Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Up Escalator Forever: Bowie in Singapore

Ricochet, UK, directed by Gerry Troyna (1984)

A thin white man wanders around a near-deserted shopping mall. It’s night. His drift is purposeless, but he keeps moving. What secret rendezvous is he heading towards? Is he being followed or is he following? Eerie sounds in the background. Muzak from another planet. That’s the clue. Perhaps the walker isn’t human. A misplaced alien sleepwalking through an decentred landscape. He’s come down to earth to look for the past, but instead he’s found the future. Strip-lit walkways and glittering atria; a musical fountain; a deranged architect’s plan for some deluded utopia. But no one’s here. Structures long since abandoned by their original users, now patrolled only by guards and the occasional foreign interloper.

The alien goes where the escalator delivers him. He sits. Lost. Scared.

What is this place?

David Bowie in Singapore is irresistible. But Ricochet, a hybrid documentary-fiction-diary film conceived and concocted by Bowie with director Gerry Troyna in 1983 doesn’t just take place in Singapore. Bowie, coming to the end of his epically long ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour decided that after shows in Australia and New Zealand he would head up to South-East Asia (originally Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Hong Kong, but KL fell through). These countries were not yet on the stadium tour circuit, and so it was a rare and particularly difficult thing to pull off. Ever the innovator, Bowie must have sensed an opportunity to discover something new, and he wanted a camera crew along to capture the experience.

Named after an apocalyptic track off the enormously successful Let’s Dance album, Ricochet, is an atmospheric if fragmented account of Bowie’s visits to the three major Asian cities. Even at the time it must have made for a rather quirky ‘rockumentary’, and now, virtually unseen for decades, it’s become a historical artefact, an eccentric record of ten days of working tourism in Asia in late 1983.

The project began when Bowie contacted Troyna, a young film-maker whose ground-breaking 1980 documentary Deccan, about travelling through India by train, had impressed the star. Troyna recalls meeting Bowie in the Savoy in London, and later being flown out to Tokyo (where Bowie was touring) to discuss the film. They got on well, and Bowie commissioned him to make the official document of what was openly referred to as “The Bungle in the Jungle.” This wouldn’t be a conventional tour-film, Troyna hired screenwriter, Martin Stellman, to draft a rough script, and began the complicated process of setting up production units with fixers, crew and researchers in each city before Bowie touched down.

In Cracked Actor, an infamous BBC documentary about the rock star made in 1974, Bowie had appeared deeply uncomfortable, strung-out and gawkily articulate. Nine years on, Ricochet shows us the remade and remodelled Bowie. Supremely charismatic and suave, he’s a global traveller equally at ease drifting through the airports, hotel lobbies, streets and finally the cavernous stadiums of Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok. He could be a diplomat, a businessman, politician or movie star - the only giveaway is his dyed straw-yellow hair.

The film divides geographically into three acts, Hong Kong, Singapore and then Bangkok (this reshuffles the real order of travel, Bowie flew into Singapore from New Zealand first, then to Bangkok and finished with two shows in Hong Kong). Each segment roughly follows the same formula, follow Bowie as he experiences each city. Then, let fiction creep into the fact of Bowie’s presence. There's different results each time.

Bowie arrives in Hong Kong to be hustled through a throng of fans and press, with paltry security – a few devotees touch his hair. “That was quite a reception,” he deadpans in the limo later to Corinne ‘Coco’ Shwab, his long-serving personal assistant (also in Cracked Actor). Then breaks into a throaty rendition of the classic Chinese song, May Kway (Mei Kwei?) – which he associates with Hong Kong (it’s from Shanghai). There’s a press conference where he talks up the Asian (Japanese) influence on his music and style. We shift to a sub-plot, three slightly fey members of a Bowie covers band (a decent stab at Ziggy) plan to attend their idol's gig, but the drummer can’t afford a ticket, and wanders Kowloon (there's an incredible travelling shot of the washing hung outside a vast tenement) trying to rustle the cash. Meanwhile, Bowie kills time in a hotel suite quipping with a tour promoter about ticket prices (very expensive), watches TV (ancient kung fu flicks, crazy adverts and a colonial Rule Britannia), and dines on a boat with local socialites (with whom he is utterly charming), sitting near the first of a series of ‘mysterious Americans’ who will quietly plague him throughout this leg of the tour (more on them later). Our young Hong Konger friend sells some records to a grumpy music store boss, and voila, he has entry to the concert. Not that difficult. Cut to Bowie on stage, kicking into the inevitable China Girl, complete with mimed self-kissing, and then a high energy rock-out Look Back in Anger.

