(Jack, played by Ben Gazzara, getting the bad words on his arms changed into flowers)
If you're following the first post, you'll know I'm trying to recount the story-behind-the-book-behind-the-film, and before I go forward, I should mention that even though I did no real research into Saint Jack when I first arrived in Singapore back in 2002, Jack Flowers (the main character in Saint Jack) continued to haunt me.
As part of theatre group spell#7, I worked with Kaylene Tan on a performance in July 2002 called Kinda Hot (sound familiar?), which was a performed guided tour of the area where the spell#7 office is located, Little India.
The name of the show was clearly a reference to Saint Jack - after the line that Jack uses to open up conversations with strangers - "Kinda hot?" He only uses it once in the book, and once almost imperceptibly in the film, but its a line that stuck out - for it's cheeky innuendo, Singapore-specificity and obvious metaphorical qualities...
I played a character called Jack, who was inspired by Jack Flowers rather than literally based on him. I wore a very cool Batik shirt, and as I introduced myself to the audience I certainly hinted that I might be able to show them where the 'good times' could be had. We took certain aspects of Jack Flowers - that he was a storyteller, an exile who can never leave, an outsider but utterly at home - and heightened them to suit our story about two characters who are in love with each other and the streets where they wander. Kaylene wrote a beautiful line about the character, which kinda gives the game away about the source:
"Jack leaves a scent. A trail of a million flowers. I can smell you 2 miles away."
That show was banned. Sounds melodramatic, but that's what happened, and you can read about that all here.
Next up was a performance called Various Gangsters with spell#7, which was performed at the marvellous Substation as part of their September festival that same year. A criminally underrated show, it was loosely inspired by the idea of gangs and gangsters - and we did some research into triads and secret societies, oaths and tattoos. Which brings us back to Saint Jack. As we were writing the piece we were looking for something for the end of the performance, and there was a line which suddenly connected Saint Jack with the tone and feeling we were after.
"The bad words have been made to look like flowers."
And after that there was list of obscenities followed by the different types of flowers they had been made to look like: "Fuck becomes a chrysanthemum". All of them were written by Kaylene, who takes the speech off from this initial premise into a sublime description of a body as if it were a garden (You can read the whole thing and find out more about the show here).
This began as a response to Jack's tattoos in Saint Jack, the way he brilliantly decides to change the Chinese insults, that have forcibly carved into his arms, into something beautiful.
In 2004, we went back to Kinda Hot and reworked it into an audio tour (people listen to our soundtrack as they are directed around Little India), and the characters remained roughly the same - including Jack. Now, existing only as a voice, he does become spectral, like a ghost of Singapore's past, condemned to endless strolling, chatting with tourists, and Gin and Tonics back at the hotel (The audio tour is called Desire Paths, and you can still come and do it - there is a lovely website for it here, or read a review here).
Jack had now become a persona. I figured I knew who this guy was - his hopes and dreams, a romantically inclined loser. He would always be the popular one, telling jokes, full of life, making people around him feel good. But you could never get too close to Jack - inside he was shutting down, trying to protect himself from pain, panicking about the future. It was a character I couldn't ever get rid of, he kept turning up in the things that I did in Singapore.
Which brings us back to the book.