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The meaning of 251

By David Chew, TODAY | Posted: 29 March 2007

Believe it or not, Singapore is known internationally for things other than its ban on chewing gum and its passion for rules. 

Theatre director Loretta Chen recalled that while studying abroad in the United States and Britain, the inevitable reaction of her fellow students when she revealed her home country was: "Oh, that's where that woman Annabel Chong comes from!"

"In that sense, she has become something like the Merlion in her association with Singapore," said Chen, the director of Toy Factory's latest offering, 251 — a look at the infamous porn star's life.

The play will be staged at the Esplanade Theatre Studio starting next Thursday.

It was in 1995 that the then-22-year-old former Raffles Girls School and Hwa Chong Junior College student made headlines for having sex 251 times with 70 men over a period of about 10 hours in front of the camera.

In doing so, Chong set a dubious world record (which has since been topped), became the star of a landmark adult movie titled The World's Biggest Gangbang that is one of the industry's highest grossing titles and even appeared on tabloid-style US TV programmes such as The Jerry Springer Show. 

Still, despite the publicity, mystery still shrouded Singapore's most notorious citizen.

"Nobody," Chen said wistfully, "really knew the girl behind the persona of Annabel Chong, and why she did what she did."

A victim of rape

Born and raised in Singapore, Annabel Chong was the stage name of Grace Quek, a girl who was — based on the accounts of her former teachers, classmates and friends — a smart, quiet and even geeky girl whom no one could have imagined would end up a porn star.

After completing her A levels, Quek took almost three years off, including a year in the US, before settling down in the UK to read law. It was there that she came into her own sexually, noted 251 playwright Ng Yi-Sheng.

"She started to enjoy some kind of sexual freedom in the UK when she was there," he said. "But the turning point came one day when she was drunk on a train, saw a stranger she wanted to have sex with and agreed to go with him into an alleyway." 

He brought other men along and she realised that they planned to rob her. She was gang raped and went into shock but still managed to escape and run for help.

"But it was a moment of realisation for her: That sexual empowerment could be so easily taken away from her," said Ng.

Chen added that it was probably among the few times in her life when Chong said "no" and, ironically, the power play ended up turning her into a victim.

Quek soon dropped out of law school and, at age 21, decided to pursue graduate studies in photography, art and feminist studies at the University of Southern California. 

Her parents didn't approve. So, Quek found ways to pay for school: She answered an ad placed by what seemed to be a modelling agency, but it turned out to be an adult film company.

Soon, Annabel Chong was born.

Pornography as protest art

Citing Quek as a product of a Singapore value system defined by meritocracy and the "can-do" attitude, as well as of a strict Christian family, Chen noted that it was while in the US that the future exhibitionist took to the idea of performance art.

"The climate for performance art overseas can be very exciting for any young artist," said Chen, who had a similar experience when she studied abroad. "The idea of using your body as a canvas for protest, to put your body on the line to champion a particular cause, was not unheard of."

Chong was interested in the notion of blurring the line between pornography and performance art (which can sometimes involve an artist's naked body).

"I believe Annabel tried to play around with those definitions and notions. Whether she was successful or not is up to you to decide," said Chen. "But I think she always overestimated the intelligence of your typical porn consumer. 

"She started off wanting to do her gangbang to challenge gender boundaries but I think it never did her any justice because people never took her seriously after that."

But, Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, a 1999 documentary tracing her life, became a hit on the film festival circuit and is now used in gender studies classes worldwide.

A national hero?

One-and-a-half years ago, Chen met with Toy Factory artistic director Goh Boon Teck to discuss the idea of a play about Chong's life. 

"It started out as a fun project," said Chen. "But then last year a newspaper article debating the question of what a national hero is came out and that got me thinking about what really makes one. 

"Was it someone who dared to go the distance, to break boundaries, to go where no man or woman had gone? Just to play devil's advocate: Can someone like Annabel Chong be a national hero? Not that she is, but can the same OB markers apply to a sex act?"

That's not the only provocative question Chen and Ng explore in 251.

The play also traces the story of a Singaporean student who goes abroad, wide-eyed and innocent, to find her future.

"When I started the script," said Ng. "I felt sympathetic towards her because I realised that like me, she was a Gifted Education Programme student: An intellectual and yet sexually-charged girl who went abroad to discover herself sexually and got hurt."

He added: "A lot of Singaporeans get hurt this way, more than our scholarship boards would reveal."

For the record, Chen noted, Chong — who again goes by the name Grace Quek these days — is aware that the play has been written and is soon to be staged. 

While Quek returns regularly to Singapore to visit her mother (her father has died), she declined requests to speak directly to Chen or Ng or to endorse the play.

"I have to say her response to this was very mature," said Chen, who communicated with Quek through author Gerrie Lim.

"She said: 'Do whatever you want to Annabel Chong because this person doesn't exist anymore. Grace Quek just wants to stay out of this. She's not that person anymore and so cannot endorse this'. 

"To me that's taking responsibility for your past and present."

Happily settled in California as an IT programmer, Chong stopped doing adult films in 2003 and posted a message on her website that reads: "Annabel is dead, and is now replaced full time by her Evil Doppelganger, who is incredibly bored with the entire concept of Annabel and would prefer to do something different for a change". -