ST Saturday Special Report - Once a Tourist Attraction, She is Now a Tai Tai (Sept 6)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Sep 6, 2008
Once a tourist attraction, she is now a tai-tai
FACE TO FACE WITH... SELVI WIDMER, ex-Bugis Street transsexual
By Wong Kim Hoh
HER long tresses are swept up in a stately bun and threaded with
elaborate hairpins and strands of jasmine.

She wears a silk sari in a majestic shade of jade and an aubergine
blouse with gold trimmings.

On her neck hang three necklaces - her thick gold wedding thali, a
string of pearls, and a $42,000 choker studded with pearls, rubies and

It may be an outing to the temple but it is also an opportunity for
Selvi Widmer, 49, to mark her standing as a respected elder in the
Indian transsexual community.

She has come a long way from her dancing days in the 1970s and 1980s.
Then, the ebony-skinned, long-limbed transsexual was - along with
scores of exotic transwomen - a tourist attraction at the infamous
Bugis Street.

The exotic nightspot was torn down to make way for urban redevelopment
in the mid-1980s.

'They used to call me Miss Black Beauty. I would dress up in mini
skirts and hot pants, wear high heels and tourists - ang moh, Japanese
- would pay $20 to take a picture with me,' she recalls coquettishly.

'Eh, we were famous, you know, long before the Thais,' she says,
lamenting how Thailand's transwomen have since superseded their
Singaporean counterparts in the fame stakes.

Selvi was born the only son of a Public Works Department foreman and a
housewife, who had three daughters.

Selvi says that from young, she knew Mother Nature had made a mistake
with her. Her late father would hit her to make her mend her feminine

After completing Primary 6 at Newton Boys' Primary School, she ran
away from home.

'I wanted to be a woman but since I couldn't be one at home, I decided
I would live on my own,' she says.

She bunked in with other transsexuals in a room in Little India,
paying the $3 daily rent with money she earned as a worker in sari
shops and factories.

From her group of 'sisters', she learnt how to take hormone pills,
grow out her hair, dress up and apply make-up.

Visits to several psychiatrists when she was 17 confirmed for her that
she was indeed a woman born with the wrong body.

She started dancing in Bugis Street to earn money for the operation.
The money was easy.

She claims she did not need to sleep with men then.

'I could make $200 a night, just dancing and posing for photos. That
was nearly $6,000 a month, a lot of money in those days,' says Selvi,
adding that she often helped her family out with her earnings.

A German tourist told her she could make a lot of money dancing in
Europe. Being young and fearless, she did just that.

She worked as an exotic dancer in many European cities, and at 19, she
had saved enough for her operation - which cost her $19,000 at
Gleneagles Hospital.

'My mother had to sign the form for me, I was underaged then. She also
looked after me when I was recuperating,' she says, adding that she
reconciled with her estranged father two years before he died in 1981.

She continued performing in Europe for many years after her operation.

It was while dancing in a club in Locarno, Switzerland, that she met
her realtor husband, now retired, in 1988.

'I told him only three years after meeting him. I thought I had better
tell him, especially since he has a gun, a real gun,' she says with a
loud cackle.

He took it well. 'He told me not to talk about the past. He also said
I didn't look like a transsexual.

'He's a simple man who loves my traditional ways and only insists that
I dress up in saris and carry myself well,' says Selvi, who now speaks
German fluently.

Now 78, Mr Hans Walter Widmer also paid for his wife to attend several
make-up and beauty courses, and even opened a boutique for her in
Singapore. Unfortunately, the business did not take off.

The couple have three homes - one in Wintherthur (a bustling city just
18 minutes by train from Zurich), one in Locarno and one up in the
Alps. They also have a three-room HDB flat in Ang Mo Kio, where she
stays when she comes home for her annual holidays.

'What more can a woman want? I have seen the world three times,' says
Selvi, showing pictures of her with her husband in Egypt, Paris and
other exotic locations.

Brassy, well-spoken and charismatic, she also makes yearly pilgrimages
to India where she has many friends in the hijra or transgendered

Quite the tai-tai, but she has not forgotten her local sisters.

In 1986, she set up an association called the Hijadah Pan with a
fellow transsexual from Malaysia.

Functioning like a social network, it rallies members - who number
several hundreds in both countries - for both happy and sad occasions
like weddings, operations and funerals.

'We are all blood sisters, we need to help each other.'