Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Why do Ah Bengs wear pink?

At a recent SinQSA (Singapore Queer-Straight Alliance) meet-up, we were discussing some stereotypes and of course having a ball of a time.

One participant was slightly (and jokingly) irritated by the observation that Ah Bengs were patronising New Urban Male, a local beach-themed apparel shop currently/formerly popular with gay men (please correct me if I am wrong, and apologies in advance).

Ah Bengs, by definition, are mostly Chinese-educated ethnic Chinese, mostly heterosexual and mostly subscribe to a certain brand of hegemonic masculine set of behaviours, which is of course centralised on the notion of what a "true" man should be/become. Moreover, the Ah Beng signifies the 'essence' of working class ethic and brotherhood.

So, technically, the traditional Ah Beng would have been averse to shopping at New Urban Male, as the shop does not supplement the heteronormality of the Ah Beng aesthetic.

Times have changed now. And we are witnessing a cultural aesthetic change, almost similar in nature to that of the Great Vowel Shift in England, not in terms of language, but the social classes involved. In short, this great shift involved the lower classes following the pronunciation of the upper classes.

The Ah Beng has evolved into a diversity of species. There are middle-class Ah Bengs who behave like they are from the working class, and more specifically, 21st Century middle-class Ah Beng acting like and embodying the perceived essence of the 1980's working-class Ah Beng.

The rough-and-tough bad boy image has acquired ideas and aesthetics of the changing expectations of the "it" man. SNAG or the sensitive new age guy become a fad for a while and some of its attributes seem to have attached to the Ah Beng facade.

The supposedly cool and (maybe/perhaps) previously English-educated exclusive fashion trend of wearing your haversack (school bag for many) low (i.e. maximising the length of its straps) has now been adopted by the Chinese-educated (or those who identify with the values of the Chinese educated).

Of course, the trend now is not to have sling bags or haversacks, but to have huge handbag-like bags to be slung under one's shoulder. This aesthetic used to belong to the domain of women and (later) gay men, but we have straight men slinging their hangbag-like bags (what are they called, by the way?).

The observation that the Ah Beng aesthetic is changing informs of their class consciousness, of which fashion can be a plausible manifestation.

The original Ah Beng existed as an anti-thesis to the English-educated middle class folk and their values, the schools, law, political leadership and status quo that privileges them, and of course the perceived inherent sissiness and inferior brand of masculinity that is the English-educated middle class people (especially the ethnic Chinese whose anglicisation are beyond the Ah Beng's threshold. Anglicisation means... just ask Dawn Yang).

It is contradictory now that the Ah Beng manifests his aspirations for upward social mobility in the form of fashion and more specifically, in the image of what the Ah Beng had traditionally detest. This is because the Ah Beng encapsulates class/status frustration.

The aesthetics of Ah Beng deviancy (from the perspective of the English-educated middle class) has now inherited some properties from the "normal" stratum of Singaporean society.

Given this, there are many Ah Bengs in body, but few in mind/spirit, and this is because of the changing times and the way our society is changing.

Still, I cannot understand the rationale for why Ah Bengs wear pink. Pink is not culturally "male", and by male, I mean heteronormal, heterosexist, heterosexual man.

For an ordinary man to wear pink, it is traditionally indicative of cultural gender subversion.

For an Ah Beng - normally a hyper-masculine manifestation - to wear pink, I have two different (though not mutually exclusive) observations.

One, since pink threatens the domain of hegemonic masculinity, a man who wears it would be considered brave. This thus supports the idea that the Ah Beng, the hyper-masculine incarnate of lower social stratum, is able to conquer all (and pink) and has the manly courage or ji/qiu/mao (testicles/balls/hair in Beng speak) to neutralise the cultural threat pink poses to most heteronormal masculinities. This is probably why we have the silently (hetero)sexist phrase "real men wear pink".

Two, I also see that the Ah Beng is being reinvented. The previous working class roots and identity is now being tainted by middle-class "blood"/values. The fact that the Ah Beng wears pink indicates an amalgamation of tastes from both classes. The Ah Beng has also attained a better social position than previous generations, and while he may have retained some values, his fashionable expressions follow that of the social class he is in, the very class previous generations may have opposed.

So what is it about (heterosexual) Ah Bengs who wear New Urban Male?

Before I attempt to make sense of that, "heterosexual Ah Beng" might be tautological while "gay Ah Beng" might seem oxymoronic, but there are gay Ah Bengs, just that they are less visible given the homogenisation of the homosexual (i.e. gay stereotypes held by both straight and queer people).

