GRACE UNDER PRESSURE

March 19, 2009 – 4:26 am

You think you know her but you don’t. That’s because Grace Quek’s porn persona, Annabel Chong, is not just a “piece of meat” who set a world record in 1995 when she had sex with 251 men. Grace’s quest is a re-definition of female sexuality, where women can be the studs that men aspire to. And guess what? She was born and bred in $ingapore. Gerrie Lim gets this BigO Exclusive with Grace where she speaks of the porn industry, her early years in $ingapore, of womanhood and sex, of course. This article was published in BigO #160 (April 1999).

The world knows about her now, in all her ragged glory. Annabel Chong is the only porn star to come out of $ingapore, and of late there’s been a documentary film about her life, Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, which elicited press raves when it received its world premiere in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Four years earlier, on January 19, 1995, she’d made history when she set a world record by having sex with 251 men in under 10 hours, and the event was recorded for posterity on home video. It’s still what she’s best known for, despite a career in the adult film industry since 1994 that drew notices for her frenzied carnal antics, in films with self-explanatory titles like All I Want For Christmas Is A Gangbang and I Can’t Believe I Did The Whole Team!

“Did it hurt? Well, yeah,” she told CNN during Sundance. “It’s like running a marathon, you know, the pain is part of the high, part of the adrenaline rush.” Adding that she likes being treated “like a piece of meat,” she takes pains to point out that the marathon crusade was an attempt to subvert the normal parameters of sex, positing questions about the role of women as sexual beings in society while aiming to “explore my own personal sexuality, my boundaries.” (In the last stages of that event, she bled from fingernail cuts made by some of the men, and ice had to be applied to her vagina.)

Annabel Chong was born Grace Quek, on May 22, 1972 in $ingapore, the only child of two pioneering school teachers (her father taught Japanese, her mother music). She spent her formative years at Hwa Chong Junior College and King’s College, London. One traumatic event possibly triggered her future career - while in London, she got off at the wrong tube station one night and was robbed and gang-raped. This led to her enrolling at the Camden School of Art, where she taught drawing and worked as a nude model, and later to the University of Southern California’s School of Fine Arts. She was working on her second degree, a Master’s in Gender Studies, at USC when the famous gang bang event took place.

That particular record was shattered one year later, by another porn star (Jasmin St Claire, who took 300 men to task), but the hype and hoopla had already secured Annabel Chong her place in pop culture history.

The current documentary film, the directorial debut of English-born filmmaker Gough Lewis, charts the path of that iconic status - with some surprising footage actually shot in $ingapore. Of Sundance, the film’s co-producer, David Whitten, told me that “Grace worked very hard - non-stop interviews from 10 am to 6 pm for seven straight days. She was fantastic. On a scale of one to 10, we hoped she would perform at level seven. She was a consistent 10.”

The overachieving lass herself is busy. She’s just directed her first feature film, Pornomancer, and is currently creating her own website, which will feature both erotic content as well as an online magazine devoted to “articles about sexuality, politics and art.” The interview that follows came about because “I actually grew up with BigO magazine. I’ve always really admired the fact that your magazine offers the alternative voice in $ingapore. There’s so much censorship in $ingapore and I was constantly surprised by what you guys could get away with.”

Myself, I’m more impressed with what she gets away with.

Now that you’re back from the Sundance Film Festival, can you look back and say what it was like for you there?

Sundance turned out to be quite a hectic experience for me. I was excited but also anxious, because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I’d never been to a film festival before and I’d heard that it was going to be a complete circus, so I guess my excitement was basically tempered by the fact that I had to be prepared to deal with whatever came up. There was a tremendous interest in the film, which allowed me the opportunity to talk about the issues that are touched upon in the film. However, since my interviews were back to back, by day five it began to feel like a gang bang without the joy of sex! (laughs)

Do you have any particular aspirations for the film, now that it’s been finished and being slowly released to the world?

