Introduction to “Why Singapore Rocks!”
As an acronym, the term A.S.E.A.N. has become the name of a small regional trade & tourism organization known as the “Association of South East Asian Nations.” Not all of the nations in the greater south east asian region have joined (India, for example, most conspicuously absent), but the current membership includes: Indonesia, Cambodia, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, The Phillipeans, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. There remains, however, a larger concept of the term “Asean”, which embraces a sense of shared destiny and multicultural imperatives among these various emerging economies. Particularly when it comes to their globally-aware youth cultures. HIstorically distinct as these nations are, grouping them together for mutual benefit is no more unlikely than the mutual interests that make NATO possible.
To the extent that various ethnicities of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, Aboriginal and Pacific Islander origin are splayed over the whole “south east asian” region, there is an awareness of an inherent multiculturalism within these nations which makes them “modern” in the same way– if not the same flavor–as America is “modern”. It is this pluralistic sense of modernity that unites them most. Therefore if a Chinese-dominant immigrant nation like Singapore can be “Asean,” then certainly the dynamic and diverse (island?) cultures of Taiwan and Hong Kong can be seen as “Asean” in spirit if not precisely in geopolitical reality. Such an expanded notion of “Asean” as both a regional and a socio-cultural term couldn’t help but factor-in the pop-cultural influence of such places, even to the point of reaching to embrace a huge Pacific Rim dynamo like Japan.
A contentious–and solidly middle-class–rock underground exists in the island nation of Singapore. It’s unofficial mission? To keep alive a diversity of creative expression and dissent that was all but paved over during S’pore’s 30 year rush to become a fully competitive First World nation. Having been a multi-ethnic center of global trade and culture since the 1500s, the Malaysian peninsula–to which Singapore is attached like the dot of an exclamation mark–has long been a dynamic cultural melting pot even more fervid than our own.
Since ex-Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew based his dream of a modern Singapore on America’s Kennedy years, (Great Britian freed most of its Malaysian colonies between 1957 and ’63) little wonder that the resultant multi-ethnic Asian Camelot contains the seeds of the same sort of youth-centered counter-culture that gave the U.S. civil disobedience, equal-rights legislation, The Summer of Love, and Woodstock. The youth of Singapore–possessed of clean, safe streets, increasing affluence, and plenty of benign authoritarianism to rebel against–are perfectly positioned to make significant contributions to the global pop movements set in motion by the Anglo-American ’60s.
Big O, a 12-year-old indie pro-zine that takes its acronym from the Who biography Before I Get Old, chronicals, questions, and codifys global pop culture for Singaporian teens. Founded on a bedroom Mac by two Chinese brothers and a small peer group of freelance journalists, filmmakers, cartoonists and bandleaders Big O remains a controversial advocate of the bohemian impulse in a nation that asks its children to forgo bohemian callings in favor of careers more likely to secure S’pore a place of leadership in the new world order.
“Phillip and Michael Cheah used to write for a national paper called the Sunday Monitor, which covered cutting edge comics, music, film and all that, ” says Patrick Chng, a fragile-looking Catholic boy who leads an R.E.M.-inspired guitar band called The Oddfellows when not producing news copy for MTV Asia or song demos for friends. “When it folded in ’85, they set up Big O as a fanzine they would photocopy and send out to subscribers. So I got into the Big O thing that way.” And he wasn’t the only one. Big O became an easy way for like-minded non-conformists to find each other. When a synthpop duo called Corporate Toil, used the ‘zine to sell a homemade tape of original songs, Chng wrote in for the tape and made a lifelong friend of its disaffected auteur, Joe Ng. It was Joe that prodded him to start producing other acts, selling the resultant cassettes by word of mouth.
And when Big O first got corporate advertisers to fund a compilation CD of local acts, Chng was its producer. “I did one compilation with Opposition Party, Corporate Toil, and a few other bands, helping them realize their ideas on tape . . . learning by doing,” Chng recalled. “From then on, we just kept on with one demo recording another. I formed my own band, and started my own label, named Tim, after the Replacements album.”
