Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Imagining Gay Paradise

Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber-Singapore

Gary L. Atkins
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 300
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Imagining Gay Paradise
    Book Description:

    Mages of Manhood asks the question: How have gay/queer men in Southeast Asia used images of paradise to construct homes for themselves and for the different ideas of manhood they represent? The book examines how three gay men in Bali, Bangkok, and Singapore have deployed different ideas of “paradise” over the past century to create a sense of refuge and to dissent from typical notions of manhood and masculinity. For the disciplines of queer studies, gender studies, communication, and Southeast Asian studies, it provides (1) a “queer reading” of Walter Spies, a gay German painter who in the 1930s helped turned Bali into an island imagined as an ideal male aesthetic state; (2) a historical account of the absorption of Western notions of romantic heterosexual monogamy in Thailand during the reign of King Rama VI, providing an analysis of his plays, and the subsequent resistance to those notions expressed through an erotic, architectural paradise called Babylon created by a post-World War II Thai named Khun Toc; and (3) an account and analysis of the “cyber-paradise” created by a young Singaporean named Stuart Koe. The book examines their pursuit of sexual justice, the ideologies of manhood they challenged, the different types of gay spaces they created (geographic, architectural, online), and the political obstacles they have encountered. Because of its historical sweep and its focus on the relationship between gay men and ideas of Edenic space, it makes an important contribution to understanding gay/queer life in Southeast Asia.

    eISBN: 978-988-8053-89-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Prelude
    (pp. vii-x)

    This is a story about hunting for home and founding paradise instead.

    In July 1939, halfway through his jail time in the Dutch East Indies on charges against him inspired by Nazi sympathizers, the gay German painter Walter Spies sat in his cell writing his most remarkable letter.

    He addressed it to his friend, Jane Belo, an anthropologist who had worked with Walter in that part of the Indies he had creatively turned into his own homeland — the island and, more importantly, the aesthetic paradise, of Bali.

    Walter wrote in careful strokes. He made sure the salutation was twice as...

  4. Part One: At the End of Empires

    • 1 The Triple Supremacy
      (pp. 3-14)

      The death had come quite unexpectedly.

      Stomach trouble had begun a week earlier. Then the coma.

      But forty-eight hours before the end, the First Queen — there were many queens — had been reporting that the king was fine, that “His Majesty has improved in all respects.” The king was not especially old, only fifty-seven. He was the only king most of his subjects had known, having ascended the throne four decades earlier when he was still a teenager.¹

      It was October 23, 1910. The son who was about to become king was still asleep in his own palace about two miles...

    • 2 The Problem with Home (1)
      (pp. 15-32)

      By summer 1923, the news in Germany had turned grim. Along the Ruhr River, French and Belgian troops occupied the factories. Industrial production had stalled, and that, combined with the flight of German gold, had pushed the price of a loaf of bread in Berlin to trillions of marks. Just four years earlier the Weimar Republic had been launched hopefully in the city of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, that nineteenth-century polymath of poetry and philosophy, drama and literature. The city of Weimar had been chosen as a deliberate symbol for the new Republic, intended as a counterpoint to the German...

    • 3 Men of the Feast: Saranrom
      (pp. 33-44)

      As Walter Spies eventually would, Prince Vajiravudh had said his own “farewell to last forever” to Europe — as Daisy Spies would put it — years earlier. He was twenty-one at the time and had seen the century turn, leaving England at the end of 1902 to return to Siam. Although the young prince was supposedly going home, he had fused values from London, much as Walter would later absorb rhythms from the Tatars when he was the prince’s age. And as Walter would find when he went back to Germany, “going home” to the place of one’s nationality and family was...

    • 4 The Escape from Nosferatu
      (pp. 45-54)

      Walter had had at least one romance while in Europe — enough, it seemed, to keep a distance. After World War I ended, he arrived in Dresden in June 1919, rejoining family members. On June 17, still acting like the mischievous boy who hung his sister’s dolls out the window, Walter walked into a room at the family home. Another young man was visiting and still asleep. Walter perched next to the bed and stared at him until the man awoke with a jolt.

      “I’m Walja,” Walter laughed.

      “Really?” the other man mumbled. Blinking awake, he flirted.

      “Haven’t we known each...

    • 5 A New Man for Siam
      (pp. 55-66)

      Even the newspaper images of Vajiravudh and his father, Chulalongkorn, presented different masculinities. Chulalongkorn cut a mustachioed, debonair man-about-town image, wearing smartly tailored Western suits and military uniforms. He could have passed for a Siamese version of Errol Flynn. Vajiravudh took after his more circular-faced mother, Queen Saowapha. As he aged, he would keep his roundness and what was once a lean figure would turn squatter.¹

      Chulalongkorn presented a picture of male potency. He had been able to centralize power in the throne even while pursuing Western-style reforms. Key to that had been his steadfast refusal of Western pressure to...

