This piece first appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.
The trailer of the new Singaporean film ‘When Hainan Meets Teochew’ was enough to persuade me that I had to watch it. The movie was premised as a romantic comedy between a ‘manly’ woman, and a ‘womanly’ man, as opposed to the usual Hollywood cliché where a handsome man meets a pretty lady and they fall in love after some complications are overcome.
The synopsis read: “One day, a brassiere drops on Teochew. He immediately wins the lottery and decides to keep it. Hainan begins an arduous search for her precious underwear, distributing hundreds of missing posters around her neighbourhood. Teochew sees one of the posters, and his curiosity is piqued. Bumping into Hainan one day, he asks about the brassiere, although he has no intention of returning it. Unfortunately, he lets slip more than he should, and Hainan becomes suspicious…”
For those who are unaware, the Hainanese of Singapore are descendants of immigrants from Hainan, China’s southernmost island province. Teochews are descendants of those from the Chaozhou region of Guangdong, China. Hainanese men are reputed to make the best husbands, while Teochew girls supposedly make the prettiest wives. (I am Teochew but alas, I cannot speak the dialect well.)
As a sexologist, I am obviously interested in all media portrayals of gender roles and sexual orientation, especially in Asia. I went in wanting to like the film, but I had my doubts. Would the movie be contrived, further reinforce negative gender stereotypes and misconceptions, or be downright distasteful? Would the filmmaker, Han Yew Kwang, who also wrote the production, be able to pull off such an unlikely storyline?
Having watched it, I have to say that Han did so splendidly. Here are some reasons why:
1) The movie is entertaining. It elicited laughs even through its ‘cruder’ elements, such as the tussle by the main characters over a bra, as well as delivery of slapstick humour, mainly in the Mandarin language, with Hainanese, Teochew, Tamil and English thrown in. This approach is very welcome, as I imagine it would help alleviate the discomfort the Singaporean audience would be experiencing with the film’s controversial subject.
My western friends who were with me cringed at what they perceived as ‘overacting’. As a local, my opinion was different. The seemingly over-the-top acting are actually perceptive portrayals of how some local people do indeed behave in real life. Contrary to public perception, Asians can be extremely vocal when aggravated. In short, I was sold on the acting even though I found it hard explaining why to my friends.
2) Neither Lee Chau Min (Hainan-boy) nor Tan Hong Chye (Ms. Teochew) are professional actors. I liked that the leads were cast as strong individuals. I could perceive this because I had already worked with the male lead (Tan Hong Chye) many years ago. He was a costume designer for a theater production in which I was working backstage. Later, during the Q&A after the screening, the filmmaker, being friends with the two leads, shared that he had consulted with the actors during the scriptwriting and that essentially the three of them came up with the script. Hence, the actors were free to give authentic responses and more or less played themselves in the film – they’re neither more butch nor more effete than they are in everyday life.
3) The movie, probably for the first time in the lives of many members of the audience, makes them ask tough questions about what it means to be male or female. Is it determined by one’s behavior, looks, or simply their genitals? What is normal? The fact that the actors also ask questions along those same lines of one another and themselves only makes it more honest. That, in turn, allows us to feel free to ask those questions.
Actress Yeo Yann Yann plays Hainan’s ex-girlfriend. Her sudden appearance propels the narrative, leading Hainan and Teochew to confront their feelings for each other. Hainan and Yann Yann share a full-on lesbian kiss on screen in a flash-back scene. This raises more questions of the difference between one’s sexual orientation versus their sexual preference. Could Hainan have been in a lesbian relationship, yet also be romantically interested in Teochew who is a feminine-looking man? Does it really matter, anyway?
The question of what is ‘normal’ is further emphasized by the portrayal of Teochew’s Indian landlord. The landlord looks ‘normal’ by any standards externally but is engaged in a daily routine of talking to a children’s doll. In comparison, Teochew and Hainan are probably more well-adjusted persons.
Overall, ‘When Hainan Meets Teochew’ is a unique Singaporean movie that tackles some serious gender and sexuality issues in a light-hearted manner. It does not take itself too seriously and, as such, can actually be a wonderful sex education movie. Their Facebook page is here.
Dr. Martha Lee is Founder and Clinical Sexologist of Eros Coaching. She is a certified sexologist with a Doctorate in Human Sexuality. She provides sexuality and intimacy coaching for individuals and couples, conducts sexual education workshops and speaks at public events. For more, visit www.eroscoaching.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.