Chng’s softspoken, self-effacing demeanor belies the fierceness with which he turned his fannish enthusiasms into a life’s calling. Classically trained on piano and self-taught on guitar, Chng is as much a disciple of U2 as Husker Du. Soon after his mandatory stint in the Singaporean army (THE pivotal rite of passage for males in S’pore), he produced and released two full albums of moody guitar pop by The Pagans and The Ordinary People, and managed to get his own band briefly picked up for distribution by BMG. Now in his late 20s, his loyalty to the Singapore underground and the Big O nexus remains firm. His last collaborative release through BMG was a Big O family project: the soundtrack to Mee Pok Man, a film about Asean slackers scripted and lensed by Big O-contributor Eric Khoo, starring Joe Ng.
We’ve met to talk inside the coffee-shop of an alternative performance space called the Substation, where Big O still promotes gigs and pop culture seminars from from time to time. The space is right around the corner from the old National Library (where Chng used to read up on production techniques) and within walking distance of TNT studios where half the indie bands in the city rehearse and record. Founded by a progressive playwright in support of experimental art and theatre, the Substation differs from other venues like the warehouse disco Zouk, the trendy karaoke bar Fire on high-priced Orchard Road, and college halls like Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Devoid of the whiff of either amateurism or commercialism that respectively hovers around schools and bars, the Substation oozes a seriousness of intent that can only be called class. “I’d like our rock scene to eventually be as respected as the regional theatre scene,” Chng says wistfully, reminding me that even though the government may object to the content of a very provocative or political play, it still gives dramaturgy a respect it witholds from rockers and their fans.
Raffles Hotel, an immaculate relic of colonial Singapore, stands tall and white near the center of a bustling shopping strip. I’ve come here to meet with radio jock and Big O columnist Chris Ho (currently spelled “X’Ho”), who in his pop star alter ego is also considered the father of Singaporean new wave. I’ve purposely chosen New York Deli–the kitchyest of several theme-park eateries attached to the hotel–in the hopes that the scrap irony will amuse him. Ho and horror novelist Damian Sin, his old partner in the band Zircon Lounge, vividly remember the “bad old days” when bohemian life in S’pore was full of sex and drugs and gleefully debauched rock & roll. Such excesses, forcibly repressed by executing drug traffickers, razing red light districts, and heavily taxing live clubs in the ’70s, helped turn S’porean nightlife into a tourist gauntlet of animatronic cover bands.
Ho, whose last solo LP Punk Monk Hunk was full of witty appropriations from Bowie, Billy Idol and Iggy Pop, has released nothing but the highly controversial spoken-word album “X’ With and “X” in the last two years. A born-again Buddhist with shaved head and tattoos from neck to knees, Ho is also a living terror to Singapore’s self-appointed guardians of public morality. American and European videos featuring punked out hairdos, piercings, and pulchritude are regularly aired on Singaporean TV, but Ho’s image–and hence his videos–is considered subversive, a corrupting influence on S’pore’s youth.
Deprived of TV as a regular outlet, Ho clings to radio, recordings, and print media to reach his hometown public. His version of Iggy’s “Kill City” may be an oblique criticism of life in S’pore, but is far from seditious, and sounds as good as anything now available from any American major label. If one really reads his Big O essays or listens to his fluid baritone on allegorical love songs like “Good Master,” Ho is revealed not as bete noir, but as the Lion City’s sweetest, most compassionate native son. Deejaying different shows on three different radio stations for almost 20 years has kept his knowledge of global pop fairly encyclopedic. He may have etched Marc Almond’s face on his arm but retains a warm spot in his heart for Todd Rundgren, Patti Smith, Rickie Lee Jones, and various lilting Thai balladeers.. Musical fads in S’pore run nearly simultaneous with their emergence in New York, Tokyo, Sydney, Bangkok, or London, so the way Singaporean kids sustain lingering enthusiasms for particular subgenres usually reflect deep psychological predilections.
“Rock music is so Malay!” Says Ho. “They just love this thing about going up on stage with a guitar and just blasting the amps, you know? It’s always there, deep in their blood. It’s not [the same for] a lot of we Chinese people. We love it, but we’re a little uptight about it. If you put the Dead Boys and the Talking Heads on a stage in Malaysia, the Malaysians will go for the Dead Boys and the Singaporeans would go for the Talking Heads.”
