Jul 3, 2010

Where exactly was the Infamous Toilet in Bugis Street?

Bugis Street Toilet 1980
Source: NAS

In typical Singlish, "happening" would be too mild a word to describe Bugis Street. Back in the good o'days, before the squeaky clean cobblestoned Bugis Junction was bequeathed to us, 'Boogie Street' was known for the food, booze, transvestites and most dramatic of all, a fiery performance on top of a stinky public toilet.

This was the ritualistic "Dance Of The Flaming Arseholes" where sailors with stuffed toilet paper up their arse would have the paper lighted and they would dance to the flame ignited by their companions, with no lack of "music accompaniment". This took place on the flat rooftop of the toilet (see cover photo). Nobody knows or can recall how the folks made their way up, amazing!

I am curious not as to the different uses for toilet paper (e.g. breaking your fall, like this fellow), but the location of the infamous toilet. Unfortunately the accounts by Allied servicemen who visited Bugis Street are of not much help, i.e. do you trust the memory of those who went to get drunk? In any case while they have memory of the toilet, they do not unequivocally state its location. For example, if a structure is at a cross-junction, there are eight corners it can be sited, assuming not in the middle of the road. I have not read an account that pinpoints the toilet to the exact corner.

A. Old street directory showing the original Bugis Junction in yellow - Bugis, Malabar, Hylam and Malay streets. Today they are, with some parts truncated, incorporated into Singapore's first air-conditioned shopping street.

The following is a description of Bugis Street by a certain Bob from Australia, whose article is hosted in Yawning Bread:

My mental map of Bugis street is of it leading off a larger road with an intersection about a block up with a block or so of Bugis St on either side and a block, or so, of the cross St (dunno what it was called) either side. There was a toilet block with a flat roof at, or else close by, the intersection on which the trannies (Oh yes, they were there! In spades, they were there!) were wont to give impromptu theatrical performances in drag on the flat toilet roof to the delight of the crowds; the occasional fury of the police.

Referring to the old street directory shown earlier, can you guess where is the toilet? Here is the commentary by Yawning Bread (Alex Au) himself:

The notorious drinking section began from Victoria Street (what Bob refers to as the "larger road"), west to Queen Street. Halfway between Victoria and Queen, there was an intersecting lane parallel to the main roads (Bob refers to it as the cross street in his piece), also lined with alfresco bars. And yes, there was a well-known public toilet with a flat roof.

Unfortunately Alex muddled the map of Bugis Street. "Halfway between Victoria and Queen" basically means Albert Street which Victor blogged about here. Parallel to Cheng Yan Place (picture A), it was the continuation of Bugis Street after Victoria Street. No wonder I initially thought the toilet was in Albert Street, the stretch now renamed as New Bugis Street (yes, the day and night 'pasar malam'). I think Alex meant to say North Bridge Road, not Queen Street?

Here is another description of Bugis Street by Abalinx:

Bugis in those days was made up of two streets that resembled a Tee junction. In the middle of the T-junction was a toilet block.

Bon told us the toilet was at, or close by, the cross junction while Abalinx wrote of a T-junction with the toilet in the middle. Who is right?

My first breakthrough came via pictorial evidence from the 1985 Straits Times. That was when the government decided to sanitize Bugis Street the easy way - by destroying everything. They let in bulldozers that year and the demolition was recorded for posterity in the ST photo. See if you can spot the only landmark to have survived into the 21st century (two actually but one has been demolished).

Bugis Street and Malabar Street
B. Caption reads: The cross-junction at Bugis Street and Malabar Street, where the action used to be, is now a mass of rubble. In the foreground is Victoria Street.

Right smack in the center of the photo we see what appears to be the infamous toilet, standing tall in face of impending destruction. Nearby the lorry and excavator are poised, ready to pounce. To be frank, the lack of a flat roof (photo seems to indicate sloping roof) and two entrances (probably one for each gender) from the 1960s design does not make the argument that this is our toilet convincing. Could we have mistaken a normal shed for the toilet?

