Talk isn’t cheap, says Mr. Lai Guo Quan, a sixty year-old gung-ho chap who traipses around the Old Airport Road, armed with his street performance props. Mr. Lai will have you know that his ingenuity and fame spans across borders and the media – newspaper articles to a “funny Singapore man” YouTube video with nearly a hundred and fifty-thousand views.
Certainly, he’s more than just a bag of old tricks. Spinning umbrellas on pens, performing sleight-of-hand tricks with household items, mimicking sounds from cars to hens, he’s nothing less than resourceful. A look into his two-room flat shows how much he hoards. His abode is an eclectic time warp, belated celebrations in a dim room with yellowing walls. National Day Parade flags and paraphernalia from the ‘90s adorn the walls and a display cabinet.
In spite of financial constraints, Mr. Lai is no geriatric bent on having life-long grumps. Instead, he has managed to bring back props from the past, and repackage them as part of a novel nostalgia which people are willing to pay for. Using his previous expertise as a noodle-seller, he puts to good use a 1998 NDP freebie as sponsored by Myojo Mee – a curved piece of wood noodle-sellers in the ‘50s used to hit on rhythmically to herald their arrival. What others see as mere nationalistic gimcracks, he uses to call out to the public, attracting curious audiences willing to fork out some money just to hear the consumer songs of the past, in the present.
“There are specific rhythms for different sorts of noodle dishes”, he informs us in Mandarin. Wanton noodles have a flatter sound to it. Fishball noodles and prawn noodles recall a faster and more resonant rhythm.
Everything can be re-used. If he has a performer’s costume, it’s the zany and cartoony ties he dons that are actually hand-me-downs from the neighbours.
To support himself, he also makes metal hooks for hanging items and fashions broom pans out of empty oil drums, selling one for $3. Knocking away on his instrument of choice, he makes his rounds about the shops, sounding out those who want to buy a broom pan or two.
Lest he seem like a run-down character, there is actually a hint of diva-esque behavior in this long-time performer on the streets. “I’m going to Chinatown today. Someone has asked me to perform there,” he declares proudly.
But familiarity breeds contempt. There are those who are only too glad to mute this daily salesman of aural nostalgia. For the neighbouring residents and the hawkers of the food centres Mr. Lai frequents, the daily ringing of a wooden instrument is more noise than music.
Yet, he insists otherwise. “People say it’s like hearing old songs, and they ask me to play for them.”
With that, he goes on his way to his next stage, ‘tok-ing’ away to the streets.
Words Vicki Yang
Images & Video Vicki Yang & Shawn Tan
Special thanks to Roger Neo & Tung Ling Community Services.