Ho isn’t as shy as other Singaporeans about discussing cracks in the smooth veneer of his city’s gorgeous ethnic mosaic. On a walk through the Tamil business district he points out his favorite Indian restaurant remarking that his parents would never have eaten there, believing that the dark-skinned Tamils were “dirty.” Singapore’s ethnic Chinese majority mostly descend from waves of migration from Southern China whose regions possess distinctive dialects and customs. When Lee Kwan Yew made Mandarin and English the only official languages for education and business, he virtually guaranteed the primacy of English for Singapore’s multi-ethnic youth, and a pop culture centered around English semantics and an Anglo-American worldview. Chris Ho may watch his Cantonese soaps on cable tv or collect and admire ballads sung in Thai, but nothing is so emblematic of his soul and situation as the straight-up rock & roll.
This is also why a young Indian singer/songwriter named Vinita Ramani–who markets her cassette demos under the title Self Portrait–cites Fugazi, Sylvia Plath, and Georgia O’Keefe as influences on songs that critique the implicit sexism in arranged marriages. This is why the Malay and Chinese girls in a band called Psycho Sonique cover The Runaways and X-Ray Spex but also write rebellious “bad girl” originals that sound like a cross between the Go-Gos and L7. Mixed-race combos abound, from the Chinese and Indian members of The Ordinary People, to the Nepalese/American/Malay trio which calls itself Bruce Lee. On the surface Singapore is a far less racist society than either Japan or the U.S., but as with all pluralistic populations, mutual respect is a hard-won, ongoing process. When he replaced old slums with immaculate new housing projects, Lee Kwan Yew decreed that each apartment building be thoroughly integrated between the three major ethnic groups: Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Now, just as it did in the U.S., rock culture provides yet another bridge between races, classes, and cultures.
With living space at a premium, S’pore is a vertical city. You ascend highrise malls to reach bars, discos, comic shops, rehersal studios, record companies, radio stations, restaurants and tattoo parlors. Because most of the citizenry lives in subsidized apartments which families buy from the government, there are no actual “garage bands” because there are no private garages. Rehersal studios rent-out instruments along with practice time because few kids own their own equipment. Extended families don’t have room to store little brother’s drum kit or a set of amps in the projects.
The Malay hardcore act Stomping Ground are ringleaders of a whole network of bands who taught themselves to play under these circumstances. Guitarist Suhaimi Subandie is the local spokesman for a movement that grew out of afterschool bull sessions at the Forum Galleria, one of many mall hangouts where kids gather in totemic finery, blast boom boxes, to trade and argue over obscure underground tapes. Before releasing Measured By the Richter Scale, their first full album on Pony Canyon in ’95, Stomping Ground were active for half a decade on the demo scene, coordinating a hardcore sampler CD for Big O in 1993. More importantly, they connected to the larger peninsular market by routinely travelling up the causeway that connects Singapore to the Malaysian cities of JB (Johor Baru) and KL (Kuala Lumpur). Because of these tours Stomping Ground maintain a bigger regional fandom than most members of the Singapore underground.
Malaysian metalheads love everything from vintage Deep Purple to Grindcore, showing a particular fondness for Straight-Edge punk which allows devout muslims to embrace a rock ethic without resorting to drugs, drink, or sexual profligacy. When Stomping Ground covers Minor Threat, or expresses admiration for Youth of Today and Sick of It All, it’s because they’ve found in these acts a spirit of resistance that suits specifically Singaporean needs.
“We try our best to use the right words in our music to make the listeners know that it is the value of the words and not the music that should drive them,” affirms Suhaimi, “we are not a trend.”
Digging in for the long haul is crucial for Asean (or South East Asian) indie rockers because there is no infrastructure in consistant support of even the best and most persistant of local bands. The reason almost two years have passed without new albums from either Stomping Ground or Chris Ho is lack of promotional avenues not lack of material, demand, or desire. Up until this year local artists were almost never featured on Singapore’s commercial radio stations. English-language outlets like Radio Heart and Perfect 10 would bang foreign pop hits 24/7, ghettoizing “hometown selections” to maybe an hour or two a week of spotlight programming. But this spring Perfect 10 not only began adding local bands to regular rotation, but also promised to chart them together with import releases for the first time ever. Radio Heatwave, a college station founded to train future broadcast professionals, just got a boost in wattage that for the first time allows experimental teenaged jocks to reach off-campus listeners.
