Saint Jack, for all its rougher edges, showed a Singapore that was larger than life and yet true, for the most part, to a city on the losing side of a struggle to stave off a future with no place for the past. This was a town that was more than a little worse for wear but still at home in the routines of shophouses that bore the baggage of more than a century of progress. This was a town on the verge of an urban renewal programme whose grand vision would sweep away the soul of its streets and kill the pulse of a riverine society, putting in their place towers without roots and roads that cut through the heart of fragile communities.
To its credit, Peter Bogdanovich's study of a man who knew the price of nearly everything but could not swallow the cost of giving in was declared non grata on the island, in part for letting the city speak for itself, for revealing a seam of pungent disregard for the leaders of a new order, for reminding these rulers of the ideological incongruity between an up-and-rising financial hub and a dwindling harbour of qualities they could never get a measure of nor deem worth keeping.
Jack Flowers may have been a figment, however fleeting, of Paul Theroux's blooming imagination. But another American adventurer, named Frank Buck, provided the fodder for a younger production that introduced stateside audiences to a Singapore stripped of its colonial (pre)tensions and agog with the stereotypes of a promised land. Buck was an animal collector who scoured Southeast Asia for exotic creatures, which he captured and exhibited at a homemade zoo in Katong before shipment to the zoos and circuses of North America. In his later years, Buck turned to movie-making, starring as himself and other action heroes in tropical epics where tigers were tamed and the beasts of the Indo-Malayan jungle brought to heel by the sheer will of a brave white man.
Buck was long gone, however, when his legacy was revived, nay ravaged, by small screen producers who sought to cash in on a public infatuation with derringdoers in khaki and fedora. The real big game in Bring 'em Back Alive, though, was a menage à trois between a chest-waxed Buck, the blonde bangs of an improbably dressed vice consul of the United States of America and His Highness the Sultan of Johor in the guise of a blaxploited pimp. Our pre-war hero is aptly shadowed by a pudgy Malay boy who was the long-lost twin of Mickey Rooney, but with a rather more genial outlook to life. A deadringer for the villain of Who Framed Roger Rabbit served as the series' primary crook, despite having little of the qualities that would ensure survival in a Chinatown hoot. But fresh faces added spice to each episode; between bouts of housepours at the Raffles Hotel, Buck and his blonde bang battled a debonair spy turned desperate assassin and Nazis with no sense of hillmour.
The Singapore of Buck had neither five-foot ways nor room for reality; the streets are broad avenues stolen from North Asia and the locals a nameless horde of Federated Malayan States, eager to please and ever ready to display their rank in life to a man of finer fate. In the hinterlands lie secret valleys of aborigines in tight sarongs and strapless bikinis, a Chindian hierarchy of elders who command musclemen who are all bak and no bite. Suspend belief, and this short-lived window into an hour of post-colonial porn will expose the magic of Asia as seen through the desires of those who still wished to bear the paleface's burden. Look askance, and you might flounder in a swamp of boiler plates and find no thrill in the escapades of a man in a pith hat with no power to lose.