I would be very interested to see how this film changes the way people perceive certain gender stereotypes of the female who happens to be “the other” - you know, the very marginalised figure of adult movie actresses, sex workers, that sort of thing. Sex workers are not people whom the general public considers to be human. They tend to read them according to all these stereotypes that have been handed down in mainstream discourse. So I would be very, very interested to see what public reaction to the film will be when we get a theatrical release later on in the year.

It’s very funny that Gough Lewis, the director of the film, met you because he saw you on Jerry Springer, who is perceived as bringing a lot of marginalised people to the attention of the mainstream.

It’s one of the ongoing debates about Jerry Springer. Does he bring marginalised people to the attention of the general society? There’s the other camp who says that the way he frames them keeps them marginalised. There are the pros and the cons about this ongoing debate. Anyway, yes, Gough Lewis approached me three years ago, after seeing me on the Jerry Springer show and reading an article about me in Details magazine.

I’m certainly very flattered that this young man actually found me interesting enough to make this film. I think he showed remarkable sensitivity and respect and gave me the respect as an individual to give me enough space to state my point of view. Of course, the film is his interpretation of me, and it’s an interpretation that I find very interesting. Initially, when he first pitched the idea to me, I was tetchy.

Because there are many documentaries made about the porn industry that are either sensationalistic and exploitative or based on a narrow feminist agenda where all women are portrayed as victims. However, over time, Gough managed to convince me that his intention was to focus on the human side of the subject - “a humanising portrait,” in his own words. On my part, I felt that it’s important for a film to get beyond society’s stereotypes of the “porn bimbo” or “poor victim,” and that by agreeing to do this documentary, I would be given an opportunity to address these stereotypes head-on.

There’s a scene in the film that’s shot in $ingapore, where you’re walking down High Street, and you turn back to the camera and you say: “Who the **** do you people think you are?!!”

Right. What is not reflected in the film is the fact that we tried doing shootings at various locations, and almost 80 per cent of the time there would be someone coming up going, “No shooting, no shooting, can’t shoot here.” Sometimes we’d call up to get advance permission but the moment we got there, they would say, “We’ve changed out minds. You can’t shoot.”

It’s not like an occasional thing - we came up against it every single day. At schools, restaurants, churches, wherever, even in hotels and stuff. So, I guess $ingaporeans are pretty tetchy about how they’re portrayed in media, like what this bit of footage will be used for.

The other thing that I recall from $ingapore is this: I went back to my old school, Hwa Chong Junior College, and I was in the bathroom hooking up my sound gear. I had difficulty getting it hooked up and I was wearing this dress, so the documentary filmmaker had to go into the women’s bathroom to help me hook up the sound gear, for fear that I’d completely screw up his equipment.

And, of course, someone reported it to the school principal and the story somehow got lost. The event became, “Yes, we saw two naked people in the school bathroom. And the girl was completely naked and the guy was fondling her.” (laughs) And after that, we went down to Holland Village and we’re just having a casual cigarette and taking a break from the stress, and two people called my parents, going: “We saw your daughter smoking together with a white man.”

But I used to live in Holland Village, and it’s supposed to be a very cosmopolitan environment.

I know, I know, I used to hang out there. But I guess some $ingaporeans have this thing about the “white buaya (Malay for crocodile) and the sarong party girl.” So these people called my parents claiming to be concerned citizens, saying, “We saw your daughter,” whatever, but they wouldn’t give their names. I found that really funny. It’s like, look, if you want to take a moral stance, I respect that. But you should have to courage to say who you are. I would.

Anyway, we had the school principal calling my parents and going, “Do you know what your daughter is doing?” and stuff like that. And it led up to the incident where I “came out” to my parents, and that moment was captured on camera. I thought the filmmaker showed an incredible amount of sensitivity towards my parents in terms of the way they handled that scene, because it could’ve been cheapened into a complete soap opera melodrama. But it was put in such a situation that my parents maintained their dignity. I was very, very grateful about that.

Yes, I understand that your mother never knew you’d been involved in porn until she was interviewed about you on camera.