In fact three years’ worth of very specific developments in the local media and retail picture have brought new energy and focus to pop culture in Singapore. The opening of HMV (S’pore’s second multimedia rock megastore); the staffing of MTV Asia; the explosion of Singaporean internet activity; Club Zouk’s reopening after a major drug scandal to showcase top names from the Euro-American rave scene; and Malcom McClaren’s public anointing of the Lion City as the probable source of the Next Big Thing, have all helped to liberalize governmental attitudes towards its indigenous rock underground. Jimmy Wee, the 25-year recording industry vet who persuaded Japan’s Pony Canyon to invest in the Singapore scene, phased out his initial Skin and Smoke imprints to form Springroll Entertainment. The new company is now hard at work forging production and distribution deals with members of a booming d.i.y. demo scene. It took Wee two years to figure out that it would be faster and cheaper to develop local talent if he didn’t have to sign skittish, suspicious teen combos to long recording a publishing commitments. By using Pony Canyon resources to host and film band showcases at Fire Disco and the Substation, Wee is generating the promotional tools the local underground has always needed. “I believe the Singapore scene can happen because I’ve seen how Hong Kong and Malaysia have come along,” Wee insists. “Fifteen or twenty years ago, Hong Kong was a hopeless market. A lot of the Hong Kong artists were nothing until there was this big hype about Cantonese pop singers. What made these artists happen was media support. If you’re in Hong Kong, you pick up every magazine and you’ll see all these local stars in color. You turn on the radio or tv and you’ll hear these same stars! So I’ve been making noises about that here to all the local radio and tv people. There’s no harm in promoting international music, it’s good because we learn from them. But don’t forget the local music!”
Until 1994 when Tower Records opened an outlet there, all record stores in Singapore were small family-owned affairs. Two of the oldest of these, Da Da and Roxy, occupy the same highrise mall on North Bridge Road, and bemoan the arrival of chains like Tower and HMV which threaten to undermine a consumer base these mom & pops have been cultivating for years. “They undersell us!” complains Peter Quek Ken Hui, who worked under his father for 21 years before he and his wife Yong Moi Lee took it over. I watch him grumble while uncrating new boxes of rock, pop, and jazz LPs ( in vinyl!!!) with sporadic help from two pre-adolescent sons. “And we have problems accounting for the demo tapes we sell on consignment because kids steal ’em!” He cuts the wry grin of the much put-upon shopkeeper. “Because most of these demos are made by people they know, some kids think they shouldn’t have to pay for them!”
Governmental censorship prevents importation and sale of a wide range of foreign product, hence these stores aren’t allowed to supply the local demand for gangsta rap and death metal…music that has devoted fans throughout South East Asia. Instead, Da Da maintains a diverse assortment of rare oldies and vinyl in the back its kiosk; while Roxy special-orders obscure hardcore reissues and caters to fanboys in love with picture disks, collectible rock memorabilia, classic punk and contemporary rock. Of the two stores, Roxy keeps the most comprehensive stock of local demos. “Maybe 10% of our sales here come from selling local music, but it is still growing and there are more and more people making it.” says Richard, who along with his older brother Paul both stock and manage the Roxy under the watchful eye of their very hip and savvy Chinese mother. Paul is the true rock fan of the two, delighting in seeking out new mail-order sources and feeding the ever-shifting tastes of their regular clientele. He is mildly surprised that after four years Youth of Today remains one of his top selling special-order items. “With the music we import, the government must inspect it bbefore the CD can come into the shop,” says Paul. “Because Singapore is multi-racial and multi-cultural, things which might offend other religions and other races are banned. Local bands must avoid these things so as to avoid getting their distributors and retail stores in trouble . . . no four letter words, no dirty or controversial pictures on the cover. The government judges a lot of foreign music by its covers alone.”
Both DaDa and Roxy still keep a special section of Chinese Opera recordings, the popularity of which helped establish these stores in the 1960s. Dramatic musical theatre performed in regional dialect for homesick Chinese immigrants served much the same spiritual need for their consumers then as the hardcore and alternative music selling to young Singaporeans today. The evolving gestalt that created the diverse modes of expression flaunted by Sideshow Judy, Suchness, Opposition Party, and the Padres are all part of something marvelous that could not really happen the same way anywhere but contemporary Singapore.
