Chris Ho was interviewed in 2013 by Samuel Caleb Wee for Poskod when Wee was a freshman and doing music journalism for spare income. This was two years after the sea change of the 2011 General Elections, just as local music was beginning to break into the consciousness of mainstream Singapore consciousness. They talked politics, history, family, childhood, spirituality. Wee was in awe of Ho, whome he felt was extraordinarily kind, not the punk he had been expecting to meet, and spent the first ten minutes telling him about his mother.
Wee: You've been a longstanding critic of the incumbent government, of the establishment and the values that they represent. Do you feel validated nowadays, like everyone's finally seeing things from your point of view?
Ho: You know, I don't think the resentment being expressed now on new media is new. The only thing social media is doing now is giving a voice to Singaporeans. Before the Internet what did we have? Straits Times, the voice of Singapore? Please. Singapore has always been excessive. Do you know how many people have left this country because they couldn't take it?
Wee: That's true - with the "quitters", it's a classic problem of silent evidence, in that the people who are most frustrated with the system never stick around to speak up for it. Why is Singapore excessive though?
Ho: It's always been excessive - look at how heavy-handed the regime is with censorship and control. It happened in the past for two reasons which I talked about in my last e-book: because we are young and small. In our infancy we had no prior experience with real democratic government, so we didn't really know better about civil rights and freedom of speech. Our size also means that it's a lot easier to engineer a society. We're only an island, that's why we're so easily controlled. Look at China - even China can't truly be controlled. The Chinese know in their hearts that they are free. You can see it in the way they carry themselves: they have a sense of freedom and dignity. Singaporeans are passive-aggressive and we have no dignity. We're like the one person sitting in the corner quietly pleading, "Please, please... like me."
Wee: Singaporeans seem to be anything but passive-aggressive nowadays though... there's a lot of very real vitriol going around on the Internet.
Ho: That's right, but look closer at their sort of rebellion - it's different from what I'm usually talking about, you know? For them, bread and butter issues are the reasons for the resentment - it's still rooted in material dissatisfaction. The awful thing about Singaporeans: we're attention-deficit and depressed. Ours is the unstated cry for help.
Weee: I see what you mean. Are you familiar with Malayan sociologist Mak Lau Fong's ideas? He thinks that Singapore is unique in our inability to transcend materialism - we've got material affluence, but somehow our society still seems disinterested in post-material pursuits.
Ho: No, but that's exactly what I'm talking about. I don't buy the "As long as we're good" argument, because Singapore has no true affluence. We have the trappings of it, and we look First World, but beneath the surface our attitudes and beliefs are still very Third World you know?
Wee: You were in the band Zircon Lounge back in the 80s, and you saw the rise of the counter-cultural rock underground in the 90s. Why do you think this recent outpouring of anti-establishment sentiment hasn't corresponded with greater awareness and support of our music scene?
Ho: You have to understand what it was like. A lot of avenues were closed in the days of censorship - we wanted to be heard, but we couldn't be heard. In that time, if you were in a band, you definitely spotted long hair and bell-bottoms. There was no way to run away from that culture, and banning that sound from the radio effectively killed off the music.
Music was never really important to us, not in a social or political sense. Singapore sees it as merely a source of entertainment or for nation-building purposes. If you're asking why the local music scene isn't politically active now, that's because music in Singapore has long been divorced from political possibility and power and treated like a superficial thing.
Wee: Yeah, I think my generation doesn't really understand what the situation was like 30 or 40 years ago. How did you get started as a young man yourself - what set you on this path?
Ho: Everything was accidental! I was a drifter as a teenager. I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life. I was always drawn to music from a young age though - Rediffusion, have you heard of that?
Wee: Yes, I think so.
Ho: Okay lah, at least now you kids know. Ten years ago nobody remembered Rediffusion.
Wee: Yeah, it's just about old enough to become retro-hip.
Ho: They used to have a programme that invited listeners to air their own dedications. I remember submitting one. That was when I was still serving National Service in Music Drama Company, I think. 10 months later they called back because they needed a part-timer. That was the beginning of my deejaying career, which led into music journalism as well. I was waiting to interview Mick Jagger at the Hyatt when I bumped into a guy from the Straits Times. He invited me to write for their music section - I ended up doing that for 25 years.
Wee: What about making music yourself? How did that start?
Ho: Making music was also an accident. There used to be a record store at Lucky Plaza called Supreme Music, which I would hang out at quite a bit. I got to know one of the staff members quite well, and he told me about a guy who loved Deep Purple and had a band. That was Damien Sin, who later became a horror writer, and the band was called Transformer.
Wee: Was that a Lou Reed reference?