In my view, the Ah Beng (still) has status frustration, but with higher classes. There is always a desire to rise up the social strata. Previous generation Ah Bengs got their muscle from spartan nutrition, menial jobs and for some, gang fights. Modern day Ah Bengs get their muscle from going to the gym, which is a privilege characteristic of their improved social status.

I do not mean to simplify or essentialise, but it seems that (some) Ah Bengs are following gay men, given they wear pink, have or aspire towards having ripped "manly" bodies and of course, shop at New Urban Male.

The essence of the Ah Beng is threatened to extinction by our changing society. The more urbanised and cosmopolitan we become, along with changes in the school system and parenting, the more irrelevant the values of the traditional Ah Beng. I'd like to think that Ah Beng values are central to their dress-code and fashion, but now that these values are eroding, modern-day Ah Bengs can decide their fashion. And it is ironic they pursue what they disliked.

Side point, I also find it highly ironic that some working-class (as well as middle-class) ethnic Malay youths are spending loads of money just to look like working-class sub-urban African American youths/rappers, and of course, even speaking like them. Ethnic envy? Will adopting a sub-urban African American aesthetic and mannerism make one more masculine and cooler?

Meterosexuality and the -ism of SNAG have not spared the Ah Beng. The pink-wearing New Urban Male-patronising Ah Beng is his navigation through the modern day cultural landscape of new emerging masculinities. It is no longer as trendy now to physically assert one's masculinity (because of social and legal sanctions), so in its place is the suggestion of one's masculinity. The Ah Beng, culturally enveloped by all these influences, is enjoying some freedom in choosing how he would want to suggest.

Unfortunately, hyper-masculine (hetero)sexist attitudes and behaviours still exist, regardless of pink and New Urban Male apparel. These continue to perpetuate essentialist ideas of masculinity and ensure the continuity of hegemonic cultural gender identities.

More unfortunately, I still cannot understand or make sense of why Ah Bengs wear pink (or patronise New Urban Male, but that's not to say that New Urban Male is exclusive to gay customers).

Maybe we should keep our eyes peeled for Ah Bengs and do our own anthropological study on them. What is an Ah Beng now? If Ah Bengs are representative of status frustration, are bloggers who blast the government and elite classes Ah Bengs themselves?


Weiye said...

NUM in itself promotes hyper-masculinity with male mannequins that are significantly more gym-buffed than mannequins used by other male fashion brands.

I also feel that many (straight) NUM customers don't really associate the brand with being gay (in denial perhaps as with most parents who refuse to see their children as homosexuals despite their (the children's) behaviors and dress-sense?). The owner himself doesn't see the brand as targeting gays (according to my friend) even though gays seem to form the predominant segment of their customer base, and screamingly gay products seem to be available e.g. T-shirts with slogan "I declare myself Mr. Happy" in front and the number "302" on the back.

But then again, the people who buy NUM are (from my observation) mostly younger teens and adults. Perhaps it's just a youthful act of rebellion? Or pure following of trends? Either way, they probably think very little of the gay undertones. It's like ear-piercing in earlier times.

As for totes and satchels... perhaps it's just part of capitalism to diversify and develop new markets (men) with existing products (for women). It's not unlike the democratization of cosmetics for both sexes.

As far as I can remember, men have been carrying satchels on their shoulders long before like those old ah peks carrying their fishing equipments etc. Their bags are just less clean, less fashionable, and hence less gay-looking. So it's probably not so much the way they carry the bag but the types and looks of the bags, which explains why totes look gayer than say a leather satchel.

But then again, why do bags have gender classifications? Hahaha.

I love your article by the way. =)

Weiye said...

Found this website for M'sian LGBT that you might be interested in.


Sam Ho said...


OH! they are called totes and satchels... my vocab is lacking.

and i was buying t-shirts from a small shirt store, and i didn't get the shirt with the word "mr happy" on it haha. i think it's because (thanks to what you've said) i'm aware of the connotations and am probably not "secure" enough to don it haha.

squawks said...

"Anglicisation means... just ask Dawn Yang"

This quote is a WIN.

This shallow comment is not designed to distract from yet another well written piece. Just found it all the more hilarious in contrast with the topic which is decidedly more serious.

With regards to the CMIO issue, I guess the segregation it creates is still serving a very crucial role in maintaining some social order through this instituitionalising of racial norms. The government won't be removing this very useless social tool anytime soon.