    • 6 Magical Reality, Running Amok
      (pp. 67-80)

      In April 1925, a few months before King Vajiravudh’s death, Walter traveled to Bali for the first time. Through Yogyakarta’s sultan, he had been introduced to the head of the village district of Ubud, Tjokorde Gde Rake Sukawati, who, like the sultan, was interested in Western art and music. The decisive moment came one night in mid-April when Walter and Sukawati entered a temple courtyard about 7:00. There, Walter saw what he described in a letter to a friend the next day as “the most important and essential of all that I have seen in Bali so far.”¹

      It was...

    • 7 Men of the Dance
      (pp. 81-92)

      The European film director Victor Baron von Plessen arrived in Bali in 1931 to film a movie based in the South Pacific, a project Friedrich Murnau had hoped to undertake with Walter but had instead produced in Tahiti. Murnau’s film, Tabu, celebrated both Polynesian paradise and Polynesian men, drawing on the customary Romeo and Juliet tragic romance. For Walter, von Plessen would provide the more intricate opportunity he needed to fuse celluloid and real life in a way that his hero Scriabin had sought, using not only light on a canvas but also blending sound and rhythm on the movie...

    • 8 The Triple Taboo
      (pp. 93-104)

      Some believe Walter and other Europeans in Bali introduced homosexuality to the island, as if nosferatus were reverse-shipped from the centers of empires to pollute the peripheries. Others suggest Bali already enjoyed fluid male eroticism free of the monumental lines between hetero- and homosexuality being drawn by imperial psychiatrists. A European observer in the 1880s, a voyeuristic doctor named Julius Jacob, who mostly commented on Balinese breasts and clitorises, included in his reports notes about men dressed as female dancers and offered to male visitors for sex.¹ And a respected Balinese leader, Anak Agung Made Djelantik, the son of a royal...

    • 9 A Pivotal Year
      (pp. 105-116)

      By 1938, the refuge for whites being promoted by ultra-right-wing Dutchmen, especially the Vaderlandsche Club in Batavia, had faltered. The movement had stated its goal was to form a new Hollandia, “a fatherland for all Dutchmen in the Netherlands Indies and an area to absorb Holland’s own excess population.”¹ The number of white colonists had reached 102 in 1936, but in the following year, only 50 new migrants arrived to set up their segregated homeland. The crusade for the protection of “European values” in the Indies proposed by the Vaderlandschers needed a boost. Vaderlandsche Club founder Henri Zentgraff, the editor...

    • 10 A Final Chord
      (pp. 117-134)

      The Dutch colonial jail in Kerobokan, west of Denpasar, sat on flat land, a dull contrast to the terraced green hills Walter loved in Ubud. Legend has it that adults in Walter’s favorite gamelan orchestra gathered at the jail to serenade him after he was arrested for supposedly seducing their Balinese “boys.” Scholars do not seem to have footnoted any documented source for this particular story, but the tale is often repeated to explain that the Balinese continued to hold Walter in high esteem and that they, with their own understanding of sex, were baffled by the sudden Dutch crackdown.¹...

    • 11 Dancing with Ezekiel
      (pp. 135-142)

      On September 1, 1939, the Dutch freed Walter from the Surabaya jail. The trial judge had ruled he could remain in the East Indies. It seemed that, at least as far as the judge was concerned, Walter was not an exotic foreign threat who had to be banished from the colony back to the center of the empire. Unlike other Europeans caught up in the Zedenschandaal who were being sent away, Walter was apparently not considered a continuing threat to Bali’s “boys.” Perhaps the judicial conclusion was that he had never really been much of one.

      The same day Walter...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • 12 Transition: A Murder for Paradise
      (pp. 143-156)

      The year the Dutch prosecuted Walter in Bali, 1939, Darrell Berrigan left the United States, twenty-three-years old and, much as Walter had been, a restless young male in search of a new homeland. Wiry, witty, and in his later years given to showing up at dignified occasions in flamboyant sports shirts, he had grown up in Bakersfield, California, attended junior college, made his way to the Detroit auto factories, served as a schoolteacher in Colorado, and then had returned to California to become a social worker. He was broke when he arrived in Shanghai. Japan had occupied most of coastal...

  5. Part Two: The Hope for a Better Age

    • 13 Nanyang Family
      (pp. 159-172)

      Centuries before the British took the island that would be Singapore, the land had already been used for monitoring cargos moving through the narrow strait of ocean between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra. That slender strait linked the Indian and Pacific Oceans and with them the rich lands of India and China. What would be Singapore was little more than a pebble, just twenty-five miles long and fourteen wide, but it was a strategic pearl. Like Bali, the island had alluring beaches and green hillsides, but after the British converted it to a free-trade zone in 1819,...

