A Note on Charles Causley’s Singapore poem “Bugis Street”
by Andrew Howdle
The Cornish poet Charles Causley (1917-2003) travelled widely as a result of his commitment to the development of poetry. These excursions included Canada, Australia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Singapore. In 1980, Causley published Twenty-Five Poems, a slim volume of translations from the work of Hamdija Demirović. He met Demirović, a young poet and gay activist at the Sarajevo Days of Poetry. This gesture of support is one example of the open-mindedness shown by Causley towards voices outside the mainstream.
Causley’s tolerant attitude to minorities emerges in “Bugis Street,” a poem from Collected Poems (2000) that offers a first-hand account of Singapore’s permissive Montmartre. Written without salaciousness or censure, it is a significant view of a vanished Singapore. According to the manuscript version in Exeter University’s archives, the poem was composed in 1985. The sixth line, “Like children at a country fair,” alludes to “Tavistock Goose Fair,” a poem from the same red notebook.
The two poems stand as companion pieces: in one, an infant Causley views a familiar, traditional country fair with his father; in the other, an adult Causley views a strange city’s transgressive street culture, noted for its transvestites, as they were known then. Both poems turn on images of gold and deception. At the Goose Fair, Causley’s father is tricked into buying a fake, golden guinea at a not-so-bargain price. On leaving Bugis Street, Causley is outraged when a vendor tries to sell him “an orchid dunked in gold.”
This method of transformation, perfected in 1976 by a youthful Singaporean scientist, became symbolic in the early 1980s of the country’s newly born ingenuity. The invented, eternal orchids won the first Best Tourist Souvenir Award. In the poem, the transmuted golden orchid is a parallel to the transformed boys, for the plant’s name translates as “testicles”: both are metamorphic. The floral conclusion to “Bugis Street” also points back to Causley’s translations from Demirović whose poetry shimmers with the alchemy of sex and the mystical, Symbolist language of Mallarmé.
Most likely, Causley’s memory of “Bugis Street” dates to February 1981, when a Qantas Airways strike caused a five-day flight to Australia with a stopover in Singapore. By the time that Causley was supporting poetry in Singapore, at the first Writers’ Festival in 1986, Bugis Street had been bulldozed in favor of gentrification. (The golden orchid of tourism triumphed over free sexual expression). ”Bugis Street” offers a unique record of a street life filled with buoyant vitality and sexuality.
by Charles Causely
Over our heads long skeins of light
Fly Bugis Street, each lamp a white
Bulging eyeball. We sit out on
The buckled strip of hosed-down stone
Silted with chairs and tables; stare
Like children at a country fair
That smells of sea-damp, joss-sticks, drains.
Music discharges like a gun.
I drink a Tiger beer. You take
A coffee laced with ginger; make
No comment as the girls parade
In polished gowns, spangles, gilt shoes,
Ear-rings as long as icicles
And scalloped wigs in dangerous shades
Of lollipop. On each slant face
The necessary mask of pure
Defiance, a sharp mouth that trades
The ritual obscenities
With those who pass unseeing, dare
To mock the solemn ordinance,
The painted glance that fails to hide,
Somehow, a terrible innocence.
Pedlars flicker among the crowd
With cassettes, T-shirts, watches, loud
Pictures in silk of matadors;
And for a dollar Singapore
Photographs of the girls. But they
Are boys. The stars are glass. The sea
A cauldron of voices. The moon's ray
A searchlight crawling on the bay.
We leave. A pedlar blocks our path;
Reads every word I do not say,
Pushes an orchid dunked in gold
Across the dirty tablecloth
And my hand shakes, but not with cold.
From Collected Poems by Charles Causley, pp 337-8, (London: Macmillan, 2000).
Andrew Howdle is a retired teacher living in Leeds, which has been his home for 30 years. During his professional career he has been many things, but principally a teacher of the Expressive Arts. He is the co-author of Test Case for All: Equality and Empowerment in Education. Currently, he spends his time doing what he did before he left teaching. He writes critically, reads and writes poetry, and devotes himself to life drawing of the male form. He is particularly interested in Renaissance poetry and poetry that focuses on racial and sexual equality. Howdle won the first prize for the 4th Singapore Poetry Contest. You can read his poem dedicated to Charles Causley here.