Curtains for Yangtze Cinema: A sticky end to Chinatown’s last public wanking den

Singapore’s last standing soft-porn cinema is closing next month.

A new MRT line at Outram Park finally means curtains for the haggard old Pearls Centre shopping mall, and with it the famous Yangtze Cinema will call time on almost a quarter of a century giving horny old men a place to spank the monkey in public without getting arrested.

The owner wants to extend the cinema’s stay for a few months before the bulldozers move in come February. But shopkeepers and restaurant owners in the Pearls Centre say that an exception won’t be made for the faded old uncle’s playground, which will tug off its geriatric hold on 31 August, when all the tenants must leave.

Yangtze Cinema is the last of Singapore’s great old R-rated cinemas, and follows Changi Theatre — which closed in 2000 and is now Bedok Point Shopping Mall — and Republic Theatre, which closed in the mid-80s, re-opened in 1988 before it closed again a few years later, fading into the history books.

The big blue box on Eu Tong Sen Street made a name for itself in the Seventies, showing kung-fu films. But when new cinemas started showing the same stuff — with comfier seats, better popcorn and smarter decor — Yangtze played a different hand. Skin flicks, of the lighthearted Asian variety. Art-house sauce from Hong Kong, Japan and Korea was gently introduced at first, became popular, and then that’s all they showed.

The punters kept coming, and the idea that men could relieve themselves while watching risqué content was quietly tolerated by the powers that be.

“The government did not clamp down because it was not pornography. It was soft porn — with an explicit content advisory provided,” says Tony Chow, a Singaporean filmmaker and producer, who remembers the cinema from when he was a kid and knows the owner. 

“The government knows about it, doesn’t want to talk about it, but knows it must cater for it. Like the red-light district,” he says.

Then along came the Internet and multiplexes, and Yangtze has quickly come to resemble a museum where its customers are among its exhibits. Meanwhile, concern from parents and religious groups about porn polluting Singaporean minds, and a squeeze on sexual content by regulators, have made Yangtze stick out like an erection in a convent.

“The demise of the Yangtze was inevitable. We don’t seem to be able to acknowledge the older, unseen sides to Singapore. We have to be picture postcard, don’t we?” says Fiona Bartholomeusz, who runs her own ad agency.

It’s not like cinemas where men can watch blueys and indulge in self-worship are a common thing in Asia. But they are clinging on to existence elsewhere, and in unexpected places.

In Bangkok, grubby old underground movie houses known as ‘second-class’ cinemas, from the same era as the Yangtze, some even earlier, show soft- and hard-core porn to men who prefer not to sit down to enjoy the performance, but hang around by the toilets for ‘extra’ services from other men and transgender women.

The story is similar in Manila. Police raids are common on dodgy old cinemas that are not only places for men to chafe the sausage, but are a front for the gay sex trade. A few years ago, the city’s mayor ordered the closure of Dilson Theater on the unfortunately named Recto Avenue and arrested everyone inside it. But even in a place where church and state go hand in hand, Manila’s grotty wank dens limp on. 

Even in Pakistan, where it is illegal to watch porn and religious extremists have attacked Internet cafes, music stores and women’s fashion shops for being too liberal, adult movie theatres remain popular, and cinema owners keep going by paying fat back-handers to the local authorities.

Can the Yangtze start afresh elsewhere when the Pearls Centre is knocked down? There’s talk of a plan, but finding a place where R21 films can be shown, away from neighbourhood areas, and where the rent isn’t eye-watering (Yangtze’s rent in the Pearls Centre is around $30,000 a month) probably means it’s curtains, finally, for a 26-year-old institution.

“It’s just not commercially viable,” Chow remarks. “Show’s over.”

And that’s sad.

Horny old men will now have to go elsewhere to dance with the one-eyed sailor. Or get introduced to the Internet. 

The existence of the Yangtze until now “just goes to show that people have a need for intimacy, whatever their age, and will find ways to fulfil it,” says Doris Low, a spokeswoman from Tsao Foundation, a charity that helps the elderly in Singapore.

It’s also sad because the Yangtze is a faded relic of a bygone era and it would be a shame not to remember, if only in a sort of Jesus, really, in Singapore? Sort of way. 

