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

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.

“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.

A “Golden Nowhere”

Flowers’ business is conceptualized as a joyful holy society (fraternal, friendly, human) that is based on individualism and exploration. It stands opposed to the business values that the Las Vegas Sands Corporation embodies. These values are stated on the company’s website.

Our Integrated Resorts in Las Vegas, Bethlehem, Macao and Singapore have become premier destinations for travel enthusiasts around the world. […] We believe that our geographic diversity and best-in-class resorts and convention-based business model provides us with the preeminent platform in the hospitality and gaming industry to continue generating substantial cash flow while simultaneously pursuing new development opportunities in other regions.

Singapore is no longer a place or even a nation.

“Travel enthusiasts,” and the business models that cater to them, press out indigenous culture in favor of a homogenized, antiseptic, corporate-run global culture. Anything left of local street culture is rendered merely as portable nick-knacks or instances of kitsch performance. As part of this neo-colonialization, Marina Bay Sands offers an Asian-tinged “golden nowhere” (to use Jeremy Seabrook’s phrase). This ethereal playground is given vision in a commercial for the casino-resort, available on Youtube, in which international celebrity David Beckham poses and cavorts while a band of sexy Asian women play traditional Chinese instruments (not audible on the soundtrack).

For wealthy travel enthusiasts, Singapore is no longer a place or even a nation. It exists as a constellation of lights beyond the high-priced hedonism taking place in the secure compound of Marina Bay Sands. This could be Dubai, or Hong Kong, or London, or Moscow, or any other playground of the international superrich. There’s no sense of an indigenous culture. Yet this structure is the unofficial icon of the Republic of Singapore.

The narrative of Saint Jack offers a palliative to this anemic consumer culture, but to bring us back to photography, it’s the cinematography of the film that makes it an invaluable record. Bogdanovich’s crew captured Singapore’s street culture at a moment when it was being displaced by a political agenda that actively encouraged corporate development at the expense of local expression.

Purple Prose and B-rolls

Flowers’ participation in the local culture in its colorful and odious aspects allows both Theroux and Bogdanovich to bring the audience into that culture. There are complications in such voyeurism, and accusations of Orientalism may be warranted, though a full indictment would require some difficult prosecution, especially in light of the pale version of itself the place has become. The novel is rich with vivid descriptions of a long-gone Singapore. From the opening of chapter three:

It was early lighted evening, that pleasant glareless time of day just before sunset; the moon showed in a blue sky — a pale gold sickle on its back — and it was possible to stroll through the mild air without hunching over and squinting away from the sun. It was the only hour when the foliage was not tinged with hues of sickly yellow; trees were denser, green and cool. All the two-story Chinese houses set in courtyards along Cuppage Road had their doors and green shutters open for the breeze, and there was a sense of slowed activity, almost of languor, that the sight at dusk of men in pajamas — the uniform of the peace-loving — produces in me.

Authors use these sort of purple passages not only to set a scene but to project a specific mood: in this they are the literary equivalent of B-roll shots, which function in the same way. The opening shot of the film Saint Jack is a fine example of this phenomenon.

The camera is positioned on what was then the edge of Singapore Harbor, near what is now the Fullerton Hotel. What we see is a full 360 degree panning shot without any voice over or other external soundtrack. Beneath the opening credits, we see a working harbor, with fishing vessels and local craft known as bum-boats under way. It establishes the tropical Asian atmosphere — you can practically feel the steam and smell the odors of diesel fuel and fish mingling in the air — without offering any commentary. It’s B-roll, but given the prominent place of opening the entire picture, it also helps to set the mood (according to Slater’s book, it was the final take of the entire production).

A brief portion of that opening shot can be seen in the original film trailer, with Bogdanovich’s voice over somewhat ruining the mood. The point is that both the purple prose and the B-roll capture a lost world.

The Cuppage Road that Theroux describes is completely obliterated: for many years it’s been straddled by two enormous shopping malls, The Centrepoint and Orchard Point. One row of remaining two-story houses at the end of the street have been converted into a high-end shopping arcade called Cuppage Terrace.

