Singapore’s showgirls flop, denting push for ‘vibrant’ image

April 1, 2007
Singapore Democrats

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Bloomberg
31 Mar 07

The Crazy Horse nude revue started its 57th consecutive season in Paris this year. In Singapore, it folded after just 15 months.

Eng Wah Organization Ltd, the Singapore partner for Crazy Horse’s first Asian home, blamed government curbs on advertising — including television and radio — for helping limit attendance to less than half the 300 customers anticipated for each show. Authorities also decreed that showgirls wear G-strings and outlawed some dance movements.

“We realized that Singapore isn’t the most promising market for us,” said Philippe Lhomme, the president and part-owner of the show in Paris. “We were probably a bit ahead of the times.”

The flop is a blow to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s drive to create a “vibrant” buzz, luring tourists and talent to a country with a reputation for being prim. Singapore in 2005 lifted a four-decade ban on casinos as officials sought to reverse a dwindling share of visitor spending in the Asia-Pacific region.

Crazy Horse’s exit highlights the island’s contradictory goals, said Tan Tarn How, a senior researcher on the arts and creativity at Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies.

“It raises the whole question of how you maintain the clean, above-board image and, at the same time, want to attract another kind of tourist,” Tan said. “They wanted controlled looseness.”

Since 2003, Singapore has repealed a ban on bar-top dancing, extended nightclub opening hours and rolled back a 21-year prohibition on the sale of Cosmopolitan magazine — provided it is sealed in plastic and carries a warning label. Playboy magazine is banned entirely.

Satellite dish ban

Still, government censors clip nudity from television shows and films, and authorities ban home satellite dishes that may beam in channels not carried by state-run broadcasters.

Government policies aren’t wholly to blame for Crazy Horse’s demise, said Chua Hak Bin, an economist who tracks tourism at Citigroup Inc in the city. The big-spending visitors the show expected to attract didn’t materialize.

Singapore is drawing more budget travelers, who wouldn’t pay S$60 (US$39) to S$250 to see Crazy Horse, Chua said.

US and UK visitors accounted for 9 percent of the record 9.7 million arrivals last year, according to the Singapore Tourism Board. Indonesians and Chinese were 33 percent.

“You can’t rely on the local population” of 4.4 million to fill Crazy Horse’s 450 seats for 13 shows a week, Chua said. “Clientele flow didn’t justify the audience size they were looking for.”

Too Big

An institution in Paris, Crazy Horse combines erotic choreography and artful lighting to showcase its female dancers. The performers in Singapore came from Paris, but they had to wear more clothes: Singapore and Las Vegas, the show’s only other international home, didn’t permit nudity.

Singapore’s venue was too big and the expensive seats rarely sold, said Lhomme in Paris. Crazy Horse in the French capital seats 250 people and charges 90 euros (US$118) to 110 euros.

“A smaller show would probably have survived,” said Andrew Teo, 31, a financial analyst in Singapore, who attended one of the final performances.

Singapore doesn’t have a culture of watching such shows, said Jeffrey Hu, a local real-estate executive, who also was among the final patrons.

“The show is ahead of its time,” said Hu, 36. “Maybe if it had come a few years later when the casinos are here, it would fare better.”

‘Cannot Survive’

Eng Wah could advertise only in newspaper film-listing pages, niche magazines and through brochures in selected areas, Managing Director Goh Min Yen said Jan. 25, when she announced Crazy Horse was folding. Overseas, the company promoted the show through the Singapore Tourism Board, said Eileen Bakri, a spokeswoman for Eng Wah.

“We really cannot survive with the advertising restrictions,” Goh said. The company, which also runs cinemas and distributes films, may write off 80 percent of its $4.6 million investment, she said.

The government in February last year approved more outlets for brochures, said Amy Tsang, deputy director for arts licensing at the Media Authority of Singapore. In August, it lowered the audience age limit to 18 from 21.

Eng Wah was aware of advertising restraints before it opened the revue, Tsang said. Ads “have to be placed selectively and should be acceptable to the general public,” she said.

Prime Minister Lee wants a city “vibrant and cosmopolitan, throbbing with energy,” he said on National Day in 2005.

Not much has changed on censorship, said Tan, the researcher. “Singapore is a much more diverse society than before, but some people haven’t moved on,” he said.