The South East Asian “spin” that Force Vomit puts on its punky surf-pop confections is a completely unexpected delight. A “slack” guitar tuning and a loose method of strumming (which Chang Kang of The Ordinary People traces to local folk pop idol Dick Lee) can be heard in almost every acoustic guitar band in the region. In fact, every little quirky regional element, from the vernacular “lah’s” and “ah’s” of Singlish to the British boarding-school syntax into which such vernacular is squeezed helps make Singaporean style special. Right now there are multi-ethnic bands in Singapore that can sing and play anything from delta blues to hip-hop. There are long haired Filipino rock gods doing Guns’ & Roses covers, and short haired Chinese intellectuals crooning Dylan. Synthpop producer Jason Tan has launched a techno band called Trancendental Experience into the U.K. market. Club Ecstasy’s second house album released on Singapore’s VMP label simultaneously evoked The Prodigy and Deep Forest. The only question left about the future of Singapore’s indie scene is not whether an act will go international but when.
Seeking the theoretical center of this scene that struggles so hard against governmental dissolution on one hand and the lure of more gainful forms of employment on the other, I end up at TNT Music Center, the eight-year-old “jamming studio” founded by K.K. Wong an ex-heavy metal guitarist who goes by the nickname Ah Boy. Nestled inside one corner of the fifth floor of the Park Lane Mall, TNT is the temple where almost every band worth talking about in this piece recorded their first 8-track demos. Most days after school as many as two or three dozen young men and women are gathered in and outside the small two-room space; trading performance tips, gossip, fanzines, and all the paraph ernalia common to indie rockers everywhere. Asked if the other mall shopowners object to the constant din from the studio Boy replies: “No! I am the oldest tenant on this floor so they have nothing to say! I opened the studio because me and most of my friends play heavy metal and had a hard time finding places to rehearse. Most studios chase you out if you play loud. So by the time I opened up, I had a guaranteed clientele.”
The day I visited, the girls of Psycho Sonique were running through their set-list; switching off on drums, bass, and guitar even though normally Siti plays drums, Ginette plays bass, and Lynn is on guitar. Though still label-less, the six-year old band has been through several lineups, losing a couple of singers in the process, and is always rumored on the verge of dissolution. Tough and elegant in their tattoos and multiple piercings, they have none of the deceptive silliness of Shonen Knife or Frank Chickens. Putting an emphatically non-white face on their own personal interpretation of Grrrl power, Psycho-Sonique transcend race and gender in a way those Japanese girl bands do not. The three original tunes they contributed to a Malaysian compilation cassette in 1994 got them a lot more gigs and vindicated an unprecedented amount of indie and local press. “A lot of our early press tried to make it seem like we were an all girl band because we don’t like men,” said Ginette, angrily flicking a lock of hair behind an ear adorned by a long row of pierced earrings. “We love men,” added Lynn, who used to be Singapore’s only female skinhead. “We just happen to like being an all girl band.”
As they thrashed through “Warrior in Woolworths” and “Cherry Bomb” it became clear that they are in the same process of recontextualization that beguiles most of S’pore’s indie acts. Knowing that the Anglo-dominated West still hasn’t quite come clean about why it is what it is, the East–following so close on the heels of the West– tries to figure it out before we do by paying mor e attention and having more to lose if they don’t learn from our mistakes. Asked what “punk rock” means to them, the girls reply: “Punk is a form of music that rebels. Here, the system sucks. We are at no liberty to go against it. No freedom of speech. So we can only let our frustrations out in our music.” Their long-awaited demo project We Can Do It arrived in 1997 with the legend “They were angry and they weren’t prepared to take NO for an answer” scrawled across the top.
Primitive yawps of frustration–against pushy police, clueless boyfriends, and a conservative society–were always a big part of Psycho Sonique’s presentation. But so is a rather enlightening reflection of Western life and its unexpected discontents re-examined by the heirs of a society now enjoying its first golden flush of full-bore consumerist capitalism.
Slightly altered version published in: Crawdaddy, Sept. 2000