Madeleine Lim: A Singaporean Lesbian Filmmaker

Monday, July 14, 1997

Madeleine Lim: A Singaporean Lesbian Filmmaker

Madeleine Lim is a Singaporean film maker now living in San Francisco. Her recent film, Sambal Belacan in San Francisco, just had its world premier in the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in June 1997 and generated a lot of interest. Sintercom talks to Madeleine about her family, about living in the US, about her film and about her lesbianism.

Tell us a little about yourself and your family.

My mother is born in China and adopted by Singaporean parents when she was six. My dad is from Malacca. He is Baba -- half Chinese, and the other half a mixture of Malay, Indian and Portuguese. My parents separated when I was nine and my mother then re-married. My step-father is half German and half Spanish. I lived with them until I was 23 and then I left Singapore. They now live in Kazakhstan and run a very successful travel agency there.

I studied in the Convent of Holy Infant Jesus for primary and secondary school. I then went to Catholic Junior College and finished my diploma in the College of Physical Education. I recently finished my BA in Cinema Productions in San Francisco State University.

Why did you leave for the US at 23?

While in Singapore, I had been talking with friends about living more "out," living my lesbianism as a normal and full part of my life instead of being limited to just maybe one bar and a small circle of friends. I wanted a lesbian community around me to organize within, to be an active part of. Since that was not possible in Singapore, I decided to explore other countries. I left just one month after graduating from the College of Physical Education.

I meant to stay in the US for only two and a half months but ended up staying two and a half years. I landed in New York and travel by land across the country, checking all things lesbian on the way. I checked out things like lesbian community, bars, restaurants, publications, cafes... I didn't go to all the states -- skipped the southern states because I didn't want to deal with their racism. I also explored California, moving from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz to San Francisco. I knew I wanted to come to San Francisco because I heard there is a large lesbian community there. This traveling took a whole year. Before my US trip, I have also checked out lesbian communities in other European cities like London, Paris, and various parts of Spain, Italy and Germany. I didn't want to stay there because of the language barrier and also because there were few Asians there.

When I got to San Francisco, I thought it was great. I wrote to my friends asking them to come. One year later, one came and several years later, another came. We sometimes get together to talk about Singapore and our homesickness.

Many people think of homosexuality as western moral degeneracy. Do you agree?

I think homosexuality in Asian culture goes back as far as European cultures if not further. Its whether we want to acknowledge it or not. It is well documented, for example, in Chinese and Indian culture. As far as having lesbians and gays in Singapore, I don't think it is something that we can blame on western decadence. People who say that it is a western import do so because they don't want to acknowledge their own ignorance or stereotyping of homosexuals. So, instead of dealing with their own attitude, they blame it on the west.

Have you experienced homophobia when you were in Singapore? Do you think Singaporeans are homophobic?

The most negative experience was when I was in secondary school, I almost got thrown out of school because one of the teachers in the school found out I was a lesbian and soon all the teachers knew. They said things like: "homosexuality is abnormal, you are a good student, you must not be a lesbian." I was basically not allowed to spend time with my girl friend at the time, by parent, teachers and councilors. It was that attitude that was very damaging to me. Struggling to keep my sanity through all of that, with no one to confide in and talk to, was the most traumatic part.

I finally told my mom I am a lesbian when I was nineteen. I did that because I wanted to share that part of my life with her. From that time on, I came out to my friends and lecturers at the College of Physical Education. I was very outspoken about lesbian issues. I ran an lesbian publication for two years and tried to build whatever community I could. For me, I think that people who thought my lesbianism was problematic just stayed away.

Homophobia is much more subtle and implied in Singapore whereas it is more extreme in the US. In Singapore, people will make comments like: "are you a boy or a girl?", and look at you if you're holding hands with another woman. In the US, there are domestic partnership laws and health benefits at work for your same-sex partner but you're also more likely to be beaten up with a baseball bat for being gay. I think Singaporeans are no more or less homophobic than people from other countries. I don't want to generalize, but the only thing that matters in Singapore is the limited access to lesbian and gay literature and support, and that does affects how people view homosexuality. If access to information is easier, they may be a little more understanding.

When did you first thought of making the film Sambal Belacan in San Francisco?

When one of my close friend came to the US, she added a sense of family to my daily life. Living in San Francisco, my lesbian sexuality was validated but not my Singapore identity. When she moved to San Francisco we constantly talked about what home meant to us and where that was. Since then, I have been toying with the idea of making a film that reflects our daily life. I didn't want to focus on just one person, me, but want to present different Singaporeans' experiences. I started writing the script in the fall of 95 and started production in February 96. I finished the film just in time for the film festival.

What are the themes of this film?

There are three main themes: The first is lesbian sexuality and our struggles with our families. Our families all know, but one refuses to face it, another is very accepting, and mine, well, my attitude is: this is who I am, they just have to deal.