    • 14 Men of the Feast: Babylon
      (pp. 173-184)

      By 1979, the nationalist contests in Southeast Asia that had come to such a climax with the French and then the American war in Vietnam had settled, and the international gay guide Spartacus, published in Amsterdam, recognized that Thailand had become exactly what Darrell Berrigan had described in the 1950s as the national goal: a tourist paradise where airline passengers disembarked rather than continuing to Hong Kong or India. “With all those magnificent palaces, temples, and colorful markets,” the Spartacus editors wrote, Thailand “offers the finest sightseeing in Asia.”

      Most importantly for the guide’s audience, Spartacus added that “with such...

    • 15 The Problem with Home (2)
      (pp. 185-198)

      In 1989, the gay guide Spartacus modified its previous advice to gay men about bypassing Singapore unless they wanted to shop. The international travel guide still cautioned against going to the male brothels on Johore Road unless “you are desperate,” and it still warned that Singapore’s sodomy and gross indecency laws carried severe penalties up to ten years’ imprisonment. But now the guide noted seven bars had actually begun catering to gay men rather than simply tolerating them. Foreshadowing an important fashion about to arrive, the editors also wrote that the Clark Hatch chain of Western-style workout clubs had opened...

    • 16 A New Man for Thailand
      (pp. 199-208)

      Thaksin Shinawatra was fond of slogans. As a child in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, he had attended a Catholic school that promoted Labor Omnia Vincit, “Work Conquers All.” Later, he adopted a motto he learned at the Thai Police Academy: “Better to die than live like a loser.” He would keep a variation posted in his office, a sign that said: “Winners-Losers.” He grouped those he knew into the two categories. “A loser,” he said, “sees problems at every opportunity, but a winner sees an opportunity in every problem.”¹

      His family’s accumulation of wealth had followed such...

    • 17 Men of the Net
      (pp. 209-220)

      Stuart Koe had posted his online manifesto in September 1997. “No matter how loud the few shout,” S2 had argued, “the greatest revolution is within.”¹ A year later, his service in Singapore’s army finished, he fled the island a second time, heading to London. He intended to never return, his status as a kind of nosferatu temporarily confirmed. He had chosen to sail into the wrong village at the wrong time. S2 would later write, “I hopped on the first available flight to London knowing I would try my utmost not to come back to Singapore.”²

      He wanted to find...

    • 18 A Pivotal Day
      (pp. 221-228)

      For Babylon’s previous fifteen years of existence, from 1987 through 2002, Khun Toc’s architectural paradise on Soi Nantha had never experienced any particular conflict with the Thai police, much less the government’s Interior Ministry.

      It is not clear whether that was due to the supposed Thai tolerance for playful sanuk, or because of deference to the social class of the family from which Khun Toc came. It also may have been that the metaphor of a “periphery” for sexual dissent versus a “center” of sexual acceptability had not solidifi ed in the Thai imagination the way it seemed to have...

    • 19 Dancing under the Merlion
      (pp. 229-240)

      A few months after Babylon was raided, a Time magazine writer reviewed the difficult choices Singapore faced because of what the magazine termed an “unprecedented economic downturn” and the desires of many of the island’s intellectual elite “to head for greener pastures.”

      “The wealthy city-state still thrums with technocratic efficiency,” the article noted. “But beneath the gloss of its modern skyline, an unprecedented economic downturn has produced the worst identity crisis since the traumatic 1960s, when the island gained independence from Britain.” Fully one-fifth of the country’s population had indicated in a survey that they were thinking about leaving. Coincidentally,...

    • 20 A New Nation
      (pp. 241-254)

      Once Singapore refused to license Stuart’s Snowball dance, the government moved swiftly to set other limits, illustrating its dual approach of seeking to be at the forefront of cyber-technology while controlling what could be said.

      On March 5, Dr Balaji Sadasivan, in his role as minister for Information, Culture and the Arts, spoke at a meeting organized by the Singapore Computer Society. He reported that Singapore’s information infrastructure was expanding. International data capacity had jumped twenty-five percent; cell phone penetration stood at ninety-two percent; broadband had almost doubled; and more than 600 wireless points had been set up in cafés...

  6. Postscript
    (pp. 255-260)

    The pursuit of a homeland can extend across generations, especially if the homeland is to become one that no longer has to feel like a paradise created from magical realities but part of the ordinary landscape and ordinary imagination. By October 23, 2010, a century had passed since Vajiravudh’s accession to the throne.

    In the Spartacus gay international guide, the editors had started tempering their description of Vajiravudh’s former Siam as early as 2005. They now referred to gay life in Thailand only as “relatively unrestricted” and complained that nightlife had become “strictly controlled.”¹ Thaksin had ultimately been ousted in...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 261-300)
  8. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 301-306)
  9. Index
    (pp. 307-316)