads with the integrated resorts and the casinos. (I must declare that I am a supporter of choice, and the casino, if properly regulated, is an added choice in terms of harmless entertainment for the vast majority of people. That is why, even though it is not my thing, I also support Crazy Horse and loosening of restrictions in general.)

The debate over the casinos got off to a very bad start, so much so that the Government was on its back foot almost all the time against the groundswell of anti-casino sentiment. Though several surveys showed that the casino nay-sayers were in the minority, government felt it had to assuage the conservative casino lobby. Its attempt to do so has led to the espousal of a line of logic that goes like this: gambling is immoral - but an immorality that is worth tolerating for economic gains. By the time the last brick is laid on the IR infrastructure, this kind of thinking would have infused the whole enterprise. The subtle (or will it be not so subtle?) message that will greet the great masses of high-rolling tourists the government (and many of Singaporeans, including myself) hope will come to the IRs will be that, heh, we don’t like what you are doing, but we need your money. For any gambler wishing to enjoying himself to be told that what they are doing is actually sinful is turn-offish, to say the least. It takes away from the authenticity of the experience. It is like going to Bangkok and being inundated with “Sex is bad, prostitution worse” billboards on the way out of the airport. A lot of what transpires in Bangkok is exploitative and sad and not enough is being done to change the situation. But the Thai Government has been careful not to let that tarnish – though that is not quite the right world – Bangkok’s image.

The wonderful thing about Las Vegas for tourists is that it makes gambling fun, not wicked. That is why gamblers like to go there. Indeed that is also why also non-gamblers and loads of families like to go there, if only to see how the gamblers spend their time – and then to catch an Anita Sarawak or Celine Dion show on the side. Similarly, Macau now also welcomes gamblers with open arms, rather a half-guilty feeling of complicity in wrong-doing.

I cite Bangkok not to argue that Singapore should become one. Far from it. But Crazy Horse sits well in Paris and Las Vegas, and it worth thinking what makes the show authentic there, but not here.

Neither am I saying that Singapore should be like Las Vegas or Macau. I am not even saying that we should bring back Bugis Street, or that we should not have tried Crazy Horse and should focus on only Disneyland type of family entertainment. What I am saying is that tourists – and residents too – want authenticity of experience, and that they don’t just do this or buy that without reference to place and time, and whether that place and time feels right. It is a a difficult formula to get right, especially for a place which wants to change its image and holds so preciously to its former one. What is Singapore’s formula, its uniqueness?

Probably squeaky clean is out, and definitely moralistic squeaky is not viable. Maybe the unique selling proposition of Singapore is precisely the way it already balances in reality both “clean” and “not quite so clean” but without the collateral exploitation and crime that are the usual companions of the latter.

But it first it has to admit to itself that this is the reality, and that it is good workable reality. Then it has to admit that to the world.

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Sidebar: The concept of authenticity of experience is increasingly acknowledged to be an important motivation for many tourists. What it means that people now often travel in search of experiences which they feel are real and true, rather than fake or false. Hence some people have termed latter-day tourism as the Experience Economy, one in which “experiential tourists” go chasing after authenticity. Commercialisation is usually seen as reducing authenticity, hence overly-commercialised places are given the derogatory label of ‘touristy’. But, strangely, commercialisation in certain contexts can feel authentic, namely when people come to a place known for its commercialisation and where the experience of commercialisation and exchange of cash for commodities and services is the real experience. Examples include the sex industry of Bangkok, the discount malls and factory outlets of the US, and even Disneyland and Macau.

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