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).
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?
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?
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:
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?
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)
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.
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.
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?