My dad's love affair with karaoke helped him through divorce, pandemic

Only one thing was constant through the good and bad times. Karaoke.

Mothership | May 09, 2022, 09:38 AM

Now that karaoke studios have reopened, Singaporeans can resume one of their favourite hobbies — belting their favourite tunes in KTV studios. This writer reflects on how karaoke singing has been a constant pillar of emotional support for his dad, and by extension, himself over the years. 

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My father is a man of few words. He is not the kind who will openly say "I love you" or hug me when I feel low. He shows his love in other ways such as nagging me to eat right or telling me to take care of my job properly.

However, the steely man who minds his own business transforms into a different person during karaoke sessions.

With a microphone cupped in his hands and eyes glued to the TV screen, he sings the lyrics melodically and aloud. His voice reverberates across the four walls with a vibrant timbre. Strings of emotions are felt like a collision of colours in an art piece.

In that space, my father becomes the highlight of the show with an imaginary spotlight cast on him. He becomes his own superstar and is lost in the moment's glory. Karaoke means the world to him, it's in his blood.

It began in the late 80s

My father served his National Service at the General Supply Base in the now-defunct Keat Hong Camp.

That was where his love affair with karaoke started — an inter-department singing contest where he pitted his singing skills against 11 others. He was one of two who made it to the finals. The other contestant became a media celebrity and a radio DJ for Class 95 FM.

Photo by Pexels

Charming the audience

To this day, my father remembers with clarity his performance during the finals.

He took the stage — full of gusto and confidence — and sang "Lady" by Lionel Richie. His voice reverberated in the hall, passionate and strong. The longing in his voice tugged at the audience's hearts.

When he finished the song, there was a short moment of silence followed by rounds of applause from the roaring crowd. My father smiled and waved at the audience before he made his exit.

That emotional rendition nabbed him the top prize — a trophy and the honour of being the Karaoke King of Keat Hong Camp.

During my childhood

Since I was a boy, I remember my father being quite the karaoke connoisseur.

Our living room was decked with the latest Kenwood sound system — complete with 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound, an audio mixer, a laserdisc player and two microphones — in the late 90s.

Photo by StockSnap

He worked as a salesman at the time and whenever he had a day off, I would hear him singing in the living room.

On some days, I would follow him to a record store where we browsed through the karaoke catalogues to add to our laserdisc collection. I remember my tiny hands flipping through the large discs slowly as I read the song titles behind the disc sleeves.

Marrying passion and work

At work, his passion for karaoke became an advantage. Often, he would demonstrate a karaoke sound system's quality by singing his favourite songs through it.

Prospective customers would usually fall for his charming persona and voice, leaving them with no doubt that their product choice was top notch. My father managed to sell a bunch of these karaoke sound systems every month during his heyday, earning him the title of the top salesman for many consecutive months.

A family of singers

Perhaps the best of times was when I was 11 years old.

My father and his siblings would initiate gatherings across the border in Johor Bahru. We booked outdoor restaurants with karaoke facilities and brought along our individual karaoke compact disc collections.

We spent the nights singing to our hearts' content. My late grandmother even learnt how to use the karaoke system during one of these sessions, thanks to my father and his siblings' encouragement. It was quite a comical yet heartwarming sight to behold.

I picked up several neat tips and tricks for singing from my father during this time. We would karaoke together at home in preparation for family gatherings, where each family would try to outdo the next in mini karaoke competitions.

Good times don't last

Sadly, this didn't last. My father went through a huge divorce when I was 15 years old and we lost our home soon after.

This marked the beginning of dark times for my family. Losing our home took a huge toll on him.

He felt dejected at his situation, blaming himself for not keeping us intact. Overwhelmed by a deluge of emotions, karaoke singing became his coping mechanism, an outlet for him to pour his emotional struggles.

It also became one of the main family activities that we did during this dark period.

He would pick my sister and me from my mother's residence and we would go to a Cash Studio outlet at Orchard Road.

There, we spent hours singing together although these sessions were more melancholic than usual. Even though he sang the same songs — ballads from the 80s and 90s — the words were tinged with heartbreak and despair. It made my heart ache.

Living in Johor Bahru

My father was not at a good point in his life at that time. Financially, we were also not in a good place.

When we lost our rented room in 2010, when I was 17, my father moved us across the border to Johor Bahru where we stayed for two years after he remarried.

Photo by Lionel Lim

Our time there was spent going to many different karaoke outlets. We would let our guard down and be happy inside the karaoke rooms.

In a way, these rooms were safe havens and sacred spaces for us. It didn't matter what went on outside. Inside these rooms, my dad could let go of life's cruel reality for a moment and be merry.

The early years of Covid-19

Fast forward to 2020.

My father was fresh out of another divorce again in December 2019 and shortly after, Covid-19 came upon us — calamity after calamity.

The circuit breaker was one of the toughest periods that my father faced. He was a Grab driver during this time and his source of income was swiftly cut because of the pandemic. By then, karaoke outlets had already closed and there was no outlet for him.

Consequently, he became more withdrawn — often staying in his room and not coming out for days. It was a pitiful sight to see. He did try to find alternatives to karaoke singing, like using a social singing app.

For a period, this was what he did every week. I could hear him singing loudly in his room when I was working from my own room. While it was good to hear him singing again, I felt disturbed because I could not concentrate on my work.

A clash

When the rules eased in 2021, my father reconnected with his old friends and found out that they had a "new" karaoke system at home. Curious, he went over and discovered a portable karaoke system consisting of two rechargeable microphones and a hub. It could be connected to a television set and users could choose their songs via a native app — it was the epitome of convenience for karaoke lovers.

My father immediately bought one and started singing again. Loudly. In the house.

I won't deny that the constant singing annoyed me a lot since I had to work from home.

The annoyance soon reached a tipping point.

One day, stressed out by an impending deadline and frustrated by the non-stop blaring activity in the living room, I snapped.

Furious words were exchanged in the heat of the moment, followed by weeks of sulking.

I felt bad for being the one who "instigated" an argument, but I had to get the message across to him. Even so, it didn't make the subsequent cold treatment from my father any easier to endure.

So I gave him time to cool down, and waited for an opportunity to find a solution to this pickle.

I tried to find ways to "capture" back my father's heart. I made breakfast for him, bought him meals for lunch and even joined one of his home karaoke sessions.

Eventually, I brought up the topic again — the issue that triggered the cold war. I spoke to him gently about how it affected my work and tried to help him understand the problem from my perspective.

We eventually managed to reach a compromise afterwards; no singing when I'm working at home.

A part of me is a part of you

Through the years, many things have changed. There were good times and bad times. Some were more preferable than others, but all of these moments defined my family and me.

However, one thing stayed constant in my dad's life: his passion for karaoke singing.

We had our differences and our fair share of annoying moments, but that doesn't change the fact that karaoke makes him happy.

Seeing that spark in his eyes come back is precious and I wouldn't exchange that for anything in the world.

In some ways, his fiery passion for karaoke shines in me too.

Though my passion for singing doesn't burn as bright, I continued it in another form: By taking up the guitar and performing on several different stages throughout my late teens and well into my 20s.

Who knows, maybe one day, I might start a love affair with karaoke too.

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Top photo credit: Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash