I must live with this stain till the day I die

IT USED to be a symbol of strength, but the tattoo on her right shoulder is now a stark reminder of her ugly past.

It is a past filled with violence - or stupidity, as the reformed woman gangster now describes it.

If she could turn back time, Miss Angie Tan, 29, who runs a cafe in the eastern part of Singapore, would choose to live her life differently.

Miss Tan told The New Paper on Sunday: "It's not like a coffee stain that we can easily clean off with detergent and water.

"This stain from my past is one regret I have to live with till the day I die."

Indeed. On the surface, Miss Tan is relatively successful for someone who turned 29 last month.

Business at her two-year-old cafe has picked up in the past year. She is now exploring the possibility of opening another outlet in town next year.

She also recently made peace with her father at her mother's wake in January.

And, two months ago, Miss Tan started dating an engineer.

But Tuesday's page one of The New Paper made her fear that her past would return to haunt her.

It was a report on Nurul Aisyah Osman, 18, who was allegedly caught in a Pasir Ris chalet with a chopper in her handbag.

A customer was reading the newspaper at her cafe.

There were also other reports of women accusing other women of belonging to gangs.

Miss Tan said: "I had not paid attention to the previous reports but somehow, this particular page caught my attention.

"I don't know if it was the photo or the headline, but suddenly, I thought, I could have been that girl."

By her own account, Miss Tan has much to fear, given how she had been in "so many scuffles and fights that I've lost count" in the five dark years when she was in a gang.

She had joined the gang when she was only 15 for "the silliest of reasons".

Miss Tan, who was then studying in an elite all-girls' school, was often taunted for her "nerdy and stuffy appearance".

She said: "That I was an introvert made it worse for me because I had no one to turn to."

She claimed she did not bring the taunts up to the teachers for fear of getting herself into more trouble.

After suffering in silence for nearly a year, Miss Tan confided in her cousin, who is a year older and a school dropout.

"All my cousin said was, 'I'll settle it and take care of the issue'. And she did."

A week later, the taunting stopped, said Miss Tan.

"I thought it was amazing, so I pestered my cousin to tell me how she did it."

At first, Miss Tan's cousin was unwilling to talk about the details.

"She kept saying it was better that I didn't know anything."

After much persistence, however, her cousin relented and disclosed that her gang members had "issued a friendly warning" to the bullies.

She said: "At that time, I was more awed by how powerful that friendly warning was than the severity of the situation."

Miss Tan then asked to join the gang.

Her cousin took her to the group leader who told her that she had to go through a "simple" initiation process.

She was initially horrified by the process.

"I found out that, along with three other newbies, we had to beat up a girl for stealing the watch of one of the gang members.

Beach bashing

"We all trooped down to the East Coast beach where the group leader told us that we could stop the walloping only after she finished two sticks of cigarettes."

They were also reminded to "hit only the spots that could be hidden by the girl's clothes".

Reliving the moment, Miss Tan paused for all of three minutes, then added: "I think the four of us depended on one another to boost our courage.

"Until now, I don't know how long those two sticks of time really was. But by the time we were done, the girl had already stopped begging to be let off."

Her trophy was a tattoo - fully paid for by her group leader.

Miss Tan said: "My parents didn't suspect anything because I was careful to hide it under the sleeves.

"In any case, it's not like they had time for me."

Thus began her double life.

By this time, she was preparing for her O-level examinations.

"I'd go to school as usual and then hang out with the gang after school.

"Most times, I just had to beat up those who had flouted the gang's rules, or bullied someone connected to us.

"The ironic thing is, while we supposedly stood up for victims of bullying, we were actually bullying others by extorting from them."

It took a close shave with the law before she realised her folly.

Miss Tan said: "We had used a cigarette lighter on this junior college student and her hair nearly caught fire.

"Luckily, nothing serious happened. But the girl's mother threatened to report us to the police if we did it again."

Miss Tan said: "That shook me up because in all those years, nothing really serious happened.

"I was also waiting to start university, and I realised I could have have thrown everything away just like that."

She was lucky that she could leave the gang without much hassle "because by then, my cousin had become quite influential".

Unfortunately, that cousin was later sent to jail for extortion and causing grievous hurt.

Miss Tan said: "The law does catchup with you. It's only a matter of when.

"Now, I can only pray that my boyfriend can accept my past."

It is something she has yet to share with him.

Ex-gangster: Today's girl gangs have nothing better to do

GIRL gangs in Singapore? Not today, said 11 former women gang members who spoke to The New Paper on Sunday.

The days when the Red Butterfly gang - better known as Ang Hor Tiap (AHT) - carried out their deadly activities are gone, said a retired AHT member.

Lucy, 62, told The New Paper on Sunday in a mix of Hokkien and broken English: "Some of these girls (today) very bo liao." (Bo liao is Hokkien for bored or having nothing better to do).

"They think it's so easy to run a gang meh?"

At Lucy's request, we are using only her English name as she does not want her three grandsons to know of her past.

Gang members of the AHT were identified by the butterfly tattoos they wore on their thighs, groins or shoulders, said Lucy.

AHT was a feared all-girls gang in the 60s and 70s. Its members were made up mostly of bar waitresses, dance hostesses and prostitutes.

Each had butterflies of a different colour, ranging from red to black to blue. The leader wore the red butterfly - and was known in underworld circles as Madam Red Butterfly.

Their activities included extortion, assaults and intimidation. Their recruitment tactics were straightforward: Join us or we will cut up your face and body.

Many of them had boyfriends who were members of secret societies. That is likely to be the only similarity between the women gangsters of the past and those of today, said retired police officer Lionel De Souza.

Six of the former members interviewed said that they had joined their lovers' gangs only by sheer association.

Keow, 24, said: "I dated my boyfriend for about six months before I found out he was with a gang.

"Love... made me so impressed with the power he wielded whenever the gang went on a rampage." Keow added: "Becoming a member was just a natural process."

June, 26, had a woman lover who was with the gang. The pair had met when her manly looking lover beat up two men in a pub for harassing her.

June said: "I was mesmerised by how she could take on the men so easily."

Afraid of the possible "competition" from other women, June decided to join the gang.

Honey, who is in her early 50s, is a retired gang leader. She scoffed at today's supposed girl gangs.

"Look, these girls don't know the difference between being tough and acting tough. They're just craving for attention, which they get when they hang around in a group and make noise," she said.

Lin, 24, was not interested in studies and hated going home to a gambler dad and a factory worker mother. Her younger brother is autistic.

She said: "There was never enough money for school, so even when I dropped out of school, my parents weren't bothered."

Lin met one of her former classmates, who had become a gang member, when they were working in a department store.

Bored after work one night, she joined her classmate at a karaoke lounge. When they were having supper at a coffee shop, Lin's friend and the gang of about seven people beat up two boys and a girl "just for kicks".

Lin recalled: "When I saw their fear, it gave me a sense of power."

Mr De Souza pointed out that some girl gangsters were also likely to be cliques formed from the same school.

Feng, 26, is an example. She was the leader of a "gang of 12 girls that had nothing to do with the secret societies".

Feng said: "Aiyah, we were your typical Ah Lians who just wanted to have fun. We extorted money from those whom we knew we could bully and spent it on karaoke, food and shopping."

They split up only after two girls were caught for shoplifting and sent to a girls' home.

I must live with this stain till the day I die