The Absolution of Paul Theroux's 'Saint Jack' in a World Lacking Irony

by William Gibson

7 October 2016

The narrative of Paul Theroux's (and later Peter Bogdanovich's) Saint Jack offers a palliative to the high-priced hedonism taking place in an American-owned compound in Singapore.
 
cover art

Saint Jack

Paul Theroux

(Mariner)
US: Oct 2014

cover art

Saint Jack

Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Ben Gazzara, Denholm Elliott, James Villiers

1979

cover art

Kinda Hot, The Making of Saint Jack in Singapore

Ben Slater

(Marshall Cavendish)
US: Jan 2006

“They cease to be citizens of their country and become nomads belonging to, and owing allegiance to, a supranational topography of money; they become patriots of wealth, nationalists of an elusive and golden nowhere.”
—Jeremy Seabrook, In the Cities of the South

It’s so obvious a point as to be superfluous: photographs create a record of the time and place in which they were taken. In this regard, all moving pictures—the motion captured within the frame and also the camera’s ability to move—offer a documentary about their own making. Films shot on location enhance this aspect of photography, and of course directors and cinematographers will choose shots specifically to set a mood or capture an ambience. The Technicolor panoramas in The World of Suzie Wong remain some of the most vivid images from Hong Kong of that period. What were originally intended as supplemental shots used to establish atmosphere are now as much reason to watch the film as the story or the acting.

Over the past century or so, we have created a massive record of our civilization that exists at the edges of our mass entertainment. We can play a game with this accumulation, a game of giving primacy to the background, the incidental images, what the industry calls “B-roll”, over the shots of actors and action (the “A-roll”). This game can be taken to absurdist levels, such as Norman Conquest’s chapbook Rear Windows, An Inside Look at Fifty Film Noir Classics (Black Scat Books 2014), which offers 50 images of the windows in the background of noir films that can be as entertaining as, and often more revealing than, the original productions.

There are films that preempt this game by setting out specifically to capture a time and place without employing any narrative at all. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 documentary Chung Kuo, Cina was shot on location in China over eight weeks specifically to document the life of the local people. The outcome is a three and a half hour long slow stroll through an era that has been completely eroded over the past 40-odd years. The movie is an anti-epic, or maybe an un-epic. There is no story arc. Instead, the entire picture is B-roll footage given coherence only through the rhythm of the editing.

Then there are narrative films in which the location is given as much priority as the story. Director Peter Bogdanovich’s film Saint Jack, which was shot completely on location in Singapore in 1979, is such a picture.

Even in 1979, acute observers were aware that the speed and size of the transformations happening in Singapore were not only altering the lived space of the city-state, but that these changes were reshaping the social fabric of the former colony. In a phrase, a way of life was quickly passing away. They wanted to capture that before it was totally suffocated and displaced.

Chung Kuo, Cina was banned in China until 2004. Saint Jack was banned in Singapore until 2006. Such censorship indicates the wariness these types of productions instill in those invested in forcing their own ideas of progress on the masses.

Transformation, Progress, Sheldon Adelson

The film is based on Paul Theroux’s 1973 novel of same name. The young author, not yet famous, arrived in 1968 for a stint as a lecturer at the University of Singapore (now the National University of Singapore) and turned his experiences into a novel, in the process annoying more than a few former colleagues who recognized themselves in the some of the less than flattering characters.

Theroux arrived at a turbulent time. The American war in Vietnam was still raging, and Singapore was itself newly independent. A place that had only ever been a colony (founded by an Englishman in the early 19th century) was suddenly a republic and a vigorous national clean-up effort was begun. As Ben Slater, author of Kinda Hot: The Making of Saint Jack in Singapore, puts it:

Gradually, the old colonial city would shed its skin and die off, making way for a modern Singapore. But it wouldn’t happen so quickly. The port was still active, and traditional ways of life - trades, customs and beliefs—were still alive. Singapore in the late 1960s and 1970s was a place in transition; where the brutal sound of new buildings being constructed combined with the shouts of hawkers on the streets; where networks of ramshackle shophouses lay in the shadow of a gleaming, concrete office block.

The pace of change hasn’t stopped or even slowed. It’s frequently remarked upon by fawning pieces in the BBC (its Far East production facilities are based in Singapore and it’s no coincidence that it has nary a bad word to say about the place). A long-standing local joke: Q: What’s the national bird of Singapore? A: The construction crane.

The progress comes at a price. In other large Southeast Asian cities that have undergone rapid transformation (Bangkok, Saigon, Jakarta), street culture, embodied by food hawkers and itinerant tinkers as much by sidewalk markets, wandering buskers and hustlers, remains a vibrant aspect of daily life. In many ways it defines the texture of life in the city, giving shape and character to the urban landscape. Yet in Singapore it is very nearly extinct, and this is by design of the powers-that-be. Their argument is that a trade-off in security and cleanliness is worth the lack of culture and personality.

Not everyone agrees. While an older generation of Singaporeans may have taken pride in the rising skyscrapers and underground highways, a younger generation is beginning to take issue with the unrelenting paving-over of their heritage.