The Singapore harbor visible in the opening shot is even further altered, for what was then open water was steadily filled in and built up over the years. It’s now totally enclosed. Where the bum-boats used to ply their trade, electric mock-ups made specifically for the tourist trade now sail in a pointless circuit. On the land fill is Adelson’s gargantuan casino hotel. (If you want to compare the same view, see the 1979 film trailer at 0.11-0.13 and the Beckham video at 0.23).

The opening shot is reminiscent of the sort of approach Antonioni used in his Chung Kuo, Cina documentary. But whereas that film forces the viewers into a passive gaze, Saint Jack‘s narrative pulls the audience into the story, and by doing that, allows them to vicariously participate in the local culture. Bogdanovich’s crew managed to capture that street culture as vividly as Theroux’s prose. This success is the reason the film was banned in Singapore.

Jack of Hearts

Ben Slater does an excellent job telling the backstory to the making of the film in his book. I can only condense it here (full disclosure: about a decade ago, Ben guest lectured about Saint Jack for one of my film classes while I was teaching in Singapore). Bogdanovich got his hands on the rights to the novel when his then-wife actress Cybil Shephard successfully sued Playboy magazine for using nude images of her without consent. The rights were awarded as part of the settlement.

There was a rumor that Theroux’s novel was banned in Singapore. As Slater shows, this isn’t true, but when the crew showed up to film, they were convinced that the story was dangerous, so they filmed under a different title, telling the local cast and production team they were making a movie called Jack of Hearts. They masked their production behind the TV show Hawaii Five-O which, luck would have it, was also filming an episode (S2E9) in Singapore at that time. Lead actor Ben Gazzara, who plays Jack Flowers, joked with local journalists that he was playing the bad guy in the episode.

This subterfuge resulted in guerilla filming a feature-length production. It included employing members of the crew as extras with speaking parts and using the same hotel where the foreign crew were staying, the Goodwood Park, as a significant location. The best word to describe the visuals is “pungent”, for they capture not only the sights but exude the smells and sensations of a Singapore street ecology that pulses and swells on screen.

When the film was not officially banned because of the guerilla filming — though that did ruffle more than a few feathers when the truth emerged. Rather, the censor felt (according to Slater) the film “put Singapore in a very bad light.” The censorship board railed against the use of local people and locations to depict Singapore as, in their view, little more than an Eastern fleshpot inhabited by gangsters and ne’er-do-wells. It would not be legally shown in the city-state for another three decades.

The story of an American pimp at large in Singapore went against the narrative the freshly independent republic was not only projecting to the world, but also forcing on its citizens. Singapore was a multi-cultural, clean, green, safe city where, while some profitable vice was allowed (prostitution was, and remains, legal), Playboy magazine was banned. Today the narrative is the same, and though Playboy is no longer banned outright, the webpage is blocked. Back in 1979, images of cavorting prostitutes, ramshackle shophouses on dingy streets, and the infamous Bugis Street transvestite red-light district, were not the visuals the city fathers wanted to depict of the new Singapore. Indeed, they were to be washed from all but memory: in the ’80s, a gleaming shopping mall was built atop, and a subway station constructed beneath, the old Bugis Street.

But if we play the B-roll game and look past the narrative at the backgrounds, what we find in Saint Jack is a depiction of a Singapore that did exist, that was real. It would be next to impossible to make this movie today simply because that reality no longer exists. There would be nothing to film. To judge by the resurgent interest in their shared past, Singaporeans themselves feel the loss even if they are not always comfortable expressing it.

Beneath the expensive yet facile erection of Marina Bay Sands is a city with a unique story. That story, like the city itself, is being slowly but irrevocably obscured by a relentless drive to replace it with an alien form of slick modernity. The absolution that Saint Jack offers us today is not only a refuge in a long-lost smoky street culture, but importantly, a refutation of the dominant narrative that insists that enforced progress is not only inevitable, but the best form of freedom for all.