David Bowie’s reflection on 1983 Singapore visit

Visionary British rock star, David Bowie passed away peacefully on Monday (11 January 2016) surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer, with fans and supporters all over the world mourning over the loss of the pop icon.

For many, they would have been aware of the performance that Bowie had performed in Singapore at the old Singapore Indoor Stadium on March 4, 2004. But did you know that David Bowie was here in Singapore for his World Tour performance, “Serious Moonlight” all the way back in 1983?

How his first concert in Singapore went 

Bowie in his recollection, recall how the Singapore authorities were not friendly to rock & roll. Two of his songs, “China Girl” and “Modern Love”, were banned from radio play. The authorities had labelled them as “Restricted”.

The organiser of his first concert in Singapore, Dr Goh Poh Seng had difficulties in stringing up the staging and lights for the concert.

When Dr Goh asked for three yards of cable from a local supplier, would only sell him a 100-yard drum, knowing it was for rock & roll. No one would lease Dr Goh, timber for the stage, so he ended up buying an architect-designed permanent structure at ten times the cost. The staging lights were flown in from all over Malaysia which many arrived broken, and those intact not much more powerful than a bedroom lamp.

Bowie wrote that those are just a few examples he could list.

During the performance, the Singapore authorities separated Bowie from the audience with a 20-metre ramp between the first row and stage.

Notable mention of Dr Goh Poh Seng

Dr Goh Poh Seng
Dr Goh Poh Seng

In his recollection, he noted how the local promoter, Dr Goh Poh Seng, Singaporean dramatist, novelist, doctor and poet, “risked his livelihood, bank balance, and even his freedom” to get him and his band into Singapore.

Dr Goh opened Singapore’s first theatre disco lounge, Rainbow Lounge, opposite the Hard Rock Cafe. and had arranged Bowie to perform at the lounge. But the impromptu guest appearance by Bowie at the Rainbow Lounge was busted by the authorities. The authorities also threatened Dr Goh with imprisonment if he should get up on stage and sing.

They later revoked his licence to run the Rainbow Lounge due to an alleged indecent performance of its resident band, Speedway over the incident.

Despite organising the first David Bowie concert in Singapore, the event incurred huge expenses due to local resistance and was poorly received by the public. As a result, he lost his company, Hujong Enterprise.

David Bowie’s recollection of his experience in Singapore.

When asked for his feelings on the Serious Moonlight Tour ’83 by the publishers of his tour book. Bowie gave a description of a day of what he went through and hoping that would provide a partial idea of his tour.

Below is his write up on his experience

“Whenever the faces of stewardesses blanch gray-white with fear, and the overhead cupboards open and spill their contents, I hold my little metal Buddha tight and press the crucifix to my chest and tell myself it’s just another airplane landing. As near-hurricane winds knock about the inevitable D.C. 10 and pea-soup clouds annihilate even a fantasy of visibility, I hold back the urge to scream, and I remember how bad driving in New York can be these days. But then, even before I have formulated these thoughts into pure terror, the clouds are sucked upward and away, and we are two and a half inches above the waters of Singapore.

For me the Eastern leg of a tour is always the carrot. For the rest, however magical the chemistry of the performance, they day-to-day mechanics of getting from city to city are draining and monumentally boring. That’s the stick.”

“During the cab ride to the Ming Court Hotel, I direct a string of unrelenting tourist questions at the driver. Where’s the old part of town? Is this the Arab or Chinese or Malay section? Why are they pulling down all the picturesque stuff? He lets know in no uncertain terms that the new apartment blocks with their bathrooms and air conditioning are far more in favor with families of five or six than are the rat- and cockroach-infested unsanitary slums that I take as local color. I’m crushed. He then goes on to tell me about the recent drug-related hangings. “Many people hang one day. Fourteen years old up to seventy. Death just for smoking the hashish. We clean up town.”

The driver also lets slip how hard it is for him to keep up the relentless upward spiralling cost of living. He hasn’t ever had a holiday and thinks he may have taken a dew days off work about four years ago. “But everybody works,” he says. “Singapore will be next Hong Kong.”

When I move into my suite at the Ming Court Hotel, the little Malay porter indicates the three-tone carpet, the ten-channel T.V. He is bursting with pride about the bathrooms but is visually awed by the three hundred square feet of personal freedom. He paces the room from wall to wall. “So much space,” he sighs.

The Singapore authorities are not friendly toward rock & roll. Two of my songs, “China Girl” and “Modern Love”, were banned from radio play. “Restricted,” as they say. Our wonderful and fearless promoter, Dr. Goh Pohseng, risked his livelihood, bank balance, and even his freedom to get me and my band into his country. When the authorities heard I was going to an impromptu guest appearance at this youth club two days before our major gig, they busted it, banned the resident band for indecent performance, and threatened Dr. Pohseng with imprisonment if a guest of the club – (me) – should get up on stage and sing. He also faced incredible local resistance in getting the staging and lights together. When he asked for three yards of cable, local supplier – knowing it was for rock & roll – would only sell him a 100-yard drum. No one would lease him timber for the stage, so he ended up buying an architect-designed permanent structure at ten times the cost… and so it went, over and over.

The lights were flown in from all over Malaysia. Many arrived broken, and those intact not much more powerful than a bedroom lamp. But, good lord, he tried.

I am supposed to say something to the children in the Singapore audience. These children who are doomed to ride the up escalator forever. These American-designed fiber glass light-conducting interested-inscrutable faces. I stand on a beautifully improvised high-tech kitchen-unit stage, and I am shocked at how loose-eyed and shoddy my songs seem in the face of the fact that these green- and red-streaked kids represent a thousand-year-old culture. As if in agreement with the cultural difference, the local authorities have separated me from the kids with a 65-foot ramp between the first row and stage. I do mean kids and I do mean separated!”

“I rip through a welcome and an introduction to the band in Chinese. It is received with dutiful sympathy by the crowd as my pronunciation is so dreadful that not one word is understood. The audience end of the ramp is so far away from the band that I am singing half a beat behind them. I look back and see a tiny, jumping Carlos Alomar leading a badly lit rock & roll group. I peer out and see paramilitary cops at the ratio of about one to two with the first row. They finger their billy clubs, their hands on their guns. My jacked style is designer Tokyo – skyscrapers and diamante searchlights. There is so much lacquer in my hair that a hurricane couldn’t move it. My shirt is held into my pants by elastic thongs round my legs. I have two pairs of socks on because over oversized shoes. I am imploring the crowd, “put on your red shoes”… there is a scream of recognition – 15,000 strong. A tiger-print-clad girl is slapped back over the security boundary by a ferocious swing of a billy club.

In a city where you can be arrested for chewing gum, a demand to put on red shoes is deemed unhealthy.

The warm night air bathes our bodies, and the scents and smells of the East grown stronger as the evening grows longer. For a moment I feel I am playing to the tiger-infested jungle that existed here until the arrival of concrete a few short decades ago. There is an audible breakdown of reserve as curious uplifting faces recognize this song, then that one. They are singing along. It is an overwhelming experience for me and for any artist, I suppose, to see an audience of a culture ostensibly so far removed from one’s own, singing along. It may not should like a big deal, but for one night it can mean everything.

Now we are all dancing and loving each other and having the greatest of times. We are back for an encore, and the crowds swell up over the ramp. We touch hands and inspire each other on. All at once my songs sound very good, and I get another elusive glimpse of how lucky I am to be doing what I do. I think (of) my tour again.”