How It All Began: Conversations With A Busker

Where I first met Uncle Loh, outside the Isetan basement supermarket.

Where I first met Uncle Loh, outside the Isetan basement supermarket.

The first stranger whom I felt I had ever enjoyed talking to–and, in a way, the catalyst behind this blog–was an old man playing the harmonica outside the Isetan basement supermarket at the Orchard Road shopping district. I was on my way home one day when I noticed him, blowing away cheerfully at his instrument in the face of an oblivious tide of shoppers surging past him towards the escalators to Wheelock Place. Little had I expected him to stop what he was doing when he noticed me checking out the belongings he’d brought with him, greeting me with a “Hello little girl” and a warm twinkle in his eye. Thus began the first of my series of conversations with his amiable busker, who introduced himself to me as Uncle Loh.

I have not been able to visit him again lately, due to his having moved to another location along the same area in the Orchard Road shopping district, but his conviviality made a strong impression on me and as I was walking towards Ion Orchard, his honest smile and snippets of our lively conversations resurfaced in my mind. Not only had he changed my impression of those in the busking profession, but also sparked me in the thought to perhaps try to reach out to people in the same way he had reached out to me.

Uncle Loh (declined to have photograph posted)

“Why I decided to start busking…. I think it was more of an accident than anything. I didn’t go around looking for busking oppurtunities or whatever. I’m almost eighty and retired and I used to be an engineer. But I like music, and could play the harmonica since I was a boy. So I happened to find there’s busking and I went for the auditions and I passed, so I’m here. So I can’t really say there’s a reason I come here. It’s more for fun.

You receive an endorsement, and go to a specific place to busk. So I came here. The best ones are always sent to Orchard. Some of them busk outside their legal place and if you’re caught you receive warnings. One warning, two warnings, then you’re out. There’s also another lady playing the guitar who used to be at the other corner. She decided she wanted to come in the morning and I come in the afternoon so we share this place. Oh yes, we all know each other, through busking! I perform here for three hours until three o’clock. There are some who make busking their livelihood, but not many. Like the guitarist at Novena, he does busking for a living. Of course I earn money,” he said, grinning, “but it’s mostly to relax. It’s a nice way to spend time.

The important thing is to keep fit. I haven’t been exercising as much since I started busking. Oh no, standing for three hours is no problem for me, but when I go on the MRT I fall asleep.

You can’t worry, ‘Oh my music today is not good.’ You can’t have a disruptive place to play in. Even if you think you’re bad, if you play everyday you get better. I get to play here, I enjoy myself and also earn a bit of money. But yes, the most important thing is to enjoy yourself. If you don’t enjoy yourself, no one will enjoy your music. If they don’t give money the first time they might walk by and say, ‘Hey that music is good’ and give money the next time. I’m a retired engineer, I have savings packed away so I don’t need the money. And health, health is also important. You must learn to keep fit.

In those days, a thousand dollar salary was worth more than ten thousand dollars today. Ask your daddy, he should know. We used to call it the ‘four-figure sum’. Everyone on the street would know the one with the thousand-dollar salary. If you drove a rich car the hotels would ask you to park in front of them–if not they’d chase you out! Now I enjoy myself beyond material things. I’m a busker and people ask me if I earn more and I say, yes, I earn more, but the value of money is different, you see. You shouldn’t live by loans. You shouldn’t live by installment. Even credit cards are no good; I never believed in credit cards.

I have no children; I live with my wife. Ah, no children in Singapore. They’re all grown up. You see, I’m getting glaucoma in both eyes. So I need to take eyedrops–I did it in one eye and after four hours I do it in the other eye and after two weeks it will be okay. My wife and I had cataract operations before and for two years we went to Changi Hospital and the doctors told me, ‘No you don’t have glaucoma’ and so I went to Eagle Eye and in two weeks I had a surgery. Now I can see you perfectly!

I actually go on holiday with my wife two times a year. But you don’t necessarily have a vacation when you go overseas. When you go on tours it’s so tiring–wake up early in the morning, carry your luggage, eat breakfast, travel here and there, climb the mountains…. There are a lot of mountains to climb, especially in China. We go to the more out-of-the-way places, like Guizhou and Wuhan. It’s very tiring to hike up at first but once you get to the top of the mountain you see a waterfall and think it’s worth it. The attraction is at the top.”

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