Right, basically I told my mom they were shooting a documentary about me and my life. Because I was doing a lot of performance art, she basically figured they were covering me for that reason. We were pretty vague about it, but every single day I felt really guilty about not telling her about it. So, “coming out” to her was a very good experience for me. We worked a lot of things out, you know. There are a lot of things that I did not tell my parents that I eventually did, and I felt like a better person for it. I’m really close to my parents, you know. A lot of people went through complete rebellion against their parents and I never really did. I like being frank with them. So it felt good.

Would you say they’ve come to terms with your background and your past, your work in LA and all that?

Well, they know what I do. But, you know, Chinese parents being Chinese parents, it’s not something that we talk openly about. They’ve figured out that I’m fine and I guess they still have reservations about it but they’ve figured that it’s the way I want to live my life. Right now, I’m back in the industry, directing and producing my own stuff.

Let me ask you something about your education at Hwa Chong. I made email contact with someone you went to school with, and he told me he remembers you being in a humanities class which was taught by a lot of expat teachers. My impression of that is that it probably opened your eyes to what a more liberal education could probably do.

Oh, definitely. I see the radical difference between the regular students who went to Hwa Chong and the students in the humanities programme. We were actually encouraged to think and we were encouraged to be critical. Growing up in $ingapore, you kind of tend to get brainwashed. And these expat teachers, as outsiders, they had a totally different take on it. It really introduced me to a different way of looking at politics, political systems, society, and people.

Of course, within that programme, we’re geared towards getting into foreign universities. Once I got to England, it gave me enough distance about $ingapore to look at it objectively, whereas while I was there I never knew that there was another way to live, that I had choices. By the time I was in my teens, my future was basically plotted out. The way my parents saw it, I was going to go to law school and I already had a job guaranteed in some prestigious firm. In fact, it was Lee & Lee. (laughs)

Oh really? It’s a good thing you didn’t join them. That would’ve been the end, you know.

(laughs) I know. Just thinking back, I realise how radically different my life would have been if I followed the same path that my friends took - the humanities course, the scholarship offered by the $ingapore Press Holdings or, you know, or $BC ($ingapore Broadcasting Corporation). They’re all doing well, in $ingaporean terms. Not all of them are completely happy but, then again, they’re doing pretty good. They’re getting promotions, they’re getting married with children and stuff.

But what really struck me and made me think twice was that I had a friend, my best friend from $ingapore, she’s basically a musical genius - my mom’s a piano teacher and we grew up together - and I was the “not talented” one. I had no musical talent whatsoever, and she’s really, really talented. And her parents forced her into getting a musical scholarship to go to London, to the Royal College of Music. But her mother wanted her to become an accountant, so she never ever played piano again.

Every time I go back to $ingapore, we’d hang out and I always felt really sad because she and her sister, they were really talented, they were the real thing, and $ingapore just does not really encourage exploration of the arts. When I left $ingapore, what was being taught at the art schools was academic painting, what America and Britain were teaching in the ‘20s and ‘30s, so it made me decide to pursue an arts education elsewhere.

What are your feelings about $ingapore now?

Well, I hold nothing against it. I don’t think $ingapore is for everybody. There are people who take well to the system and they seem to thrive on it. And, well, good for them. I do not intend to condemn anybody, I don’t think it’s my place to do so. But for me, personally, I don’t think that it is a system that sits well with me politically. I have a friend who actually entered politics in order to try to change $ingapore and, by now, he’s like completely given up. Which I was kind of sad about.

We took really divergent paths. He decided to stay, I decided to leave. Because I was in a state of despair. I was like, “It’s not going to get better, let me just get out of here.” He joined the main political party in order to try to reform it from within, but now he’s left. He was very disappointed. But I really respected him for trying.

It seems that the system is so rigid that people who are able to offer an alternative point of view, they’re all leaving. It kind of aggravates the situation and I personally feel kind of bad about it. Should I have stayed and should I have fought the system? But it’s a no-win situation. I don’t see myself succeeding. I see myself getting thrown into jail.

One of the problems I find with $ingapore society is that people are spoonfed short cuts to success, to make them feel that the government has the answers. I find that very dangerous.

