By Laura Rena Murray
If you travel to Singapore you can relax at Tantric, one of Singapore’s gay bars, which has been open for 7 years and its sister bar down the street, Backstage, has been around for more than a decade. Both serve a predominantly gay male clientele, which is a letdown for Devil’s Food Cake, a film and art critic for “The Most Cake,” a website for the English lesbian community. Her long dark hair falls over the white striped shirt that hangs off one shoulder. According to the bouncer, there’s a monthly lesbian party but no strict lesbian bars, per se. Her disappointment was palpable but the arrival of two women convinced her to stay for a while.
At Tantric, the patrons range in age, nationality and gender. The front patio offers a refuge to smokers, like Devil’s Food Cake, and their companions seeking fresh air. Inside, the walls are painted black to accentuate the neon lights. Television screens pepper the bar, streaming K-pop music videos. By 11pm on Saturday, the bar is packed. Lady Gaga and fake smoke billow through the room, descending from the ceiling. The drinks are strong, which almost makes up for their hefty price tag.
After an hour of bouncing back and forth from the patio and a corner of the bar, Devil’s Food Cake felt restless. A middle-aged New York banker named Mitchell sliced through the crowd, casting his gaze about before alighting on Devil’s Food Cake. He worked his way over to introduce himself, pegging her as a lone foreigner as well, one of several peppering the crowd. Although it’s a Saturday, he looked stiff and awkward in a suit.
It was Mitchell’s second time at Tantric, he informed her, looking about with a mixture of distain and envy. As he drank, his stance and tongue loosend. Before long, Mitchell was ripping into his brother, a military man based in Hawaii, and trash talking his friends from the South, expletives gracing every sentence. By midnight, he had talked a young man into swapping clothing, exchanging his suit jacket for a leather coat. It was the perfect moment for Devil’s Food Cake to escape.
Curious about other options in the neighborhood, Devil’s Food Cake decided to head down the road to Cow & Coolies for some down and dirty karaoke.
Music blasted out onto the quiet street when she opened the front door to enter. Two enormous disco balls hung suspended over the bar, Christmas lights blinked across the bar and along the wall, and soccer played on the television. Several microphones rotated around the room to anyone amped up enough to sing along to “American Pie.” If you have any doubts about whether or not you’re in a gay bar, three rainbow flags dangle near the curtained restrooms, above a Tanya Chalkin “Kiss” poster.
The crowd is slightly older and everyone’s excited to sing. Couples sway to the music and the bartenders dance along. One woman clambers atop the bar to gyrate her hips above the laughing crowd.
Taking in the new scene, Devil’s Food Cake is unable to suppress a grimace. The women are older than she anticipated and the bar seems too dingy and sloppy for her tastes. She sits down behind the pool table, slurps down her gin and tonic, and shells a basket of raw peanuts before announcing that she can’t take it anymore and leaves.
Granted: the singing is bad, the mixed drinks taste awful and the blaring sound system will give you a pulsating headache to take home. But there’s something magic about a place where someone busts out a tambourine to accompany Katy Perry’s “Firework” as everyone joins in, waving their arms in the air.
In the 1990s, attractive young Singaporean policemen cruised the street looking to entrap gay men, who would receive a caning and prison time. After 12 men were caned in 1993, a performance artist clipped off all his pubic hair in protest, which led to the banning of performance art for 11 years. But in 2003, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced that while gay sex remains illegal he would allow openly gay men to serve in sensitive cabinet positions. Since then, there has been a relaxation of attitudes toward the LGBT community.