Now we get to the section that concerns this blog. As the music from HK fades away, Bowie sits in the plane delivering him to the next destination. First we’re in a tranquil Hindu temple, which I’d guess is the Sri Mariamman Temple on South Bridge Road. Bowie, now clad in white suit and fedora strolls around a depopulated, sleepy Chinatown, accompanied by the relentless beat of construction. Passing the street where Jack Flowers has his day-job in Saint Jack, and wanders into Thian Hock Keng Temple on Telok Ayer Street contemplating an enormous Buddha and getting his fortune told (we never find out what it is). In a taxi, Bowie has a discussion about freedom and control with a chatty and very open Indian cab driver, concluding with an astonished Bowie asking how people are executed for drugs offenses: “They hang them.” Cue martial music (played by a school band), over a very pointed montage which includes a campaign banner ‘Come on Singapore, work together better’, a man hanging a framed photo of Lee Kuan Yew outside his shophouse, an old building being demolished and a row of blank HDB ‘slabs’ (as Rem Koolhaas would put it). It already all feels very different from Hong Kong, and there’s a reason for this.

Bowie had arrived in Singapore a few days before the gig and found there was a strong possibility that the concert would be cancelled. “The Singapore authorities are not friendly toward rock & roll,” he writes in the diary-like introduction to the Serious Moonlight tour book. China Girl and Modern Love were banned on the radio, and a rumour of an “impromptu guest appearance” at a youth club had, according to Bowie, led police to threaten his local promoter with imprisonment.

This was Goh Poh Seng; doctor, poet, playwright, novelist, night-club and live music impresario. Goh (who died in January this year) was a fervent champion of the arts in all incarnations, including pop music. A year before he’d received the Cultural Medallion, the biggest gong that the Singapore state bestows on artists, but that didn’t stop him facing resistance all the way with the Bowie show, which was taking place in Singapore's largest venue, the now-closed National Stadium. Goh had taken it on at the last minute and it was (at that time) the biggest concert that anyone had ever organised in Singapore. “You need at least three months to prepare for a concert like this, if you’re sane,” Goh told The Straits Times when it was announced, “we’re doing it in one month.” Bowie describes him as “wonderful and fearless.”

Troyna recalls that until the gig happened they all “thought we were going to get thrown out.” This situation isn’t referred to in Ricochet, but a high level of tension and discontent creeps into the Singapore segment. Troyna says that the script outlined the “points we wanted to make about each country", Singapore was intended to reflect “alienation and submission to the state”, but of course there would be a great deal of improvisation. The director walked around Orchard Road and discovered Far East Plaza, Singapore’s newest and (at that time) largest, shopping mall, opened only a few months earlier. It was a suitably “alienating” place. Bowie agreed. So, in the film, while a phone rings in his empty Ming Court ‘Emperor’ Suite, its occupant walks through the night in a black trenchcoat. Heads down Scotts Road and up an escalator to an overhead bridge drenched in blue neon, his yellow hair the only sign of life. The eerie-sinister soundtrack is Sense of Doubt, a Bowie/Eno collaboration (from the Heroes album) which had, two years before, scored a walk through junkie infested Berlin in Uli Edel’s notorious Christiane F. Ironically, here it’s used to lend atmosphere to the sterile sci-fi weirdness of "The Biggest Tourist Shopping Centre in South-East Asia". After his escalator odyssey and a surreal scolding from a diminutive security guard, Bowie sits, looking pensively unimpressed, beneath the glittery kitsch of the musical fountain and a row of fake, plastic Christmas trees. In the Serious Moonlight book, Bowie recalls the moment he faces the Singapore crowd, “I am supposed to say something to the children in the Singapore audience. These children who are doomed to ride the up escalator forever.”

“Can we go somewhere where there are no skyscrapers?” Bowie asks a cab-driver the next morning. Depressingly he gets dumped at Raffles Hotel, passing a mustachioed American, who gets a mysterious sound effect and a freeze frame. Troyna says this little leitmotif (it occurs in Hong Kong and Bangkok too) was inspired by the fact that it was clear to everyone that Bowie was “being closely watched” wherever he went. Perhaps the CIA; nobody ever found out, but Bowie in Asia was bringing out the spooks.

Then he’s amidst ghosts of a different kind. Inside the faux-colonial splendour of Raffles Hotel, Bowie seems as equally apprehensive as he did back in the mall. He’s swapped cold futurism for tropical nostalgia and found both equally wanting. Suddenly we’re back to Chinatown, and Bowie fancies entering a building where a Chinese Opera troupe is rehearsing. Two young women, Theresa and Tsiu-Lien stop to talk on their way to the rehearsal, neither of them seem to be aware of who Bowie is, and insist on asking “my boss” before they’ll let him in. Theresa delivers the bad news. The boss says no, “Sorry ah… how?” Disappointed but unfazed, Bowie promises to try and attend their show that night (after his own). Troyna says that the rejection was completely spontaneous, and it was blamed on either superstition or that “they were worried that they’d get in trouble.”