Very dangerous, the way the government posits itself as a father, like “Father knows best.” A lot of people do swallow that idea. $ingaporeans are being subjected to a constant stream of propaganda. It’s very insidious. I remember going to those National Day parades, and although I’m thinking, “Oh God, this is bulls***,” when everybody is screaming it’s really hard not to join them. You get carried away by the moment and I’d find myself like cheering, going, “Rah, rah, $ingapore,” whatever. Like singing “We are $ingapore” - what a terrible song. And I’d go home and think, “Did I actually sing very loudly and very happily to that song, like an hour ago”? How strange! But that is the power of propaganda. And I guess living in Los Angeles gives me enough space to resist it.

Yes, well, I went to USC myself, like you did.

Oh, you did? Alright! So you know how USC does try to cram the “Trojan Spirit” down people’s throats sometimes.

Yes, well, it’s a very Republican school, as you know.

It’s very Republican. Oh God. And the arts school is like the literal enclave, where we’re pretty much sheltered from all that bulls***, but still it creeps in. My artwork would sometimes get censored. And a lot of my friends who address themes of homosexuality or anything pertaining to sexuality, they get censored. So, it’s kind of tough. And the way they did censorship is very similar to the $ingapore government. Like, “If you don’t stick by our guidelines, we’re going to cut your funding. We will not give you any money. And if you have no money, you won’t be able to run this school.” Like the way $ingapore withholds licences, that kind of thing. It’s kind of really similar, as a strategy. Terribly ironic.

Your press bio for Sundance says you’re interested in exploring elements of sexuality and sexual concepts and you’re interested particularly in exploring sex in regression therapy. Care to elaborate?

In psychoanalysis, you’re talking about the infantile stage, the pre-conscious, and all psychoanalysis deals with the subconscious which happens after the pre-conscious stage. And it’s this state where people are polymorphously sexual.

According to research, that stage never really goes away. It might remain dormant, but if we look at this pre-conscious stage, this polymorphously sexual state, if we just look at that concept, what makes it really interesting is that anything could be erotic. It could be eroticised and then, to take it one step further, then all sex is conceptual.

But it’s not conceptual in an intellectual sort of way. It’s still pertains to the body, to the senses, that sort of thing, so from there we can look at social norms and how society determines what is a sexual norm. We can take that point of view, that pre-conscious point of view, to function as a critique of mainstream discourses in sexuality. I know I’m sounding really academic and really stupid and pretentious, but that’s sort of like a summary of it.

I can see it in terms of an article I read in Penthouse a couple of years ago about the Jasmin St Claire gang bang. Anthony Haden-Guest wrote the article (”World’s Biggest Gang Bang II,” Penthouse, June 1997) and it’s interesting we’re talking about this now because recently, Jan 19, was the fourth anniversary of your own big event back in 1995. Now, the point he made was this: After the first 100 men or so, you realise the number is just a concept. So, it’s not about sex per se, it’s about exploring the concept of what sex is.

Yes, the number is just a concept. And what’s interesting to me, at least, about this entire gang bang event is that, firstly, it’s not sex as intimacy. It’s sex as sports, it’s public sex. Sex is getting more and more public now. Look at, like, the Calvin Klein ads. More and more, in our society, sex is becoming a spectacle. And so, how can we draw the line between what we do in private and what is otherwise? Could we just be acting out all these media images of sex, where people think that the way they have sex is like - what’s that stupid ****ing movie, that Michael Douglas and Glenn Close movie? - Fatal Attraction, yes, like they think Fatal Attraction is what hot sex looks like?

That sort of thing, it feeds into each other such that the private and the public no longer is important and we’re moving towards sex as “information.” How many guys? 251. Or 300, or 551, whatever, you know. And the other thing is the invention of this whole genre, this new genre of sex films that really does not come from the tradition of erotica or pornography but comes from somewhere else, like the Guinness Book of World Records, or sports.

