While hipster cafes, secret cocktail bars and the Laneway Festival are all the rave in Singapore now, Alywin Chew recalls a time when he – and many others – thought it was cool to be an ah beng, who had the support of parang-wielding friends and the trusty orange comb.
In the early 1990s, during my years in primary school, I had an older friend from the same housing estate whom I really looked up to. He always looked out for me and even occasionally gave me some spare change to buy some sweets. He would play football (with a 20-cent plastic ball, of course) with us in the void deck and tell us stories of his adventures in a gang.
I knew he was involved in bad company, but I was still too young to understand what that meant. One day after school, as I was ascending the overhead bridge on my way home, he popped up from behind and starting chatting with me. For reasons unknown, he suddenly broke into a tirade about never following his footsteps. He mysteriously disappeared when I entered Secondary One and I never saw him again.
Some said he got caught by the police. Some said he got killed in a gang fight. Some said his family moved out of the estate. No one really knew what happened to him.
My formative years during the 90s were undoubtedly influenced by the ah beng culture. To set the record straight, I wished I had the life story of a wayward hooligan who cleaned up and went on to become a creative writer, but I was really just a shy kid who was too afraid to break any rules.
Joining a gang was the in-thing back then. Well, at least that’s the impression most of us got from Hong Kong movies like Young and Dangerous. Everyone wanted to be either an Ekin Cheng or Jordan Chan. Naturally, the authorities made sure we didn’t cross over to the dark side. I still remember a moustached CID detective who came to give a talk in our school. He showed us gory photos of gang members hacked to death and told us scary tales of how you can never leave a gang once you enter one.
Most of us got the point. My close friends and I never got involved in gangs, but knowing a secret society member was something that one could be proud of – perhaps, we all believed that if we run into trouble with a gang member one day, we could call upon the help of this person. At the back of our minds, we all secretly desired to get involved in an altercation and call someone for help, which would arrive as a group of parang-wielding people jumping off the back of a lorry.
But you don’t necessarily need to join a gang to be an ah beng. Just siphoning traits of this culture was cool enough for most of us. Guys would all sport long fringes – you know, because being able to flick your long fringe like Andy Lau was deemed the epitome of suave. I remember how we all would desperately try to tuck and hide the fringe when the school prefects conducted checks during morning assembly. To ensure that not a strand of hair was out of place, we would maintain our manes with those iconic orange combs that we would tuck into the bum pocket of our school shorts.
Outside of school, some of my male friends would wear Valentino polo tees paired with Versace or MCM jeans. The ladies would don their Sonia Rykiel or Ferragamo fashion accessories, ensure that their skirts were above the knee, and that their socks were pulled up high, like soccer players. You don’t go about greeting your friends with “Hi” or “Hello” – you chut them by tightly pouting your lips and sucking, which creates a sharp noise like a pair of trousers violently splitting.
While hipster cafes, secret cocktail bars and the Laneway Festival are all the rave in Singapore now, ah bengs back in the 90s flocked to discos like Sparks at Ngee Ann City, Fire at Far East Plaza, and Canto at what is now the glitzy Marina Bay Sands area. The music of choice was not indie, but techno. Friends who managed to sneak past club security wore that achievement like a badge of honour. Those who didn’t want to risk getting caught (or the wrath of their parents) but still wanted to be part of the cool clique opted for the afternoon tea dances at these clubs where anyone could enter and dance to techno tunes.
I’ve never been to any of these places and I’ve never seen a real gang fight.
Actually, the closest I got to seeing one was in Secondary Three: It was during recess time and the shattering of glass and accompanying screams of female students echoed through the school canteen. At the back of the canteen was a former student – we heard he got expelled a few weeks later – and in his right hand was a broken fluorescent tube. He let loose a string of Hokkien expletives at his male victim, who was visibly stunned by the whole encounter.
Standing a few metres away from the scene was my chemistry teacher, and we could tell he was hesitant about getting involved. In fact, all he did was repeatedly screech, “Stop fighting!” from a safe distance, even though the two weren’t actually assaulting one another. The incident was over in less than five minutes. The victim only suffered minor injuries and the assailant ran off even before the police could arrive. We made fun of our chemistry teacher after the incident, labelling him a coward, but deep down everyone was quietly shocked by the reality of gang violence.
This incident took place in 1997. The late 90s were possibly the twilight years of gang activity, because no one heard much about gangs like Sa Lak Kau (369), Pa Hai Tong and Ang Soon Tong after the millennium. Maybe the police clamped down hard on the gangs. Maybe it just wasn’t trendy anymore to be a part of a gang. Maybe it just wasn’t fashionable to sport a centre-parting any more.
Or maybe the ah bengs finally realised that getting into a fight over a staring incident is quite possibly the silliest thing in life ever.
Words and photo by Alywin Chew
Published by Singapore Memory Project