Bugis Street Toilet
C. A closer look at the toilet. Note the roof design of the shophouse behind. (This photo probably comes from the same series as the cover photo, but I got it here)

However, I learnt from Detective Koo that one should watch out for little details like "patterns on the pillar of the building". I use his technique here, but apply it on the "pattern of the roof behind the dancers". Look carefully, first at the building behind the "shed" in photo B; then at the building behind the dancers in photo C. Don't you think they share the same roof pattern and even windows?

Bugis Street 1980
D. Bugis Street circa 1980. The three storey building on the right looks out of place among the shophouses. Peter could have used it to survey the skyline and streets below during early 60s. Lamp-post in the foreground looks like some kind of surveillance camera? (Source: NAS)

Using this technique, I have found another photo of Bugis Street taken from a similar angle. However the atmosphere here is totally different. Instead of the mass of rubble in 1985, we see Bugis Street bustling with life (and wine) in 1980. Notice in photo D, the building in the left background and even the building behind it, they share the same roof and window patterns with the two buildings in photo B. If your eyes are sharp, you can also catch the "surveillance camera" in photo B.

I now have a pretty good idea where the infamous toilet used to be located. It should be at the junction of Bugis and Malabar Street. The following is my hypothesis:

Toilet at Bugis Street
E. Old street directory showing the pre-demolition view of Bugis Street. Red box shows my hypothesis of the toilet's location.

Assuming I am right, where is the toilet's location today? It would be somewhere in Bugis Junction, but exactly where? Have you watched the movie Blue Streak? The movie taught me if you know the exact location of the diamond's hiding place, you can be $17 million richer.

I had my next breakthrough coming from a 1991 construction photo of Bugis Junction. The old streets are clearly visible and once again, a prominent landmark from 1991 has survived into the 21st century that will tie the past and present together. Do you know what is it?

Bugis Junction
F. Bugis Junction in 1991. Bugis Station Exit clearly visible (the station was opened in Nov 1989). Labels and blown-up added by me. (Source: NAS)

MRT Ventilator Shaft
G. The MRT Ventilator Shaft visible in the 1991 photo. Foreground is driveway into Bugis Junction carpark. If you stand here, you can imitate the angle of the 1985 ST photo.

This is going to get pretty exciting. From the shaft, let us find our way to the position in my hypothesis. Examine the blown-up in photo F. The distance from the shaft to the distinct right-angled corner of Malabar Street is about three car-length. The real corner slightly to the left is rounded, possibly taking after the round corner of the three storey building in photo D.

Ventilator Shaft from Ticket Counter
H. Looking from edge of Shaw ticketing counter towards the shaft. The distance is about three car-length.

From the right-angled corner, go two car-length down then two car-width to the left, i.e. where the first car down Malabar Street is parked. I think the infamous toilet would be at this position. Ok, I admit "cutting corners", to pardon the pun, but this should be a good ballpark based on the info available in the public domain.

If you translate the car distance, you will end up at this parquet mat beside a pillar. What a coincidence! Is this some kind of "heritage site" secretly marked out by STB and NHB? Joking of course, but there are rumours that the architects had plans to incorporate the toilet into the design of Bugis Junction.

Bugis Junction Shaw Ticket Counter
I. Panorama of the open space in front of ticketing counter - the location of our infamous toilet.

A "heritage toilet", modelled after the real one (sans the stench), would be an oddity in today's sanitized Bugis Street. Moviegoers would mistaken it for a movie gimmick. For what it is worth, however, it could be a nostalgic crowd-puller for those with memory of the infamous toilet. Oh yea, how about a fiery performance on top?


peter said...

One comment Icemoon,

Due to road widening/government compulsory land acquisition, the carriageway of Victoria Street in the direction of the Charlton Hotel is actually the row of old shops. Maybe about 2 lanes of that carriageway. I used to take a bus to Bedok Camp and the bus stop was the building where you find the raimen shop. Victoria Street was NOT that wide in the ealry 1970s.

Using the BUGIS Village buildings (one of which was the former Park Hotel), at the trafiic light looking towards North Bridge Road will be Bugis Street. So the traffic light now on the Bugis Junction side is actually Malabar Street (the pavement now occupied by DTL tunneling works. The toilet is somewhere at that traffic light rather than further inside - where you pointed out to be the the place you find cinema signboard in front of the ticketing booth. I found an old aerial photo which showed that there were 2 public loos on Malabr Street itself. The other loo is nearer to the Intercon hotel direction but still on the five-foot-way.