It’s more like sports. But then, there’s a historical parallel between gang bang and orgies, and fertility-goddess rituals. It’s ritualised, almost as a ritual, but in our society our communal ritual is sports. It’s football, soccer, whatever. It’s really interesting, this playing out of our modern religion, which is sports. (laughs)

I just read in AVN (Adult Video News) that Jasmin St Claire says she’s retiring from gang banging. Did you know that? I don’t know what your relationship is with Jasmin, but what was your own reaction to her big event in which she beat your record a year later, by having sex with 300 men?

Yeah, I know she’s retiring, that’s what she said. Jasmin had her own motivations for doing it and I fully respect it, you know. It’s different from mine but still, she’s entitled to have her own motivations. She wanted to basically promote her stripping career, and doing something like that would really make her a lot of money in the stripping circuit. So, she’s made her money and she’s a big star now, good for her.

I mean, I have nothing against Jasmin St Claire. I’m actually one of the few people within the industry that she considers to be a friend. Whatever the media says. She’s a very difficult young woman, she tends to be bitchy to people, and she’s actually very insecure. But she’s by no means stupid. She graduated from NYU, she speaks four foreign languages fluently.

And it’s kind of interesting that the first two girls, Jasmin and myself, we’re middle-class college students. It’s kind of bizarre. I couldn’t think of a reason that is so, but then again there are now all these people from various areas of the adult industry doing their version of it. There’s the gay version, there’s the transsexual version, the transvestite version, and it’s spawned this new genre.

Before that, they had this thing called “gonzo” which was like amateur, cinema verite kind of movies - where it’s deliberately very raw, with this feeling of “you’re there,” really raw, really verite. And now, this new genre has got a really big following and they’re churning out a lot of these things.

Do you plan to incorporate this genre into your future work?

I was exploring it on a personal level, as a personal exploration, just to see what it’s like. I think what I’m now more interested in is to explore something else different, because right now this whole genre is being played to death. Everybody’s doing it now. There’s no point. It’s no longer fun for me to go on beating a dead horse. I want to do more experimental stuff.

What really fascinated me about the film There’s Something About Mary, although it’s a really stupid movie, is that it addresses this fundamental anxiety that people have about their bodies. Because we live in this really technologically advanced society where it’s just really sterile and we live in almost a virtual environment, and people get really anxious about their bodies.

The proof of it is bodily fluids, and I’m interested in the unacceptable parts of the body and how it feels to function in socially embarrassing ways. (laughs) I think in the next one, I’m going to explore these taboos. That’s what was meant in my press bio about “regression therapy” because it’s no longer sex as an aggressive act. It’s almost like going back to that stage where bodily fluids are okay. It’s okay to be a mess.

You have a new film, your directorial debut, called Pornomancer. Why are you directing now? I met Sharon Mitchell several years ago and I remember her telling me she was directing because she wanted to do something different after years of having sex on camera under someone else’s direction. Is that your feeling too?

Well, on a personal level, I come from a background in photography so I’ve always been interested in seeing what it’s like to direct a movie. Which is totally different and it’s got different dynamics. So, I thought, well, by directing adult movies I could just basically cut my teeth on making movies. And even if I **** up, it’s not going to be that bad (laughs) because it’s almost like workshop. Everything I do and everything I’ve done is a work in progress. That’s the way I saw it.

And also, I’m sick and tired of starring in these movies that have got the 13-year-old schoolboy mentality. I just wanted to have more control over my material and, of course, there’s this fundamental belief that I could do a better job. I don’t know if I can, but I’m going to find out.

What was the experience of directing like for you?

It’s a different head space. I had to constantly switch between “Annabel Chong, performer” and “Grace/Annabel/Whatever, director.” Like, “Is the camera in focus?” and “Good, move over this way, I want to get this bit of coverage” and telling people “I want you to get in this certain mood and act a certain way” and continuing shooting.

So it was like wearing two hats at once and having to switch personas and states of mind. It was interesting and challenging. And then after that, doing all the pre-production stuff and post-production, going into editing, cutting the movie together, getting people organised, generally bossing people around and giving them a hard time and being a bitch. (laughs) It was a very interesting experience. I probably lost 10 years of my life.

