June 15, 2009
the monday interview with SK Poon
Veteran singer records her legacy in a biography and will perform her first solo gig in four years
By andy chen
In a three-room HDB flat in Toa Payoh lives SK Poon, one of Singapore's earliest superstar singers, who is to Stefanie Sun what Aretha Franklin is to Beyonce.
She belongs in the Chinese-language pop music hall of fame alongside the likes of Teresa Teng. In her heyday, during the 1960s and 1970s, she indeed ranked up there with the likes of Teng, who was her good friend.
Yet, instead of a swish condominium apartment or bungalow, she lives in a neat and simply furnished flat along a common corridor. And this is where she invites Life! to interview her.
Her flat, in which she has lived since 1970, stands out because it is completely sealed off so no passer-by can peer inside. The way the door and windows are covered with boards and opaque film is exactly how one would expect a celebrity to ward off intrusions into her privacy.
You could read this apparent paradox of a common home and an uncommon need for privacy as being emblematic of how Poon, whose initials stand for Sow Keng and who is better known by her Mandarin name Pan Xiuqiong, views herself.
On the one hand, she says: 'My life is simple. I don't see myself as a celebrity or a famous singer. I am just someone who loves to sing. Some people will remark, 'Wah, a famous singer.' And I will go, 'Huh? Where?'
'I've never thought of moving. I like this place and find it very convenient. Anyway, I've lived in bigger places in Bukit Timah and Sennett Estate, which I bought, before my family moved here. My mother kind of lost all of those places. I don't know what she did, but we had to sell them and eventually move here.'
On the other hand, she knows the life she has lived is far from ordinary, outstanding enough, in fact, to warrant a biography (her home is sealed up mostly to keep out dirt and dust, not as a celeb's affectation).
The book, Forget Me Not, to be published in Chinese by Global Music & Publishing with an initial run of 3,000 copies, will be launched next month. It was Poon's idea to publish the book.
Communications company owner Keith Sim, 34, who is her friend and the organiser of most of her concerts in the last decade, is the owner of Global Music & Publishing.
He says: 'She says she's led a very interesting life, with so many things to tell that many people do not know about.'
A concert of the same name follows on Aug 10 at Suntec City, her first solo gig in four years. The title of the biography and concert came from Poon, whom Singapore's former president, the late Ong Teng Cheong, called a guo bao or national treasure.
She says: 'There's this story I've heard about a tiny flower from a big garden of flowers who goes to God and says, 'Sorry, but I have forgotten my name.'
'And God says to the flower, 'You can forget everything but Forget Me Not.' Which is the name of the flower. So based on this story, I told Keith to name this concert Forget Me Not. It's to remind people not to forget me.'
She is not being egotistical, the way some celebrities might be. In fact, when Taiwanese star Jay Chou mistakenly said last year that her signature tune Lover's Tears was sung originally by Yao Su Rong, another singer from the same era, she chose not to correct his error.
'She felt it was not necessary,' says Mr Sim, who had offered to help her issue a statement to the press. 'Firstly, Yao Su Rong is her friend. Also, she said that Jay is young and may be ignorant of older things, so why quibble with him?'
For the record, Lover's Tears is Poon's tune, the way My Way is Frank Sinatra's. Mention her name to anyone in their 50s and 60s who listens to Chinese pop and he will probably hum a few notes of Lover's Tears.
That said, the song is but one of more than 100 hits she originally sang. She has recorded at least as many full-length albums, she says, though she has lost count of the exact number.
The time-worn tapes and CDs, posters, trophies, photographs and assorted paraphernalia that she keeps in a room that doubles as a singing studio, span the 1950s to 1990s. Together, they bear testimony to her half-century-long career.
Some of Taiwanese stars Fei Yu Ching and Tsai Chin's most popular songs were originally performed by her.
She says: 'For as long as I have been singing, people have said all kinds of things, speculating about my life.
'Some say I was from Kuala Lumpur, some say I was from Penang. This book will make things clear once and for all.'
Her memory is still robust, except for dates, of which she is vague, maybe deliberately. While she is coy about her age, past media reports would place her in her 70s now.
Among other things the book will clarify: She was born in Macau to a barber father and housewife mum, the youngest of five children, until the family relocated when she was about five to Kuala Lumpur in search of a better life. Two sisters and a brother were subsequently born there.
At eight, she came in second in a children's singing contest. Four years later, she became her family's breadwinner.
The singer, who never studied music formally, says: 'I was supporting my family ever since I started making $40 a month singing in nightclubs at the age of 12. Everything I earned, I gave to my parents. Eventually, my father stopped working because he was, well, a little lazy.'
During the day, she went to school. At night, she sang for a living. She was not forced to do so by pushy parents. The passion and will to sing was entirely hers. And the talent, too.
'I fell in love with singing from the first time I picked up a microphone. From young, I could sing any song after you played it for me just once. I might not remember all the lyrics immediately but I could remember the tune almost instantly,' she says.
Her talent is undimmed even now, according to her niece Judy Tay, a professional classical musician who also teaches music.
'When I perform with my aunt in churches, I just do what she tells me to,' says the violin and viola player, who is the daughter of Poon's eldest sister. 'Sometimes when she listens to me perform from the audience, she will tell me afterwards that my tone was off at some parts. She has perfect pitch.'
From a young age, Poon's gift was allied with a strong will. She allowed nothing and no one to stand in her way of singing. 'My school principal kept warning me not to sing at getai because he wanted his students to focus on their studies. But I couldn't be bothered to listen to him. Finally, I told my parents I'd rather leave the school than stop singing,' she says with a laugh.