Although there’d been a conscious effort not to show typical ‘back-stage’ material in the film, the opportunity to contrast the different levels of ‘performance’, the Chinese Opera and the Rock Concert, was irresistible. So we have footage of the lighting rig being mounted in the National Stadium (Bowie writes: “The lights were flown in from all over Malaysia. Many arrived broken, and those intact not much more powerful than a bedroom lamp.”) and Bowie departing from the hotel, while Theresa leaves her cluttered Chinatown shop-house. Out in the stadium a crowd is gathering, watched closely by uniformed police. Backstage Bowie’s interviewed by a fairly hapless young DJ, William Xavier (now better known as easy-listening maven, Mr X) while the rest of the band sit, giggle and mock in the background, not without encouragement from their leader. Bowie turns it around and starts to question the DJ, “What is rebellious here? What does rebel mean?” asks the man who sang Rebel, Rebel, and we see Xavier, well aware of the 16mm camera inches from his face, struggle between trying to act cool and knowledgeable in front of Bowie and giving an extremely guarded, cautious answer (Rebellion in Singapore he explains, has been “kept within reasonable limits”).

Meanwhile, the Chinese Opera has bestowed its own glamour on Theresa and Tsiu-Lien, and they hit the stage in full make-up and regalia, as Bowie, over in Kallang, speaks the first lines of Heroes, “An apposite choice,” says Troyna, and we’re into the gig.

In his newspaper review the next day, Philip Cheah, then reporter for long defunct paper, The Singapore Monitor, called it “the only real rock concert in years.” He pointed out that the stadium was less than half full, “but at least we were heroes, just for one night.” In the tour book, Bowie himself describes the heat, the discomfort and terrible sound; looking out at the blank, other faces, the twitchy armed cops and “for a moment I feel I am playing to the tiger-infested jungle that existed here until the arrival of concrete a few short decades ago.” Then he suddenly connects with the audience and “for one night it can mean everything.”

Bowie performing Heroes is intercut with scenes from the Chinese wayang, so much so that the song eventually seems be placed into the mouths of the singers. Before he turns his back on the audience in the stadium Bowie grins, almost laughing, suddenly, finally happy. Then for a moment, Bowie’s in the audience at the opera, surrounded by aunties and uncles, looking extraordinarily handsome, and Heroes has become their song, Singapore’s song. Its final chords played out over a beautiful close-up of an opera performer (is this Theresa?). An equilibrium is found between music and image. A symbolic moment for a weary showman; performer gives way to other performers and becomes the audience, a final reversal. It’s ambiguous, but it’s also hopeful. And that’s how David Bowie and Ricochet leave Singapore.

Bangkok with its mixture of sacred (temples) and profane (go-go bars) has an utterly different feel to Singapore, it flows... and it concludes with Bowie apparently living in solitude on the river. He seems happier in Bangkok, even his wardrobe is more relaxed (Chinos and a short-sleeved shirt). He’s a civilian here, almost another wide-eyed farang tourist, cruising the clubs and the river. In Hong Kong he was the jet-setting rock star-idol glimpsing the sprawl from the back of the limo. In Singapore he was a stranger in a strange land, a drifter fuelled by discomfort and tension. Singapore makes him the alien. So, of all the cities in December 1983, the Lion city-state is the one that’s the most ‘Bowie-esque’.

Back in the UK, Troyna assembled a cut of the film to show Bowie. They’d always intended for him to provide a voice over, making the whole film a kind of travelogue-diary of the star’s thoughts and impressions. But that never happened. Bowie watched it, liked what he saw. Troyna delivered his version (just short of 80 minutes), without a voice over, and that was the end of it. Bowie sold it to Virgin, and a 60 minute VHS version was released exclusively to their shops, and the full-length Ricochet remained unseen until 2006 when it was included as an extra on the Serious Moonlight DVD.

And in 2004, Bowie returned to Singapore.

Thanks to Philip Cheah, Regina De Rozario and Gerry Troyna for sharing their invaluable information.


  1. The beautiful Chinese ooera portrait is Theresa. Now do we know her full name? I've seen Ricochet over and over and I've always been fascinated by this movie as well as by the local people who appeared all along the story... Are they purely fictional or do they play their own role? Well that really gives Ricochet a special flavor. Among them all, I really like Theresa and I wonder how her Chinese opera actress life might have been affected after meeting with Bowie... Any way to find more about her?

  2. Hi JP - No, was not able to find her real name, but according to Troyna, they bumped into them while filming Bowie walking around Chinatown, so that whole 'storyline' was genuine, including the girls' reluctance to let Bowie in to watch the rehearsal. Obviously after that Troyna's team then got permission to film them staging the opera and preparing to go on stage...

  3. Does anyone know where I can find a high-quality version of this film?

  4. Four years late to reply to you UNKNOWN - the Bowie estate has a full quality version of Ricochet because footage of it is seen in MOONAGE DAYDREAM... but it's not available to buy or stream in HD as far as I know... One day hopefully.