Koh Yi Na / With contribution from Teng Jingwei
Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On these three days, Mr Loh Hak Seet, 75, sits at the junction of Orchard Road and Bideford Road from morning to night, playing his harmonica as shoppers hurry across the road from Ngee Ann City to The Paragon.
This has become a common sight in Orchard Road: elderly ice cream sellers and buskers juxtaposed against the backdrop of glitzy international fashion boutiques, peddling their goods and services for a few dollars – or whatever change passersby can spare – while busy consumers splurge hundreds on their purchases.
Dressed in a red t-shirt and khaki shorts, Mr Loh was taking a break when The Online Citizen approached him. “The birds,” he explains in chinese, “people can’t hear my music over them.” He is referring to the cacophony of noise from the birds as they returned to their nests in the evening.
Mr Loh lost most of his right leg to diabetes. For the past three years, he has been busking at Orchard Road, earning $600 to $800 a month. “There’s no fixed income”, he said. “On good days I get $150, but some days I can only get $30. Life is tough, but what else can I do?”
Before he started busking at Orchard Road, Mr Loh used to perform outside Causeway Point. “I used to play there because it was near my house. Then the SMRT people kept complaining to the police, so I had to move.” Now he commutes from Woodlands to Orchard by long train rides on the MRT.
Mr Loh has a license from the National Arts Council to perform, but he admits that the process is inconvenient. The license has to be renewed, and each time he re-applies, he has to sit for a test to ensure that his skills are up to the mark.
Mr Loh maintains a cheerful disposition by taking pride in his work. “I play the harmonica well,” he told us, whipping his harmonica out of his waist pouch for a quick demonstration. “Also, I enjoy myself when I’m playing. That’s why people are willing to give me money. Just now, this woman came and asked for a song, then she gave me 20 000 rupiah. Some of the other buskers can barely play; they’re out to cheat you. But I’m good at what I do.” He says with a smile.
Married with a daughter, Mr Loh’s monthly income is barely enough to support both his dependents. His wife does not work. “She’s old, and she has problems getting around because of her bad leg,” he says. Neither does his daughter, who is studying in a local university. “I don’t expect her to work or give me any money. Whatever she earns won’t even be enough for her, much less me... We shouldn’t rely on the next generation. They need money to get married and start their own families.”
When we asked about social welfare programmes offered by the Community Development Councils (CDC), Mr Loh shook his head. While he used to receive $300 a month in the past, this has since been reduced to $100 after he received his performance license. “The secretary from CDC reviewed my case,” he said. “She asked me why my daughter wasn’t contributing to the household income, and I asked her, ‘Miss, do you give money to your parents?’ She didn’t have anything to say to that.”
“In the past, families used to live together – the grandparents, parents, children. It was easier to get by,” he reminisces. “But the world has changed, and it’s a lot more expensive now. The people at the CDC say there are a lot of families who require assistance, so they can’t give us any more money.”
It is clear, however, that despite his frustration towards the lack of financial help he is receiving, Mr Loh is fiercely patriotic. When he told us about his days of driving a tour bus, he grew increasingly animated, speaking of the envy that tourists from less developed countries expressed towards the convenience and efficiency of Singapore.
“Here, you can wake up in the middle of the night, walk for a few minutes, and you’ll find a shop or hawker centre open. For these people, they might be rich, but they have nowhere to go,” he says. “So in this aspect, Singapore is better.”
He is on the streets seven to eight hours everyday, starting from 4pm. “Now prices [for cardboards] aren’t that good,” he explains. “And when it rains, I cannot collect them.” Thus he also collects drink cans to supplement his income. He ends his day at 11pm and takes a taxi home. “It costs about fifteen dollars for the trip to and from my house,” he says. We guess that he takes the taxi because he has to bring his trolley along. Our curious eyes spot a bunch of keys hanging from his belt. They’re for locking up his trolley at night, we later learned. He hopes to sell it, because it is rusty and rickety, for four or five dollars and get a new one. It will make pushing it easier, he says. That would be a great help under such scorching conditions during the day.
Turning somewhat sombre, however, Uncle laments that key making is a dying trade in Singapore. The keys produced nowadays with sophisticated technology makes it difficult for traditional key makers to reproduce.
“Some keys are made so delicate and complicated, I can’t produce them with my old machine,” Uncle bellows, adding that “it would also be too expensive to pay for the materials and machines required” if he wanted to keep up with the times.
Uncle Fortune worked as a volunteer in a Thai temple in his younger days. It was there that he learnt the ways of the Buddha from the monks. And evidently, he holds the teachings close to his heart. “Everyone changes as time goes by, so does the world,” he says. “Just live simply.” He still visits the temple about two or three times a week.
In his 30 years as a fortune teller, he has seen people from all walks of life. His customers range from a police officer complaining about his superior at work, to a person dying of cancer.