Yes. We never really got along musically; this was the early 80s, and he was still listening to Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen. I on the other hand was much more interested in punk rock and Patti Smith and Velvet Underground. Later on, after I fell out with Damien, I left the band and took everybody else with me. (Laughs).
We couldn't take the name though, so we changed our name to Zircon Lounge after a lyric in a song called "The Have-Nots", by L.A. punk rock band X:"At the Hi-D-Hi and the Hula Gal, Beehive Bar and the Zircon Lounge..."
Wee: It's out of print now, but a few years ago my secondary school teacher digitized that first Zircon Lounge record and emailed it to me. It sounded fascinatingly...different. The sound of that post-punk age has come back, but there was a dark and fatalistic aesthetic to that record, along with a certain romance.
Ho: Yes, Regal Vigor was a romantic punk record. We were into the whole art movement of Los Angeles and New York at the time. The recording of that album was very difficult, because none of the engineers had any idea how to record it. It was so different from what anybody else was trying at the time that we had to bring in our own snare drum, because the studio's snare drum had been filled with a cushion so it wouldn't be loud. During the recording they'd always be reluctant to jack up the guitars - we'd be coaxing them to turn it all the way up, and they'd begrudgingly inch it up just so.
They probably only did it because I was already a radio deejay at the time and there was a public face to the band. The label sent Dick Lee to co-produce it - I think they were already worried about the record and wanted to make it more palatable to mainstream tastes. Still...it wasn't a well-produced record. It sounded very dark and murky and unclear.
I was singing out of my key on quite a few songs - I only took singing lessons after that record!
Wee: That kind of added to the punk romanticism of it all, for me.
Wee: How come a record that was so blatantly counter-cultural survived the censors, though?
Ho: Probably because we weren't seen as a threat. We were the only band around at the time...the government had been that efficient in completely killing off the local music scene. I'm serious. It was ripped out by the roots. Wiped out. Do you have any idea how vibrant our music industry was in the 60s?
Wee: A little bit...I've heard stories about the Great Musical Purge.
Ho: The mid-60s was a time when you could tune in to the radio and hear 3-5 local bands playing on the radio, in the Top Ten charts. Post-independence, though, there was a rabid fear of drug culture amongst the powers that be, which is why by the 80s the scene was so bare and tightly controlled that one band popping up couldn't possibly threaten them. You can still see the effects of that even today - Singaporean culture has turned to disdain original Singaporean music or art. Even with the Internet, it's hard to fight against a culture of non-support created by decades of no interest and enthusiasm.
The government was so rabidly afraid of longhair culture. One of the many atrocities they did was the added levy imposed upon bars that hired local musicians. When we first started out, there was no Esplanade or Substation for us to play at. We used to hang around Orchard Road pubs, waiting for the musicians to get off-stage for their break. Then we would ask to play. That was it. That was the total of our live-playing opportunities.
Wee: Was there any specific event that marked the end of censorship, or was it a gradual thing?
Ho: I measure the end of censorship by Prince albums - every album by Prince was banned until his 1994 release, Come. That was the beginning of it, but the true opening up came only in 2000, with Marilyn Manson's Holy Wood. Before that, censorship was 4 pages of banned songs every one to two months from the then Ministry of Culture. It was an offence to circulate that list! That was how excessive they were in their heavy-handedness - they wanted it all hushed up so that no one would know or talk about it. You want to know how ridiculous the censorship was? They actually banned John Denver's Sunshine on My Shoulders, because of the line: "Sunshine almost always makes me high"...
Wee: They banned John Denver? He must be the least threatening musician imaginable.
Ho: Yes, but it didn't stop there. In addition to the banned list, the radio stations had their own volumes of blacklisted songs too. Magazines were banned as well - NME was banned because of the gay classifieds. Parallel importers were the ones who brought in the harder-to-find stuff, but because they wouldn't be informed of the bans they used to have to send boxes of records back at the ports. The only way to access banned songs at the time were through BBC World Service. And Rediffusion, of course. You've never heard about any of this, have you?
Wee: I always knew it was bad, I guess, but never how much.
Ho: It's really like that Alfian (Sa'at) poetry collection - A History of Amnesia. It's all swept under the carpet; everything else outside the official narrative becomes whitewashed. Did you know that back in the early 80s we couldn't even use the word disco? It was evocative of western decadence, and any form of Americanism wasn't allowed.
Wee: That's a far cry from today, when radio deejays are regularly criticized for being too American.
Ho: Yeah. (Gleefully) I'll tell you exactly what changed the game - the Gulf War. We took the Gulf War news from CNN, and all of a sudden there were American voices on the television. Afterwards there was no putting the genie back in the bottle.
