Loo Zihan

Interview by
Adam Baran
Photography by
Regis Trigano


Young filmmaker Loo Zihan's first film Solos was a frank portrayal of a gay affair between a teacher and a young student, played by Zihan himself. Unsurprisingly the film was immediately banned in Singapore upon its release in 2007 due to 'explicit content'. Zihan and I have become friends over the years and when he recently emailed me to say he was coming to New York for a working vacation, I figured he meant writing, or directing, or working on a film in some other capacity. I was more than a little surprised when I found out that the work that brought Zihan here was a week-long stint of go-go dancing at the city's only Asian gay bar called The Web, an underground club on 57th Street that I'd always heard about but never went to. Every night Zihan, who now lives in Chicago and studies art and film-making, dressed up in inventive costumes that most go-go boys no longer put the effort into — Olympic swimmer garb one night, Shibari Japanese rope bondage another, and a full on leather-man look with nipple clamps the next. It didn't take me long to realize that more than likely, this experience would be more than just an easy way for Zihan to make money. It's probably going to end up being his next film...

Adam: What have you been doing in New York since you got here?
Zihan: The first night I arrived, I started go-go dancing so that has been pretty much taking up most of my time.
How did you get caught in ‘The Web‘?
Well, I knew about it like most Asians now about it. If you Google ‘Asian gay bar in New York’ that is the first thing that comes up. It’s the only one. Everyone knows the clientele it attracts, which is old white men and Asian twinks. Some Asians don’t like it. I don’t mind. It’s like a parallel reality. You don’t imagine a place like it in the world. It feels like you’re in Bangkok or something.
Really? Because it has that element of white men lusting after Asian boys?
Yeah. Asian boys selling themselves to white guys, yeah.
That seems like a double-edged sword, in a way.
Yeah, both sides are responsible for it, in a way. White men know what they are getting themselves into and the Asian boys know what they are getting themselves into.
I see what your next movie is going to be all about.
What? Go-go dancing?
Yeah! This is a movie, the famous film director go-go dancing, you know?
That’s my main reason I am doing this, just to meet more people and to find out more about the trade. I have been interested in this topic, sexuality and the selling of sexuality and the dynamics between different cultures, the colonial culture.
Go-go dancing must be very different for you because you can’t do it in Singapore, right?
Yeah, that’s true. But you can dance on podiums fully clothed, but they don’t hire people to do it, you just go out and do it.
You told me once that there are fashion shows and then the guys come out in their underwear at the end right? So how does it work, they stop in the middle of the night and do a fashion show or they do it the whole night?
They stop in the middle of the night. They have show times. Like basically what happens here in a club that has a drag show. And they have a lot more stuff than fashion shows, but fashion shows seem to be the legitimate thing because it partners the businesses up. It’s a win-win situation between the club owners and the businesses.
But the guys cannot get tips.
No, they don’t get tips. We don’t have a tipping culture in Singapore.
To what extent is Singapore actually tolerant of gay people?
It is very difficult to distill. It keeps changing and it is always in flux. It changes so rapidly. One and half years ago I would have given you an answer and it would not be relevant anymore. Like fashion shows would have been relevant a year and a half ago, but they have not been going on that much lately. Boundaries keep changing and morphing, because Singapore is such a young nation. The fact that we went from a Third World to First World nation in the span of forty years, the amount of acceleration that happens that propels us forward propels everything else, propels gay rights. Things happen too fast for some people in the community and that is where the conflict arises, but it’s inevitable that we will progress to a stage where homosexuality is accepted as the norm, like it is here, sort of.
What is still illegal?
Anal penetration is illegal. This archaic law, the penal code 377A that is still enforced, not really enforced, but kept in the legislation of Singapore. It is not actively enforced, but the potential for it being enforced is what threatens gay people in Singapore.
Can we talk about the climate of your film coming out and the effect it had. Because first of all, it got a lot of press because the lead actor was a famous, straight TV actor cast in this explicitly gay role.
His name is Yu Beng, actually, he is veteran theater actor. He started out a long time ago in Singapore and he transitioned into TV and he had done police dramas, so for the longest time he was on like a version of ‘NYPD Blue” where he played a very butch, older policeman. And he was very popular. He became a household name and he did many things. When we wrote the script he was the first selection because of his drawing power and star power. We weren’t sure if he would be interested in doing this project because it was very sensitive, of course, and when we finally approached him, he agreed to it and it went from there and took off. He is happy with the film and we are still very close. It is impossible to do a film like this and not be very close.
Well, you had sex scenes together.
Yeah, we did. We had sex scenes.
And you had to kiss and do all sorts of things. And you cast yourself very cleverly.
I had an agenda. (laughs) No, he is married with kids. And his wife is a very famous actress too.
Was it hard leaving your boyfriend to come to Chicago?
It’s okay now. We have been apart for so long. We are friends. We have broken up.  But it’s okay. It’s amicable. It just seems so far away, Singapore, now. Because you know when you transfer to another place, it seems like your whole life. There is no reference of your previous life around. When you first asked that question I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, I did have a boyfriend in Singapore that I broke up with to come here.’
Do you have a new boyfriend?
No. Art is my new boyfriend. It takes up so much of your time.
But are you getting laid at least?
Yeah, when I feel like it. Yeah, in Chicago I can get by.
Good. What kind of guys do you like?
I classify myself as Sticky Rice. I like Asians, because there is a familiarity, especially in a foreign country, relationships or connection with fellow Asians is reassuring. But at the same time I know that it’s just a matter of time before I switch.
What do you mean it’s only a matter of time before you switch?
As in, it is something that I need acclimatization to, to foreign cultures and foreign countries. I am not opposed to white guys or other races. It is just that the opportunity has not arisen.
Well, I hope it does and you enjoy yourself however, I mean, if you like Asian guys, you like Asian guys…
But the pool of Asian guys is so small here! The pickings are slim!
What do you look for? What kind of guy I attractive?
Actually, the face. I always look at the face and the ability to have a conversation.

Zihan’s first film Solos is now available on DVD at Amazon.com. His most recent film Threshold, is touring the festival circuit this year. His blog is loozihan.wordpress.com

Published on 09 March 2010