People have longed complained of the stagnation of the local arts scene in all its inorganic lack of spontaneity and public inaccessibility. Few remember that a generation ago, half of the National Theatre was built by public donations at the height of the zeitgeist of early nation building, now looked upon with effete nostalgia.
The arts nevertheless continues to flourish among the highbrow art community and quietly among the elderly.
It is 9pm and the Mei Chin Hawker Centre, the languid heart of the ageing Queenstown estate (which even has road signs warning motorists of elderly pedestrians), is in shuttered darkness. Hidden at the secluded backend of the hawker centre where the Taoist joss paper stall plies its quiet octogenarian trade, a group of four old men are having a get-together.
The distant guitar riffs led me to their little performance venue – a hawker stall used for storage in the day and a hobby garage band venue at night. They struggled for a while connecting wiring, finding the missing cymbal, tuning their guitars, and finally started off with a few oldie Mandarin-pop in xinyao style while sitting in a circle.
They were (from what I understand with my horrid grasp of Hokkien) primary school friends who recently picked up music as a hobby. And they were indeed pretty damn good for self-taught hobbyist (consistently stopping to correct their pitch and tempo) and pretty damn gutsy to set up instruments and even a dedicated venue for jamming and practicing.
Initially apprehensive to my presence (being the only sole audience at that point of time), they slowly warmed to me, asking me which block I stayed and if I had any song requests. A few more people walked by and stopped to spectate. Two ladies from Nanjing staying at block 154 joined in offering to sing Teresa Teng songs. I supplied the lyrics on my phone. An argument ensued as to whether the Teresa Teng lyrics for What Do You Have To Say? was “I have forgotten you again…” or “I have not forgotten you…”. The argument was settled with a quick google search on my phone.
“I’ve been staying at block 161 for about two weeks. It’s the first time I’ve gone home by this path.” An ang moh expat among the small audience chatted with me. “I guess I’ll be going home by this path more often from now on.”
I haven’t had such an amusing Friday evening in a while.