By: Our Correspondent

‘Singapore Rebel: Searching for Annabel Chong’ by Gerrie Lim, Monsoon Books,
paperback, S$19.80 in Singapore.
Also available in Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Amazon Kindle.

Annabel Chong is the stage name for Grace Quek, a mild-mannered IT professional who in 1995 made porn history by being the sole female in what was billed as the World’s Biggest Gang Bang.

The porn world — along with the rest of us — has moved on from that particular moment in cinematic history, and Quek’s dubious record has since been surpassed many times. But it remains a delightfully grubby apex in the pop culture past of the strait-laced island republic of Singapore.

“Isn’t it funny that Singapore’s only contribution to global pop culture is a porn star?” asks Gerrie Lim, a Hong Kong-based author and journalist who has just released Singapore Rebel: Searching for Annabel Chong, a book that claims to demystify the legend of the Lion City’s most famous porn star.

In the book, Lim, a Singaporean by birth himself who for years worked as a rock critic and adult entertainment industry journalist in Los Angeles, explores the mythology of Quek’s Annabel Chong character. While the book isn’t authorized by Quek, who long ago retired her infamous character, it is based on Lim’s previous interviews and discussions with the one-time porn star, who he counts as a personal friend.

One of the key themes Lim explores is the tension between Quek’s upbringing in a conservative Asian society and her later extreme acts for the camera. After an education at the exclusive Raffles Girls’ School and Hwa Chong Junior College, and then as a scholarship student at King’s College London, Quek was on course for a career at a prestigious Singaporean law firm.

Then, in depressing turn of events, one night after getting off a train in inner city London, Quek was raped by a group of men. She soon dropped out of law school and moved to Los Angeles to study photography, art, and gender studies at the University of Southern California. It was there she started a porn career that was unremarkable — at the time she was a ‘B-‘ star, Lim says — until she struck upon the idea of staging the World’s Biggest Gang Bang. She advertised on adult television for 300 male participants, but only 70 showed up. Adapting to the challenge, many of men went in for seconds and thirds so the number of ‘sex acts’ was ultimately recorded as 251, with porn legend Ron Jeremy taking the coveted final spot.

It was, supposedly, in aid of a feminist message: Quek wanted to subvert the idea of the ‘male stud’. The ultimate act of submission, in other words, would become the ultimate act of self-assertion. Not surprisingly, many missed the point — and Quek missed a pay check. The promised $10,000 fee from director John T. Bone never materialized.

Quek was apparently disappointed by the outcome of the film, a low-budget schlock fest with grainy footage shot on a set that was decorated with Roman pillars, an obscure reference to Valeria Messalina, the rampantly promiscuous third wife of Emperor Claudias who once, according to legend, took 25 men to her bed in one night. Quek’s attempt at a feminist message was lost amidst a fury of flesh and fluids.

“I think she was surprised by that,” says Lim. “She did tell me she had very very mixed feelings about the outcome of the whole thing… She felt she was not ever going to be able to get her message across.”

“She was trying to propagate that liberal feminist ideology, and she had good intentions to do that, but it went completely awry.”

But then, porn has never been known as a vehicle for intellectual engagement or academic discourse, right?

“If you do it some other ways,” Lim offers, “you end up falling into the whole vortex of academia.” By choosing porn, a subject of much contention and a prominent part of today’s pop culture, there’s great room for debate and outreach, he argues. However, he also points out that the very act of delivering the message as a commercial product compromises its purported intent — a point first made by Emily Jenkins in the women’s magazine Mirabella.

There are three impossible-to-ignore characters in Singapore Rebel. The first, obviously, is Chong, who is almost a parody of a porn star and whose Asian-ness is an inextricable part of her career path. Then there’s Lim himself, who identifies strongly with Quek and her role as an outsider and rebel against Singapore society. And then there’s Singapore itself — looming in the background like an over-bearing parent, poisoning the creative atmosphere, attempting to quash individual hopes and dreams and re-purpose them into fiscally utilitarian obligations.

Certainly, says Lim, Quek was rebelling against that society. “It was interesting because she had grown up in what you would consider a very normal, middle class, affluent environment and background, with her parents being teachers, and she was headed for an academic career and she had a job lined up for her at a prestigious law firm,” he says. “And then she chose to dump all that and do something completely radical.”

The “very staid and very cosseted, cloistered straight-laced environment” in Singapore breeds discontent, says Lim, who speaks from experience. “I’ve made no secret of the fact that all I ever wanted to do when growing up there was to get the hell out of there — and I think she felt the same.”

Now that he’s out, however, the author enjoys watching from afar Singapore’s current scramble for credibility in the arts and some semblance of international pop culture recognition beyond what Chong was able to achieve with her 70 friends.

“Singapore had no film industry for 15 years because of censorship. So whose fault is that? It?s ironic and also very amusing to me that to look for a hero, people have to look elsewhere — and in this particular case a home-grown talent who made her mark in Los Angeles.”

Lim clearly savours the rebels’ small victory. “Nature has a way at getting back at hypocrisy.”

Singapore Rebel: Searching for Annabel Chong (Monsoon) is available in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, as well as on Amazon.