Anyway good effort to track down the toilet.

Icemoon said...

Peter, you ignored my evidence of the ventilator shaft and the old street alignment of Malabar visible in photo F.

Before road widening, shophouses must have occupied what is the pedestrian walkway today and possibly the bus lane of Victoria Street outside Bugis Junction. This photo shows how much land was taken away for road widening.

R. Burnett Baker said...

Don't know where it was exactly, but I have been there!! Probably too much Anchor Beer clouded my memory!!??!!?


peter said...

The government did take space from the Victoria Street side of Bugis Village BUT not as much as on the opposite side where it is now Bugis Junction. Your photo F shows a brand new Victoria Street (on the left) which is not operational. Likewise, the Middle Road on the side of the old Swee Kee is the original Middle Road bcos the lonkang was just outside the chicken Rice shop like today. The Middle Road going towards Beach Road is 100% acqired shophouses. Likewise Hill Street towards New Bridge Road (opposite MITA) is also 100% shop buildings acquired.

peter said...

I take back my words. I believe u r right. I did not see the enlarged photo F. Back in the 1970s when I took the bus, it didnt seem that Victoria Street was so wide. In fact the old bus stop was just outside the ramen shop, so how did my eyes see that Victoria Street is so narrow?

Peter Stubbs said...

I've been racking my brain as to the actual location of the infamous toilet, having actually been in it, but not on top of it. I think that Icemoon may be correct with his location. I will have to ask some of my old army mates known to have frequented Bugis Street to see if they remember it.

Icemoon said...

Rick .. beer, trannies, probably even the children asking for noughts and crosses distracted you :P

Icemoon said...

Peter Stubbs, you may not remember its location but the stench inside must have left a memory.

So far nobody has revealed how the guys went up the roof.

Icemoon said...

Peter, I think Victoria Street then was like North Bridge Road today, am I correct? Unidirectional and around four lanes outside Bugis Junction.

Peterr Stubbs said...

Icemoon, I do indeed remember the sweet fragrance of the toilet. It was a case of hold your breath and try to beat all records.

Getting up on top was quite simple for those who volunteered to get their ‘rear ranks’ singed. Many willing hands would provide the upward motion required.

One old friend of mine, who spent more time at Bugis Street than he admits to, remembers the toilet being at the junction of Bugis Street and Hylam Street. This set me to thinking (it does happen). I used to sit near the Victoria Street end near the junction with Malabar Street. I’m pretty sure that I would sit nowhere near the ‘fragrant’ block, so the toilet must have been further down.

The memory was never much good, but after 42 years, it is even worse.

Peter Stubbs said...

Pity I can't spell my own name!

Icemoon said...

Peter Stubbs, your comments sent me back to the drawing board. :(

In photo D, we see Bugis St. flooded by tables. Now, if the toilet was that stinky, it would have scared those people away. :P

I guess you probably sat near one of those tables.

Peter Stubbs said...

Icemoon, it was the thought that I would not like to sit too near the toilet that forced a rethink. So far, ony one response from an old friend (above) who thinks that they remember where it was. Age is affecting the rest of us.

peter said...

North Bridge - 1 way street towards Capitol, Victoria Street - 1 way street but towards Kallang Road. I think 3 lanes the most but you have an extension of the "five-foot-way" onto the road.

If u think stench is terrible, just how come those guys can go and do business in Flanders Square today? In our school days we walk into Johore (boc sQueen Street bus terminus next door) and thru the "shops" via the back-door. Alamak! Can vomit...from that day we avoid ever going close to such places. Sven spitoons and those rough cut toilet roll I got nightmare so much that when SAF supplied the same type of toilet roll I brought my own from the house.

Tom said...

Icemoon In Photo D, the building centre left the infamous toilet was right next to it, I remember it well.On Saturday nights A group of us Jocks use to go there for a wee wee after we had afew tigers, yes it stank to the blue heavens if you where not drunk you had to run in and run out, I can still smell it to this day.

Icemoon said...

Yes Tom, the building you indicated is the one in Photo C as well.

Let's hope my hypothesis in E is correct, the red box.

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