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Tue, May 27, 2014
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Bonding through album
by Seow Bei Yi

When aspiring singer Tan Ying Hao first performed for his mother the Hokkien songs that he would record for his self-released album, Madam Ong Siok Huay did not understand him because of his funny-sounding "accent".

"I didn't know what he was singing and told him to show me the lyrics," says Madam Ong 62, who works part-time at a wet market vegetable stall.

"Sometimes, he uses the wrong words or pronunciation, changing the meaning completely."

But she says he has improved a lot since he first tried singing in Hokkien three to four years ago.

Earlier this month, Ying Hao, 23, released his first album, Black Panther, which cost about $25,000 of his own money to produce. Four of the nine tracks on the album are sung in Hokkien. His first recordings started as projects during his Music and Audio Technology diploma course at Singapore Polytechnic.

Ying Hao, a self-taught musician, would ask his mother for help to translate some of the lyrics that he had written in Mandarin. He rephrased them sometimes on her advice.

While he and his older sister, invoice processor Yvonne Tan, 25, have always been able to understand the dialect as their mother and father, taxi driver Tan Kian Seng, 59, speak it at home, this is the first time he tried to study the words.

"I didn't speak much Hokkien as a child, but it was spoken among the elderly at home," says Ying Hao, who will be pursuing an Arts Management degree at Lasalle College of the Arts.

Looking back, Madam Ong regrets encouraging her children to speak only English and Mandarin for it has resulted in a communication barrier between them and their dialect-speaking grandparents. Ying Hao plans to improve his Hokkien and hopes that his mother will to teach it to his children in the future.

"I'll do my part to expose them to it frequently and play them my songs," he says.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to study music-related courses?

Madam Ong: My husband and I had hoped that he would study something more down-to-earth. We wanted him to be an accountant or engineer, but he was reluctant. I discussed it with my husband, who thought studying music was a good idea.

Ying Hao: My dad is more easy-going and willing to let us take risks. Being a full-time performer in Singapore is not easy, so I'm taking it one step at a time. Knowledge of the field will be helpful to my music career in the long run.

How important is dialect to you?

Ying Hao: It's a part of my identity.

Madam Ong: Dialect is important to our family. His grandmother speaks in Hokkien but he couldn't really understand her when he was younger, so she put in the effort to learn Mandarin. He tries his best, but sometimes he cannot find the right words in dialect.

Ying Hao: The moment I struggle, my grandparents will switch to Mandarin.

Madam Ong: His dad communicates with him more now that he can speak in Hokkien.

Ying Hao: I am closer to my mother as my dad works full-time and I spend more time with her.

What kind of child was Ying Hao?

Madam Ong: He was cheeky and energetic. His childcare teacher told me he was hyperactive. Before nap time, he would take storybooks and hide them. The moment their teacher turned off the lights and left them to rest, he woke everyone up to read together.

Ying Hao: In primary school, I used to throw eraser dirt at the person seated in front of me, just to see how long it would take him to realise it.

Madam Ong: When he was younger, I got to know his teachers very well.

What kind of trouble did he get into?

Ying Hao: I remember when I was around five, I was hit by my dad. We had a food fight in kindergarten.

Madam Ong: Food is for eating, not playing, his dad said after hitting him. There was another instance when he took someone's toy. When his dad saw it at home, he was beaten. But his father would always explain the reason behind the beating. If he got hit, his elder sister would also be beaten.

Yvonne: There were a few times that I felt I didn't deserve the punishment, but usually, we'd just end up crying together. Maybe our father just wanted to teach both of us at the same time.

Madam Ong: They would remind each other not to make mistakes. They're very close.

Ying Hao: I'm closest to my sister.

Madam Ong: I'm less worried when they are together because they will watch out for each other.

How close are you to your sister?

Ying Hao: We talk about anything and everything, even now.

Yvonne: I can share with him things that I won't tell our parents, including relationship issues.

Was he a rebellious teenager?

Madam Ong: I think so. When he was in Secondary 1 or 2, he kept to himself and I was worried. He was always playing games, or dabbling in music. As a teenager, he had many aspirations like wanting to be an athlete. I told him he should settle on one thing and work towards it or he would end up with nothing.

Ying Hao: I turned to music and started a band with my friends.

What would you do differently if the parent- child roles were reversed?

Madam Ong: If I were him, I would explain properly to my parents why I wanted to study music to set their minds at ease. He was too quiet back then and often stayed back late in school to work on projects. I wouldn't have been so worried if he explained himself.

Ying Hao: I would have sent my children to music lessons to learn music theory and make them sleep earlier. When I was in primary and secondary school, I used to sleep around midnight. I would stay up to play games or watch television. Recently, I read an article that said sleep is very important to a child's development. I think if I'd slept more, I would be healthier and more alert.

This article was first published on May 25, 2014.
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