The second theme is immigration, especially about immigrants of colour living in the US and the anti-immigrant climate prevalent now, how unwanted we are made to feel, and how despite this we try to build a community and home for ourselves.

The last theme is cultural identity, how we try to live and celebrate all that we are, being Singaporean and being lesbians, without internalizing the pressure to assimilate into the dominant American culture.

Feminism is also an important part of this film. There is this scene in the film where I shot two women's naked and entwined body from the foot slowly up to the head. While this is happening, the audience is seeing these female bodies as sex objects, but when the camera reaches their head, they look back at the audience as if they had been interrupted and intruded upon. This act of looking back at the audience make the audience aware that they themselves had been caught in the process of objectifying the bodies on the screen.

In this film, I try to expand the boundary of traditional documentary film making by making it more intimate, less like a formal interviewer-interviewee format, and by including scripted scene, poetry and news reel footage.

Film making is expensive. Where did you find the money to do it?

I started without any money. Then I applied for and received two academic scholarship. One from Markwoski-Leach scholarship for outstanding lesbian and gay students, the other from the Uncommon Legacy Foundation for outstanding lesbian students. They each gave me $1,000. I later received grants from the Frameline Film and Video Completion fund and the Asian American Arts Foundation. The Frameline fund is a prestigious national award and I was one of the five recipient this year. I also raised $4,000 from within the lesbian communities in San Francisco, KL, and Singapore and by doing garage sale and giving screening parties of my earlier film. The whole film costs $16,000 so I'm still hoping that more money will come in.

You mentioned an earlier film. What other films have you made?

Before Sambal Belacan, I completed Shades of Grey in January 96. It is a short seven-minute film about lesbian domestic violence. So far it has been shown in seven major film festival in five different countries.

I also completed a video documentary, Youth Organizing Power Through Art, in June 96. I was commissioned by the Berkeley-Oakland Support Services (BOSS - a non-profit organisation helping the homeless find housing and job) to make this video about a group of low-income homeless youths of colour who came together to create art and learn about helping each other and themselves.

After San Francisco, where else will you show this film?

Quite a few film festival organisers around the world have already requested a copy. They are the Vancouver International Film Festival, New York Experimental Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, Hawaii Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and a Hong Kong film festival. It is great to have so much positive response in such a short time.

I haven't talked to anyone yet about showing it in Singapore or Malaysia but I want to do so, especially to show it in the Singapore Short Film Festival.

Do you envision any problems showing this film in Singapore?

Yes. Because of the lesbian content and also because it critiques the Singaporean mentality on race, which is a sensitive topic. There are still a lot of negative connotations associated with lesbianism. I grew up in a convent school where we always heard rumours about some girl who hang out in the women's bathroom trying to kiss other girls who go there, and other such ignorant and negative images of what lesbianism is about. The film examines each of the three women on a personal level where you get to hear their stories and some of the struggles around coming out as a lesbian in Singapore, despite growing up in a very unsupportive environment. One of the women in the film is a Eurasian lesbian who got teased about her hair, lips and skin colour while growing up. Her father made her study Mandarin from primary one because he thought it would help her fit in. But in her experience, it did not matter whether she spoke Mandarin, she was judged immediately by the way she looked. However, I would love to have a public screening in Singapore. I think it would be the ultimate celebration for this film.

Have you thought of returning to live in Singapore?

Yes! I am eligible to apply for US citizenship but have not done so because I don't want to give up my Singapore citizenship. I'm just not prepared to do so. I still think of coming back although only my sister live in Singapore now with her French husband. My feelings for Singapore is always double edged: I was born and grew up there so I feel that I'm Singaporean; but my cultural heritage is very different from everyone else and people don't understand me, so I also feel like an outsider. I am biologically part Chinese, but heritage wise, I'm of mixed heritage. I don't call myself Eurasian because that has a different culture.

This has to do with having a German step-father since I was nine. We stopped visiting my mother's family because they disapproved of her divorcing and marrying an Ang Moh. Growing up, it was normal practice to have wine with our meal. I grew up practicing both European and Chinese customs. Chinese Singaporeans always assume I'm Chinese, but when they find out my upbringing is different from theirs, they think, "Oh, you're not one of us."

So you will make your next film in Singapore?

Oh yes, definitely! If I can get the money for the film, it will be shot in Singapore. I'm planning a colour feature length film next about a coming of age story of girls in a convent school.

Thanks for letting us do this interview and good luck. If anyone wants to talk to Madeleine or invest in her next film, you can contact her at:

US phone: (415) 752-0868
US address: 59 Cook St, San Francisco, CA 94118

Interviewed by Tan Chong Kee 14 July 1997
Copyright 1997 All rights reserved.