In her still-girlish laughter, one can detect traces of the youthful impudence that must have marked her decision to quit school in favour of private tutors so that she could singing professionally without interference.
At 16, she became a recording artist for music label EMI. Her mother had to sign the contract on her behalf since she was a minor. Every decision, however, was made by the precocious teen.
'They wanted to negotiate terms with my mother but I said no because she didn't know about these things. I said I would negotiate my own terms,' says Poon, who is still collecting royalties twice yearly more than five decades later.
While she declines to reveal figures, Mr Sim says: 'I was told by Hong Kong singers from her era that the royalties they get in a year are enough for them to live on if they lead a simple life. Which means it would work out to at least a thousand-plus dollars a month.'
Around the same time she signed her first recording contract, Poon moved with her mother to Singapore, which was a more lucrative place for singers. What she earned at clubs here in two weeks was equal to two months' salary in Malaysia. Using Singapore as her base, she shuttled to and from Hong Kong and Malaysia. In the 1980s, she took up Singapore citizenship.
Eventually, she became one of the biggest stars in the Chinese pop world in the 1960s and 1970s, her exemplary control of the low notes earning her the title of Queen of Bass, even though she has a three-octave range. In her heyday, she drove a Triumph sports car and rubbed shoulders with celebrity friends such as Teng and Lydia Sum.
Except for about six years in the 1980s when she worked as a full-time vocal coach at the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, she never held a job apart from singing. There was no back-up plan.
'Ever since I was young, I told myself I would never give up singing. Only if you work hard at something and not give up will you produce a result. If you just dabble in a few things every now and then, you would end up with nothing.'
She did not even waver when she had to undergo brain surgery in Hong Kong in the 1970s to remove a tumour which turned out, fortunately, to be benign.
'I was not afraid at all. The thought of death never once crossed my mind. I told the doctor to give me a week's medication for the headaches. I said I wanted to have a holiday in Japan before going for the operation.
'The first person to visit me after the operation was Fei Fei (Sum's nickname). When she saw me, my whole face was crooked from the swelling. So she exclaimed, 'Oh my goodness, SK's face is like a rotten tomato!' That's the way she was - straightforward. But I was not afraid, despite losing my sight for two weeks after the operation.'
If she brushed off this close shave with death rather quickly, she had to tough out another low point in her life for a longer period of time before the operation. For 10 years, she suffered a marriage she knew was a mistake almost as soon as she tied the knot.
She recalls: 'I got married at 28 because I felt like it was about time I did or else I would be rather old by the time I became a mother. My family objected because he was a divorcee with kids. He was older than me by five, six years. He's a Malaysian and was a police inspector.
'But I am very stubborn. If I want to do something, I will do it, regardless of what others say. Not long after the marriage, I started regretting it. But I didn't dare tell my family about it. So I persevered for 10 years before getting a divorce. My son was eight at the time.'
This is all she will say about this part of her life. Even in her book, Mr Sim says, her marriage and divorce are subjects she would rather forget.
She also keenly protects her son's privacy, not even revealing his name. She says only that he is a bachelor, the chief executive of a financial firm and lives in an apartment in Pasir Panjang by himself.
'He has been asking me to move in with him. But I don't want to. This is my haven,' says Poon. 'I don't even want to employ a full-time maid. So I just have someone come in three times a week to clean up the flat.'
While she loves her independence, she also loves her family dearly. Ms Tay says: 'She was always generous with her time and money with the family. Even now, she will buy me bags, shoes and clothes.'
Poon's son and Ms Tay check in on her by telephone or in person every few days. At the moment, they have little to worry about. She is still active and mobile and has her wits about her.
She can even take a dig at King of Mumbles Jay Chou: 'I admire his musical talent... But I don't know what he is singing about. He doesn't even open his mouth when he talks.'
Her upcoming solo concert does not worry her in the least. She has more than enough stamina, she says, since she has been performing in churches regularly.
'When I was a guest at Qing Shan's concert a few years back, I performed only two or three songs. Just as I was enjoying myself, my performance was over.' she says with a laugh. 'Just for friendship, it's okay. Otherwise, I would never stop at two or three songs. Cannot. I never feel tired when I am singing.'
There is another reason the concert is called Forget Me Not - she may not hold another solo concert again.
'Yes, I am still very healthy but I spend most of my time doing my work in churches,' says Poon, who became a Christian 22 years ago.
'I've told God I am prepared to leave this world at any time. That's why I am so happy. I don't fret about how much longer I have to live. Every performance that I have now, I am prepared that it may be my last.'
SK Poon's biography, Forget Me Not, will be in stores next month. The price has not been confirmed.
my life so far
'In my heart she's still alive. I never think of her as being dead. We had the best of times when we were both in Tokyo in the mid-1970s.
Poon (second from left) at a press conference in the 1970s, where she was named one of the top 10 singers in the region. On her left is Teresa Teng.
I was there to study fashion and she was there to break into the Japanese market. Teresa and I spent almost every weekend together. I would cook curry for her at my place and she would take me out to restaurants to have big feasts'
SK Poon on the late Teresa Teng, who was her best friend in showbiz
'As long as I don't owe anyone money and I don't need to borrow from anyone, I am more than satisfied. If I have $100, I will spend $50 and save the rest'
On her simple life
'Teaching someone to sing is more tiring than singing. Some people who attend my lessons think music will flow out of their mouths the moment they open them. I lose a lot of brain cells teaching a class'
On her students, whom she still coaches privately at home