You seem quite comfortable about using your real name, Grace Quek, again. Do you mind at all having it seen in print? I know some performers in the adult industry dislike having their real names made public, usually to protect their families.

I don’t mind at all, in fact I like seeing it in print now. You have to understand that Annabel Chong is a persona, she’s a character. I think the dichotomy is interesting. I think everybody puts on personas, although their personas may not necessarily have a different name. My parents know about it. I used to only want to be referred to as Annabel Chong before I “came out.” And that’s the great thing about “coming out,” you know, because I can be open about it now.

Asians in the adults industry, like Kobe Tai and Asia Carrera, have made some kind of mainstream crossover. Kobe Tai was in that Christian Slater film, Very Bad Things, and Asia Carrera was in The Big Lebowski, even though they still basically play porn stars in these films. There’s still some kind of marginalisation and some resistance towards them making a complete mainstream crossover, isn’t there? I was just watching the new Metallica video, which had Ginger Lynn playing a stripper, and I thought: “Oh, here we go, stereotyping again.”

I completely agree. For people within the industry, they’re happy enough to get a role in a mainstream film because many of them nurse hopes of making it in Hollywood. I think it motivates them to take the first role that comes along.

What about yourself? Have you ever been motivated in that direction?

(laughs) I cannot act. My parents were theatre pioneers in $ingapore, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but I have no acting talent and I’m not about to kid myself. (laughs) And I have no aspirations to cross over as a “Hollywood actress,” as they say. I would be interested in doing some sort of weird cameo - some weird gender-bending cameo where I walk in as a guy, an Asian guy, or something that would be more interesting and funky but does not require a lot of acting and where I don’t have to say lines and stuff like that. But generally, nah, I’m not really interested in being in a mainstream movie.

Do you see yourself as being a role model for Asians in the industry?

I don’t know about that. I don’t know if Asians in the industry necessarily need a role model. I think most of the girls, the Asian girls in the industry, are pretty sussed. A lot of actresses are on drugs or whatever, but the Asians are really together. Asia Carrera, for example, she’s a really smart girl. She has her s*** together and she’s a really good businesswoman. Minka runs her own fan club. From my experience, the Asian actresses really have their s*** together and they have a pretty good sense of where they want their career to go within the adult industry.

Also, the adult industry is so diverse, just like the rest of society, that the word “role model” does not really apply.

I mean, I do not want to posit myself as a “role model,” or end up complaining about the responsibility of being one, like Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder. It’s just an idea that’s been so played out. I think there are a lot of people in the industry that I look up to, like Nina Hartley, who really is almost like a den mother. And I’m sort of moving towards that direction, playing den mother.

You know, people call me up to ask me for advice and I’m always happy to give them advice. If I feel that they’re not right for the adult industry, that they have certain things within their personality that will not fit well with the industry itself, I advise them: “Don’t do this. It’s not what you really want to do.”

Well, I think we all get into our careers or end up doing what we do because we have certain questions in our heads that need to be answered. Would you say you’ve managed to get answers to your questions?

I think a good question is one that demands constant exploration. I think I’m still in the process of exploring the questions I have within myself about my own sexuality and my own motivations. As I’ve said, everything’s a work in progress. I’d be terribly, terribly worried if I came to a grand conclusion at this early stage of my life. I think it would just be the end of my life as I know it. If I had felt that I had answered all my questions in life, I’d have probably gone to law school and probably be at Lee & Lee right now.

As long as I find it interesting, I’ll stay in the adult industry. I’m not really interested in having a career. I’m more interested in just pursuing projects that are interesting to me. Because I was brought up to believe that I should have a career. And I have been fighting that. And hopefully I will continue to do so unless I’m completely broke and starving. (laughs) I’ve starved before when I was in London but I do not intend to starve again. I’m living pretty comfortably right now and I consider myself fortunate, to do what I like and not starve.

So, I have no questions that need answering, none whatsoever. I’m happy.

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