And now the building that Yangtze has called home — a glorious monument to sticky-carpeted Seventies seediness — is going to be replaced by yet another bland station-mall with less personality than an airport.

Going by the number of punters your correspondent saw over eight visits to the Yangtze (purely for research purposes, of course) over the last few weeks, its time had indeed come. It would soon have run out of customers, who are no spring chickens.

Paying $7 to sit in a room where men are jerking off really is as unappealing as it sounds. And it’s hard to think how the Yangtze’s R-rated fodder, which seems like watching Mary Poppins compared to what’s on the Internet, could be a sustainable business model. 

Here’s the first film I watched.

This writer has a fairly open mind after 10 years in Asia. But it’s hard to prepare anyone for the Yangtze experience.

The lobby where the ticket desk is feels like the loser’s lounge in a casino. Joyless. No one talks to anyone else. Everyone is alone here. Sat like remote islands drinking coffee in silence.

A long escalator leads up to the cinema. I worry that I’ll see someone I know. Like my boss. What if I see my dad sitting in the back row? Ugh.

Before entering the cinema, a stream of men come out of the auditorium, sweating and adjusting their belts. Everyone’s carrying something.

I sat about halfway back in the auditorium for the 3pm viewing of Due West: A Sexual Journey, on the end of the row — in case I needed to dash for the exit. I had taken a bag with a notebook in it. God knows why. I didn’t get it out and start scribbling. What if it looked like I was knocking one out?

Men were sat as far as they could get from one another scattered around the room hunched into carefully constructed wanking dens made from bags, overcoats, scarves and what not. No umbrellas though. Maybe word had got out it looks a little too obvious. 

There were wet splodges on the linoleum floor in the aisles. The air reeked of semen and loneliness.  

I found myself clutching my bag to my chest. Like a sort of shield. My body shrunk with physical and mental discomfort into a flip-down seat that looked, felt and smelt like crime. I felt itchy.  

I hoped they turned the lights on. Or the projector didn’t work. Or there was a fire alarm. Or they put on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on by mistake. Anything to stop these men from wanking. I wondered if any of these men had ever wanked over Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Probably.

I can’t believe that anyone would go to a cinema to beat one out. Not turning my head, which had retreated into my neck, I scanned the room. Men definitely old enough not to have heard of the Internet. I wondered how any of them could get an erection. It would surely kill them.

I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they’d come because they’ve heard the film is critically acclaimed. I can’t remember Due West winning many awards when it came out in 2012, but then I know little about Asian films. I just didn’t know. Maybe.

I became aware of a man sat immediately behind me. I immediately wondered how I would react if he ejaculated on my head. I wonder if that happens a lot in this cinema, and what the code of conduct is. This is Singapore — there must be some rules. I didn’t notice anything on the notice board outside, which just said KEEP CLEAN.

There is a rustling of fabric somewhere at the back. A belt buckle. Some fidgeting. A cough. But mostly the room was gripped with a tense, horrible stillness. The man behind me belches and shifts in his seat. I wait with dread for any sort of wanking noise. Any sort of flapping, panting, grunting or short intake of breath near me and I’m leaving, I decide. A story for Coconuts is not worth being literally wanked on.

I felt something land on my shoulder. Turned out it was a fly. Not jizz.

The only thing that stopped me from making for the exit is the film. Which is funny. A Hong Kong kid get his rocks off in Shenzhen. Mild titillation in parts — ooo, a teenage girl puts a banana between her boobs — but definitely not porn. The raunchiest bit was when a vibrator was inserted into the leading man’s ass by a Shenzhen masseuse. The look on the man’s face was worth the entrance fee. 

I felt the opposite of arousal throughout the film, which ran for one hour and 46 long minutes. Apart from momentarily perhaps, when the masseuse, who had a magnificent pair of breasts, administered a boob massage. But a grunt from the rear of the room reminded me of what I was. Back to being basically scared. 

I watched another film the next day. A Korean movie about a suicidal teen who is saved by sex. But again, not porn. Harder core stuff is given out free with newspapers where I’m from. This was just about the only NSFW bit in the film:

Curtains for showgirls too

Almost as tragic as the demise of the cinema is the end of the KTV bar and showgirl carry-on downstairs, where men for whom a peek at a nipple doesn’t do the job can get the real thing. Sort of.