With radio, too, it used to be that even having a 24/7 music station was unthinkable. Radio 1 at the time was 70% news, 30% music.The Radio Batam broadcasting in 1988 changed all of that - Zoo Station (FM 101.6) gave Singaporeans the modern American music station format. Everyone began listening to that and the sponsors decided to stop buying ad time. That was the reason why they started Class 95 and Perfect 10.
Wee: You seem to be predominantly fixated on sociopolitical issues now, as compared to early on in your career when the music was mostly personal. At what point exactly did you find that awareness - or is there no distinction between the two for you?
Ho: Probably around the time I released (second solo album) PunkMonkHunk, I guess...1993. That put me on the path to talking about Singapore, and it was very different from the rest of the stuff that came before. But the one I was really afraid for was the spoken word record I released with Big O (1999, X' with an X). That was a lot more in your face. I did a reading of Alfian's poem (Singapore You Are Not My Country) on that one and the first take was very angry, close to screaming. I held back a lot for the second take. I'm very proud of it. I'm also very proud of the one I released four years ago in 2009, No Ordinary Country - I maintain that that's the first protest-folk album in Singapore. I went to see the lawyers for that one, just to make sure I wouldn't be sued.
I guess I'm writing so much about Singapore now instead of personal confessional stuff because it's the stuff I feel most strongly about.
Wee: Ah, so your love life must be happily settled then...
Ho: No lah, it's still very much a problem! But when I was recording that album - Zircon Lounge's Regal Vigor - I'd just left home and broken away. That record is about breaking away, because I had nothing - absolutely nothing. I was renting a room from some of my friends. I remember my friend looking at me and saying: "Chris, you jin cham leh."
Wee: What happened that led to you leaving home?
Ho: Oh, I'll have to go into my entire life story and family background...
Wee: We have time, if you're willing to talk about it.
Ho: Basically... There was an unhappy incident, with my grandmother and mother fighting over me. I come from a broken family because I was born illegitimate. My stepfather was a useless rich Hong Kong banker who didn't like the idea of having an illegitimate stepson, so I wasn't allowed in the family. Instead I was raised as my grandmother's son - my mother's brother. I was fine until he retired and my mother wanted to make up for lost time, so my grandmother and mother had a fight over me.
It was hell, growing up in a conservative Cantonese family. I used to be a very unhappy child - in the past, I would ask myself daily: "Am I happy?" And if I hadn't been beaten or scolded the answer would be yes, but I'd always tell myself: "Well, tomorrow you'll get it." It was a very negative mindset that I had - my nickname during my national service days was Morbidity.
Leaving home allowed me to find myself and heal myself. If I had stayed it would have been bad - my whole life was kind of mapped out for me, because my grandmother had this very old Chinese mentality that my mission in life was to help her, and she raised me that way. If I hadn't left home to heal myself and find Buddhism, I would probably have stayed in that life.
Wee: You seem to have found a spiritual center for yourself now. What was that journey like?
Ho: I was born with a heart problem. As a child I was falling sick every other week, so I couldn't be too happy or too sad. Is that a metaphor for Singapore? Maybe. Miraculously, it stopped when I was brought to the temple and given up to Buddha.
Buddhism is very important to me. It's allowed me to heal emotionally and spiritually. There's definitely still some resentment left over from that time, because I was very suppressed in that conservative Chinese family and my grandmother used to abuse me like she did my mother. She used to say I was lucky to be a boy, because my mother had it much worse. My mother... Has had a very sad life. I'm glad I left home and healed when I did. If I had stayed at home and continued living with her, most likely I would never have been able to connect with her. We have a very good relationship now. I honestly do believe that it's my destiny in life to take care of her.
Funny thing: Many years later, I was in Thailand for a shopping trip - it's one of my most Singaporean characteristics. While walking around the streets at night, I heard prayers being chanted. I followed the sound of the chanting and found myself in a mass congregation, and I just felt a powerful sense of spiritual connection. Later I would find out that this was the same Buddha I was given up to years ago.
But anyway, now you know my life story. That's why I'm naturally drawn to sad music I guess. I'm a big crybaby at movies - I even cried at Julie and Julia and House of Flying Daggers.
Wee: So what are you working on nowadays - any plans for a new record?
Ho: Yes, I'm currently working on a very dark and industrial-sounding record with Leslie Low and Vivian Wang from The Observatory, who work together as ARCNTEMPL - that's spelt with all caps, I think. It talks about some issues concerning Singapore, but on the whole it's a much more universal record. It's going to be called Lucifugous. That's Latin for preventing light.
Wee: That's interesting...that's the etymological opposite of Lucifer, which means Light-Bringer in Latin.
No way! That changes everything.
Ho: We're planning to have the album out in August by the way, the same month I'm revamping my website www.xhosux.com. Remember to mention that in your article!
This article was archived by Roy Tan.