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Friday, August 12, 2005


Memoirs of a Busker - Episode 1

In view of the recent drought in blog-worthy experiences, I've decided to put up this piece of writing I did way back in my first year of undergraduate studies. Re-reading it a few years later, some parts really made me cringe ("Did I really write that?") while some brought back great memories. It's not the best of narrative writing (remember, this was just slightly after 2.5 years in the military) but in order to preserve the original spirit, it will be left untouched and may contain some sentences in Singlish (our colloquial version of English), but should otherwise be comprehendible for the most part. I'll be putting it up in parts, so watch this page.

Alright, here goes.

Memoirs of a busker

Time: Vacation period between 1st and 2nd year of undergrad studies at NUS

It all started innocently enough. My vacation period was 1 week old and I was racking my brains trying to decide how to while away my 3 months of free time. Job openings were dismal apart from telemarketing (urgh) and some dodgy looking ads which went “Earn easy money! No experience required! Work from home! Call 6******* for enquiries.” In my mind I pictured the guy picking up the phone on the other end somewhere in a dark, dank, cluttered “office” in the middle of a seedy district saying “HAH? You looking for who? Orrrhhhh job ah? You come my office I tell you more…aiyah don’t ask so much lah you come down you will know one!”

If I wanted to get ripped off and serve as slave labour I’d go right back into the army, thank you very much.

Overseas trips were out of the question ($$$ - what else?). So what was a hot-blooded young man full of boundless creative energy (Hah! Got you there didn’t I?) to do for 3 months?

A Wednesday night found me at my grandmother’s place having dinner with some relatives who asked about my holiday. Upon replying politely that I was still looking for a job, one of my more jovial and outspoken uncles interjected in half-jest; “Eh since you can play guitar why not you go out and be busker?”

The rational, law-abiding NUS undergraduate in me, having been taught to toe the line and stay out of trouble since Day 1 in this huge indoctrination machine we know as The Singapore Education System, responded almost instantaneously, not unlike a reflex action; “Aiyah like that sure kena caught by police one! Want to apply license damn troublesome one…”

This time my uncle responded in full-jest; “Eh young man, like that do things then more exciting mah! Do things don’t let police catch got more kick what!”

My uncle had no idea what seeds he had just planted.

That night after dinner I mulled over what my uncle said. I started asking myself “Why should I?” and after a while I strayed towards “Why not?” I’d always wondered what life would be like as a vagabond traveler with nothing more than his guitar, a well-worn hat smelling of loose change and the shirt on his back (for those of you who know your blues just think Lightning Hopkins). And don’t forget the tacky shades. After all, I’ve slept in the streets before (I’ll tell you about it if you ask me) and I’ve done my time with a donation tin in my hands. Busking just seemed like a natural progression. Illegally at that.

“Like that do things then more exciting mah!”

Those words rang through my head and it was decided that very night. Illegal busking it shall be then. I had no intention of going through all the hassle of applying for a license and going for audition and all that crap. I steeled my resolve and decided to just grab my old Rossini guitar and head down to the first suitable location.

The First Day – Part 1

As I prepared to leave home, I picked the most grubby looking T-shirt I had paired with a worn-out pair of jeans along with my $2 Bata slippers (Those of you who’ve seen me in school won’t need much imagination). I also dusted off a black jungle hat which I’d bought a long time ago for some expedition. In the process this question crossed my mind; “Am I so ashamed to be seen playing for loose change in public that I have to wear a hat to cover my face?”

After pondering this silly question I realised that most of the people I know would recognise me with the hat anyway. Just part of the image I suppose. Later on I was to find out a better use for the hat (No it’s not for collecting the coins).

I boarded the train to City Hall and took the underground link to my intended destination: Esplanade underpass. The one that connects Citilink Mall to the Esplanade carpark and has ridiculous artsy pictures of people’s faces covered with food and what-not. It was a right-angled underpass so I situated myself right at the corner, where I could be heard and seen by people coming from both sides.

I left my guitar case open and started playing some slide blues in G. Just started off with a shuffle and added in licks as and when I felt like it. Kind of like what I’d do when I’m just noodling around at home, except that home isn’t an underpass.

Almost immediately something interesting occurred. A tall, fair plump guy who looked like a China tourist was admiring the weird pictures hanging on the wall and when I started playing, he sat down cross-legged towards my right. I noticed him from the corner of my eye under the brim of my hat but did not make full eye contact with him then, thinking that he was just waiting for someone. I just kept on playing and when I finally ended the tune, he stood up and clapped, saying “Bravo!” and walked off. I looked up at him, pinched the front brim of my hat in a sort of acknowledging manner and replied “Thank you.”

Gee that felt…weird. In a good way I suppose. Clearly he liked what I was doing and I was grateful for that. This marked a good beginning to my busking endeavors. Strangely however, he didn’t drop any coins. Oh well maybe next time. Maybe I was expecting too much for a first time busking session.

Anyway I continued playing and the rest of the crowd that followed was non-descript. The typical Shenton Way “I drive a BMW what are you driving?” yuppie types came and went, so did the lovey-dovey couples (I was to see a lot more of those in the remaining sessions) as well as the loud and exuberant secondary school students yakking and yakking away. A few old-timers passed me by too without letting my presence bother them. The only ones who showed any interest or curiosity in me were the bright-eyed little toddlers who were walking hand in hand with their mums, who seemingly quickened their pace upon noticing that their little one’s eyes had fallen on me. There weren’t too many people, maybe 1 of the above every 2 minutes or so. None of them dropped any cash.

I chuckled to myself at the irony of it all. In just a matter of minutes I’d seen the kind of life cycle that just about everyone else would be going through: Curious toddler who’s easily fascinated grows up into a student who then puts the innocence aside and learns how to score in exams, eventually getting a good job in an office and earning big bucks to fulfil his materialistic yearnings. Before he knows it he’s a retiree and soon enough he’s got to put on his best suit for the last time before they close the lid. (Depending on your religious beliefs he may come back again as a toddler or some other form of life.)

I was in the middle of my third song and had played for barely 15 minutes when a disarmingly friendly voice interrupted me; “Excuse me?”

I looked up and saw a security guard smiling at me like the guy on the Darlie toothpaste tube. Standing close by was a uniformed police officer staring me down with his best impersonation of good-ol’ Arnie. Seems like Mr Darlie decided to bring the Terminator along “just in case”. At that moment a chill shot down my spine (again for those of you who know your blues it’s kinda like that “lowdown shakin’ chill”).

I thought to myself, hoping that he’d somehow receive my thoughts telepathically; “Please don’t ask for my license.”

“Sorry ah you’re not allowed to play here. Don’t mind play somewhere further up can?” he continued, motioning towards Citilink Mall with his Maglite. Not forgetting the Mr Darlie Smile.

Understandably I was happy to oblige him. After shooting a glance at The Terminator, I packed up all my stuff with the 2 of them staying around to make sure that I didn’t linger. In fact, as I walked down the passageway they followed rather closely behind. Probably to make sure too I guess. They finally left me alone when I reached the escalator down to Citilink Mall. At this point of time I asked myself; “Why in the world am I doing this? I could have been jeopardizing my university education or *gasp* my FUTURE!!! How would a criminal record for illegal busking look on my resume? “ On hindsight of course all this proved to be absolutely ridiculous.

It didn’t take long for the irrational side of me to reply “Like that do things then more exciting mah!” Yeah man. It’s just for the kicks. Just for the kicks. I walked on towards the MRT to go to the next destination I had in mind (I do plan for contingencies sometimes yah?)

To be continued.....

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