A recent controversy involving a historic cemetery known as Bukit Brown, from which the government exhumed bodies and removed graves, nearly brought the kettle to a boil. Opened in 1833, it includes some of the last resting places of the founding pioneers of Singapore’s Chinese community. The reason for the exhumation was to make way for a highway connecting an affluent neighborhood to the downtown business district. Even the international press noticed the controversy, with an article appearing in The Guardian newspaper.

Parallel to this desecration of their own past, Singapore’s ruling elite have also demonstrated their utter lack of irony. The current international icon of Singapore is the skyline defining Marina Bay Sands mega-hotel and casino. Representations of the three-tiered structure with what appears to be a shipwreck atop it (it boasts the highest negative edge pool in the world) now appear on T-shirts, hats, mugs, fridge magnets, the all the usual trinkets sold to tourists. All this branding-for-modern-Singapore needs to be tempered with the knowledge that Marina Bay Sands is owned by Las Vegas Sands Corporation, the company of Sheldon Adelson, an ultra-conservative American tycoon. Adelson recently endorsed Donald Trump for US President, this despite that fact that a sizable portion of the population of Singapore is Muslim.

But Singapore’s mostly working class Muslims aren’t his target market. At a cost of nearly six billion dollars, the Marina Bay Sands is the third-most expensive building ever constructed. It’s a glaring icon of global consumerism. For the government of Singapore, apparently, selling the skyline to a right-wing American billionaire was the prime way to demonstrate membership in the First World order. Which gets us back to Saint Jack and the pop matter that here pertains.

“A Useful Man”

The saint of the story is Jack Flowers, who in both the novel and the film is an American beatnik who winds up working on a ship, finds himself in Singapore, then stays. He’s not so much a beachcomber as an entrepreneur with a beatnik’s moral compass, which lacks a magnet. He has a regular job at a Chinese owned ship chandlery—for the employment visa—but he makes his money, and sticks in our memory, by working as a part-time pimp. He considers himself more an enabler of tourist fantasy than a purveyor of vice. The motto on his tombstone, he predicts, will be “A Useful Man”. There is in his description of prostitution preferences a certain sense of global camaraderie:

The old-timers, I found, tended to prefer Malays, while the newcomers went for the Chinese, and the Malays preferred each other. The Chinese clients, of whom I had several, liked the big-boned Australian girls; Germans were fond of Tamils, and the English fellers liked anything young, but preferred their girls boyish and their women mannish. […] The Americans liked clean sporty ones, to whom they would give nicknames, like ‘Skeezix’ and ‘Pussycat’ (the English made an effort to learn the girl’s real name), [the Americans] also went in for a lot of hugging in the taxi, smooching and kidding around, and sort of stumbling down the sidewalk, gripping the girl hard and saying ‘Aw, honey, whoddle ah do?’

These lines are partly reproduced in the film, which broadly follows the outline of the novel while altering the plot to fit the medium. In both narratives, Flowers eventually opens his own brothel, incurring the wrath of Chinese triads who push him out and burn his place. He later works for the US government, running a whorehouse for the American troops on R&R from the war in Vietnam, for which he feels morally conflicted (fattening the boys for slaughter, as he puts it). When this assignment ends, he takes another in which he is supposed to shoot images of a closeted gay Senator (in the book, it’s a priggish, General) in flagrante delicto with a prostie for purposes of blackmail. He shoots the pictures, then decides in the end to do the decent thing and tosses them away.

Despite his tawdry business interests, Jack Flowers is the inversion of Sheldon Adelson. American, self-reliant, and morally obscure sons of immigrants, both men want to live their life (as Flowers puts it) in “silk pajamas”. But where Adelson’s enterprise exists to enrich only himself and resident elite, Flowers’ enterprise is part and parcel of street culture. He doesn’t come to establish a new order, but to explore and inhabit the existing order. When asked to participate in new order activities, such as blackmailing an American big-shot, he eventually—perhaps inevitably—rejects the participation.
Flowers’ world view is expressed as a primitive spirituality that blends the sort of exotic bells and smells of Eastern religions with a very American transcendentalism. Flowers explains,

I liked my religion to be a private affair ashore, a fire by a stone, a smoky offering; one necessary at night, the light giving the heavens fraternal features to surprise me with the thrill of agreeable company. It was to make the authority of ghosts vanish by making holiness a friendly human act and defining virtue as joy and grace as permission granted.

No better ethos could be defined for an American selling sex in the Far East: it replaces both guilt and authority with agreeable, permissive company in a smoke-filled, dimly illuminated nightscape. This is the religion of the adventurer and bar crawler, a worshipper of the street who can find holiness in hookers. As for the tourist Johns, he believes “it was perfect candor, private discovery, the enactment of the white bachelor’s fantasy, the next best thing to marrying a sweet obedient Chinese girl. I could provide, without danger, the ultimate souvenir: the experience, in the flesh, of fantasy.” Human trafficking and the uglier aspects of prostitution are not here considered.

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