But first, they must descend the escalator of shame. Hur hur, yes the escalator shaft does look like a penis.

From 7pm, just before the final film of the day is screened, the Yangtze KTV below spreads its legs to a trickle of party-papas in loud shirts and shiny suit trousers.

It used to be a cinema too, but that made way for a stage for girls in tight long dresses who look 15 years younger from a distance and a long bar that seems barely noticeable in a space big enough to hide an Airbus A380. 

The room is vast. The ceiling is four storeys high. And it feels bigger because it’s basically empty. 

Three of the showgirls are sat at the end of a long New York-styled bar, giggling. Probably at some pictures their customers had sent them.

A few men at the bar are unimpressed by the show about to start behind them. Turns out one of them is the manager. I am one of the only customers here.

The show kicks off with a few individual performances. I make my way from the bar to an empty red lounger with a jug of beer. 

The music is the sort of soft rock that would be popular in Germany. But she pulls it off.

After a few more solos, all the ladies gather on stage, not looking too happy about it. Traditional Chinese music plays, and they wave their hands around slightly. But are otherwise motionless.

A whistle blows. One of the beer wallers bounds on stage and attaches a sash to one of the girls. It has a number on it. I am told the number is the amount of money a customer has pledged to a performer for “encouragement”. 

Here are the sashes. The amount ranged from $100 to $100,000. I didn’t notice anyone pledge over $500.

Here is a clip of this happening, plus a hasty scan of the room.
 

 

A look inside the soon-to-be demolished Yangtze KTV

Our correspondent recently made a trip to Pearls Centre to experience the last lup sup theatre Yangtze Cinema and its accompanying KTV before it gets demolished soon to make way for a new mall for Outram Park MRT Station. Stay tuned to read what he experienced inside its infamously grimy halls!

Posted by Coconuts Singapore on Friday, 24 July 2015

 

The girls then shuffled around, looking a bit like they needed to go to the toilet, into a different position on stage according to who has the been given the most ‘encouragement’.

The ladies then pay a visit to the table that tipped them. After being politely cajoled into doing so by the mamasan, I made a $50 tribute, the least generous amount that was acceptable, in the form of a wreath of flowers placed around the shoulders of a woman wearing an extraordinary yellow dress she’d told me earlier she made herself. 

Moments later, I got a jug of beer on the house. 

Then the mamasan, wearing a far-out pair of pantaloons and a huge smile, took centre stage and belted out an old classic. She was fabulous. 

Here’s a poster of all the staff. The picture looked older than the wall it’s hanging on. The manager, a man now probably in his fifties and a real charmer, has worked at Yangtze for 11 years. His picture is the biggest of the collage, on the left.

Out the back of the building is your familiar KTV fare, a network of deep red caves with the ambience of a smoker’s lung. The sort of place that might prompt Wong Kar Wai (or possibly David Lynch) to whip his camera out.

Every 20 minutes or so, a lady old enough to be my mother came to sit next to me while I was singing (‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis — really butchering it) and rubbed my thigh for five minutes before fluttering off to do something similar next door.

It’s a relaxed sort of place. A friend told me he once smoked a joint in one of the KTV rooms here. Concerned, I asked him why he thought that could ever be a good idea in a public place in this country. He said that he forgot he was in Singapore. 

I sort of see what he means. The Yangtze is the twilight zone. An in-between place that seems out of reach to the modern world drifting by outside, oblivious.

It belongs to another generation, many of whom are sat around on their own. Often asleep. 

Like the rest of this grand old arena of sleaze, it is a sad sort of place. 

And although the numbers are thinning faster than a man who lost his Regaine, the enduring appeal of one of the oldest cinemas shows that there’s still a market for ways to cope with what is probably Singapore’s biggest social ill — loneliness.

Where will the umbrella uncles go now?

Photos: Robin Hicks
 

 

Read also: 

Happy birthday, Orchard Towers! 40 years of sex and violence

Memory Lane: Chinese New Year in Singapore… 50 years ago

Holy grandma, former Ms Singapore (1941, 1946, 1947) still looks great at 91


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