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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 5, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 44

Singapore's Gang of Five

Street Angels: Singapore's newest bad-girl buddy flick Asiaweek Pictures

How serious is the problem of girl violence?

You can see them around Singapore's Orchard Road on a Saturday night. Gangs of young girls, some with tattoos, others with their hair cropped short, Doc Martens on their feet and an attitude in their eyes. They look tough all right, but how bad are they really? Not very, if a recent government report has got the full measure of the problem. According to the findings of a Committee on the Discipline of Female Students, the number of offenses involving teenage girls is climbing, but most of them are guilty of not much more than truancy, swearing and cheating on school tests. No gum-chewers here.

Technology: A New China Gateway
Shanghai tries to solve an e-payments puzzle

Media: Transfer Or Exile?
Fears for press freedom as a Hong Kong broadcast boss moves on

Health: Aids Explosion
Time bombs along the Mekong call for a regional solution
• A Spirited Response Malaysia's AIDS activists woo Muslim clerics

Theater: Change Of Pace
After fame as tragic heroine, Lea Salonga brushes up on her comic timing

Books: Japan's Stellar Poet
A modern woman who saved an ancient art

Cinema: Singapore's Gang of Five
How serious is the problem of girl violence?

Newsmakers: Eternal Marital Affair
Sonia and Rajiv, a never-ending story

Riding this wave of interest in Singapore's girl-gang activity is Street Angels, the latest movie by Hong Kong director David Lam Tak-yuk. Made with a budget of just $590,000, this is no Titanic. But like Eric Khoo's Twelve Storeys (1997) and Jack Neo's Money No Enough (1998), the Mandarin-language film provides a glimpse into the lives of everyday Singaporeans, even if the images don't match the buttoned-down perception the city state sometimes likes to portray internationally.

Here we have a gang of five. Tall and thin with a dragon tattooed across her chest, tough girl Ya Mei is an Orchard Road strutter. Dinnie's parents work long hours and then fight when they come home. Her father, who wanted a boy, takes her camping and teaches her taekwondo. Zhen Zhen is the sweet one, struggling with a stutter and the fact that her mother prefers her elder sister. There is nothing that Zoe does not receive from her parents, apart from love. And Ivy fears disappointing her hard-working single mother but at the same time is embarrassed by her mum's job as a beer-promotion girl.

At a recent screening, girls and boys in school uniforms clearly identified with the characters. They cheered when Dinnie punched a smirking bully in the face and clapped when Zhen Zhen hesitated at the entrance to school before turning away. There was obvious sympathy with Zoe's frustration at the way she was crushed with after-school tuition. Lightweight stuff so far, but gradually, the girls' playful antics become more dangerous. There are fights with other gangs, skirmishes in bowling alleys and encounters in discos with drugs and those who push them.

It looks bad and seems likely to get worse. But just when the girls seem about to be drawn over the edge into something more sinister, they are magically plucked back into society. This is where Lam - best known perhaps for 1988's Girls Without Tomorrow and Women's Prison - pulls his punches. In Singapore, involvement with drugs usually results in a lot more than a mushy reunion with mom and dad and promising to pay more attention to school work.

Street Angels raised only $50,000 at the box office in its first two weeks. Maybe that's because it lacks special effects and steamy love scenes. Or it could be because it is showing downtown, and not where most of those who identify with its message live - in the public housing estates.

Reported by Ellen White/Singapore

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