Photographer Lenne Chai imagines a same-sex marriage in her homeland of Singapore, where homosexuality is still punishable by a custodial sentence
Photographer Lenne Chai may be based in New York but she’s still heavily inspired by what she calls her “dystopian homeland” of Singapore. A country where homosexuality is criminalised by Section 377A of the Penal Code and punishable for up to two years in prison.
Her dreamy collection of photographs, A Singaporean 377A Wedding, depicts Chai’s “fantasy queer wedding”. This ceremony is decked out with all the trappings of a traditional 1980s-style Chinese wedding banquet, yet – in defiance of Singapore’s traditions and laws – the marriage is between two women. The pictures are characterised by the over-saturated colours typical of 80s wedding snaps, and they contain an irresistible quality of high-camp.
Like most wedding photographs, they’re celebratory and joyful – they seem to look forward to a possible future where Section 377A is repealed and same-sex marriage is possible. Yet they provoke nostalgia as if they genuinely belong to the past; as if you’re rifling through someone’s family album.
Below, we chat with Chai about A Singaporean 377A Wedding and the burgeoning LGBTQIA+ in Singapore.
Can you please tell us a bit more about the inspiration for A Singaporean 377A Wedding?
Lenne Chai: I was raised in a loving but religious family, and though we have a good relationship, my bisexuality seems to be the one thing that we can’t reconcile.
When I first moved to New York about a year ago, a movement to repeal Section 377A gained huge momentum as a result of India striking down a similar section of the Indian Penal Code. Though the movement seemed like it was gaining a lot of support from Singaporeans on the surface – over 50,000 signatures were collected in their online petition, for example – it showed me that Singaporean society is still largely unsupportive of LGBTQIA+ rights.
I expected that mindset from older Singaporeans, but I was genuinely surprised at how many of my peers were against the repeal, with some of them sharing that they were concerned that the legalisation of homosexuality would lead to an Aids outbreak in Singapore!
Misconceptions aside, the contrast felt especially stark in contrast to New York – a society that has moved past worrying about sex between consenting adult men; where queer marriages feel like the norm. Whereas in Singapore, there’s no possibility of marriage, raising kids, or ever owning a home, unless you’re wealthy enough to buy private property.
“I expected that mindset from older Singaporeans, but I was genuinely surprised at how many of my peers were against the repeal” – Lenne Chai
How visible is the LGBTQIA+ community in Singapore?
Lenne Chai: As compared to when I was growing up, I’d say that the visibility has grown leaps and bounds thanks to Pink Dot, an annual LGBTQIA+ rally. The community is visible if you know where to look, but they’re not accepted by Singaporeans, just tolerated. For instance, there are queer bars and parties that you can go to, but it still feels hush-hush to this day.
Is there a tangible opposition to Section 377A?
Lenne Chai: Thankfully, yes! In fact, three court challenges to repeal Section 377A are happening this very week. I’m really glad that these challenges are becoming more frequent, it would’ve been unthinkable in the past.
You’re based in New York. If you had been making these images within Singapore would you have encountered much resistance?
Lenne Chai: This series was photographed in Singapore with the help of ISSUE Magazine, and we – the cast and crew – were genuinely worried about backlash. I still am, a little! There was definitely some resistance from brands when we reached out for clothing loans, as well as potential shoot locations, but I’m very appreciative that it all worked out in the end.
In what ways is art helping to shift the culture there?
Lenne Chai: It’s a pity, but I believe that most Singaporeans are largely unaware of what’s happening in local arts communities. That said, I feel that the youth in Singapore are slowly changing that. They have a more interconnected creative community thanks to the Internet and Instagram, and I’d like to think that they’re much more progressive, accepting, and open-minded as a result.
I love the 80s aesthetic of A Singaporean 377A Wedding and the fact it’s inspired by your own parents’ wedding photos. Why did you choose to locate your fantasy queer wedding in the past?
Lenne Chai: When we discuss queer rights in Singapore, there’s a tendency to bring up religious values and what’s perceived to be “moral” or “amoral”. As a result, I feel that we tend to neglect the rights and feelings of the very people we’re discussing, in favour of supposed rights and wrongs.
Referencing my parents’ wedding felt like a good parallel to reflect how simple and harmless my desire (to be with a loved one) is. It’s honestly such a mundane wish.
“The community is visible if you know where to look, but they’re not accepted by Singaporeans, just tolerated. For instance, there are queer bars and parties that you can go to, but it still feels hush-hush to this day” – Lenne Chai
There’s a big ensemble cast. What was the process of finding and selecting the people who star?
Lenne Chai: One conversation that constantly came up throughout production was that of representation. How do we represent the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as Singapore’s racial diversity in a way that doesn’t feel like tokenism, especially in the context of a traditional Chinese (who are the racial majority of Singapore) wedding?
The shoot was a great learning experience in terms of the spectrum of identities out there. For example, we had Victoria Loke – who identifies as non-heterosexual – as one bride. Our other bride, Cheryl Chitty Tan, has dated women in the past, but identifies as a straight ally.
As for our wedding guests, who are all members and allies of Singapore’s LGBTQIA+ community, we utilised Instagram stories to spread the word.
Your pictures seem full of joy and hope! Are you optimistic that Section 377A will be repealed?
Lenne Chai: I’m hopeful that Section 377A will be repealed, but I've got to admit that the fantastical mood of the series reflects how impossible it feels to me.
I desperately want it to happen in my lifetime though. Don’t let my dreams be dreams, Singapore!