Chong Woon Yong visited Geylang and the darkest parts of the Internet to write his first play, G.F.E., which he will also perform. What does the term mean? How does it apply to modern Singaporean men? And how is love part of the equation?
- On a field trip to Geylang
All images courtesy of Ric Liu (IG: @gogomonster)
Not many playwrights would visit Singapore’s red-light district or dive into the sordid depths of the Internet for their very first play.
But that’s exactly what Chong Woon Yong did for G.F.E., which will premiere at the 2018 Singapore Theatre Festival in July.
“‘G.F.E.’, or ‘Girl Friend Experience’, is a term for transactional sex where the experience you buy is not merely transactional,” Woon Yong explains. “It’s not just f**king – it’s more intimate. You kiss, chat, cuddle and make eye contact. The connection goes beyond sex.”
He first came across the term several years ago on an online forum – one dedicated to ratings and recommendations by men who engage in transactional sex regularly.
It reminded him of a trip he had made to Geylang, while smarting from a recent break-up.
“I had just broken up with my girlfriend and I was feeling very down,” he recalls. His secondary school friend was also dealing with relationship woes, and so they decided to make a trip to Geylang together.
“At first, we were thinking of maybe getting a little action to numb our pain,” he confesses. “Ultimately, however, we just went for drinks and had a long and deep conversation about love and relationships. It was a very surreal experience.”
Woon Yong came away from this visit to Geylang with one observation that has stuck with him through the years.
“All the men who were there for the sex workers – they looked dead inside,” he says. “The most lively, colourful and beautiful people I saw in Geylang were the sex workers. The men, on the other hand, were lifeless. They looked trapped. It was really quite depressing.”
At the time, Woon Yong had been tasked to write a 20-minute short play for The Theatre Practice. He decided to distill his own experiences in Geylang and combine them with the research he had conducted online to create the earliest incarnation of G.F.E.
That first version of the play took on a life of its own. Woon Yong has performed it on tour in Shanghai, while Ric Liu – who will be directing the play at the Singapore Theatre Festival – did a reading of it as part of the 2016 Singapore Night Festival’s ‘Late Night Texting’ segment.
A year on, Woon Yong is glad to have the opportunity to develop G.F.E. into a more complete piece, adding more depth and layers, for the Singapore Theatre Festival.
He’s particularly pleased that his new play will be paired in a double-bill with When The Cold Wind Blows, Neo Hai Bin’s poetic look at the psychological costs of Singapore’s National Service.
“Both plays examine what it means to be a man in Singapore today,” he says. “A large part of When The Cold Wind Blows examines toxic masculinity – what becomes of men when they are always told that they must be tough, that they must have balls, in order not to be seen as failures?”
G.F.E., on the other hand, is more about “vulnerability” and “repression”.
“Men don’t always have it easy,” he notes. “I look around and, sometimes, I see men around me laden with all sorts of expectations – be it a result of their circumstances or a certain type of societal conditioning. Occasionally, I feel it myself. How do these expectations affect modern men when they look for a partner?”
In particular, Woon Yong observes, “Singaporean Chinese men have a lot of desires that they cannot find an outlet to express. Where and how do love and intimacy come into the picture?”
“The men I saw in Geylang – I’m sure a lot of them are married and have families. And yet, you could tell they were just looking for a way out of themselves. And maybe buying a G.F.E. is a way for them to express that vulnerability, to indulge a certain need for intimacy, or perhaps even to mourn some sort of loss.”
At the moment, Woon Yong is revising and refining his script.
Apart from talking to his friends and incorporating feedback from Festival Dramaturg Alfian Sa’at, Woon Yong is also taking on insights from his creative team.
“There are a lot of women working behind the scenes on this show,” he explains. “It’s good to have their feedback on the script – it’s been very constructive and offers a more layered perspective on the play.”
In particular, Woon Yong has been pondering what sound designer Ng Jing had to say after a recent workshop reading of his latest draft.
“He pointed out that a real Girl Friend Experience involves things like quarrelling with his girlfriend, helping to clean her house, walking her dog, and being there for her when she’s sad.”
“So, when you buy a G.F.E. in Geylang, you’re not buying something that’s somehow more real, or more intimate. You’re actually buying a fantasy. The term ‘G.F.E.’, when used in its original context, is in itself deeply ironic.”
Working on G.F.E. has made Woon Yong consider his own views on love and relationships.
“While working on the script, I’ve come to realise that a G.F.E. has meant different things to me at different ages,” he says. “At 17, it was serenading someone on a guitar, going to the zoo. At 26, it was dancing the night away together. Now, at 32, I think what matters is that people in a relationship enjoy each other’s company, even on the most banal of days.”
Ultimately, he concludes that his play doesn’t just deal in titillating topics like sex and hookers. “It may be called G.F.E. but, ultimately, it’s about love. Visiting Geylang for a G.F.E. simply provides a metaphor to examine that. How does the average man in the play process what he’s doing? What happens when the experience falls short of his expectations? Can we love on our own terms?”
G.F.E. plays at the Singapore Theatre Festival as part of a double-bill from 12 to 15 July 2018. Visit www.singaporetheatrefestival.com for more information!