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Melvin Ong was only 28 when an accident left him paralysed from the chest down.
While working at a 2019 gig with his three-piece band Hrvst (pronounced “harvest") at the Esplanade’s Annexe Studio, Ong — the band’s vocalist and bass player — fell off the stage and damaged his spinal cord.
The next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) some 20 hours later unable to move or speak. Breathing was only possible with the help of a ventilator.
While there are few things that can turn your world upside down the way paralysis can, Ong has tragically had to suffer another life-altering event.
Earlier this year in August, he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.
“There’s no chance of recovery, and only a small chance of managing it with oral medication,” wrote Ong on his Instagram.
“Chemotherapy will only deteriorate my health further. So yeah, there’s really nothing more to do or say."
Doctors gave him about three months to live. “I just hope my remaining time left here will be nice”, Ong added.
"One for the Road"
I first met Ong at the lobby of his parent’s Hillview condominium one weekend morning in October 2022, three years after his accident and two months after his cancer diagnosis.
He and his friends were organising a gig that day — something of a bucket-list activity for Ong.
The show was called “One for the Road”.
It would feature four different bands from Singapore’s underground scene, as well as a Malaysian hardcore punk outfit.
In the car park of the condominium, Ong and his friends milled about cracking jokes and running through the day’s schedule while they waited for the van that would transport them and their equipment to the show.
Dressed in a black hooded sweatshirt bearing the logo of his own streetwear brand Green Spell, Ong conversed with a slow effortful cadence with deep breaths punctuating every few words he spoke.
He told me that he rarely ever left the vicinity of his house for activities other than hospital visits, as hiring the kind of vehicle needed to transport him and his motorised wheelchair was costly.
When the van finally arrived, I could see why — the rear door of the vehicle opened up to reveal a hydraulic platform which once lowered, Ong duly rolled onto.
Once everything and everyone was loaded into the back of the van, we headed off. The location, the group reminded the driver, was the Esplanade.
"Music changed my life"
Ever since he was young, Ong suffered from chronic depression and anxiety.
To him, music — both listening and performing it — served as an outlet; “it helped me get through the toughest and darkest times,” he said.
He first developed a strong interest in the sonic arts, when as a secondary school student he discovered genres beyond mainstream pop music.
Naturally, as intrigue turned into obsession, Ong began to pick up instruments and by the age of 17, he had become a part of Singapore’s local hardcore music scene, playing in different bands.
Soon, his music would gain an audience outside of Singapore, as Ong embarked on a series of tours in Asia, Europe, and America.
“The shortest tours were about a week, and the longest one we’ve done was about a month and a half,” Ong said.
“It was basically driving from city to city, playing shows back to back with no rest days.
These tours have had such an impact on me. I’ve experienced things that I can proudly say that no one else would ever get a chance to experience.”
Ong’s last band, Hrvst, a doom metal outfit, was especially meaningful to him, having also involved two of his best friends.
“Music changed my life,” he told me.
And while his accident and subsequent paralysis have meant that Ong can no longer perform, he was still determined to contribute to a scene that he felt a great deal of gratitude for.
After receiving his cancer diagnosis, Ong took some time to figure out what he wanted to achieve with his limited time left.
“One of the first two things that came to my mind was that I hadn’t been to a show or played a show in over two years,” he said.
“Because of that I wanted to do a show that is properly organised, giving the bands the sound they deserve, with a good venue, and a with a huge amount of space.
A lot of the bands have given me a lot of opportunities to do things that I have always dreamt of as a child. So I feel like doing this concert is a form of giving back to the community. I guess it’s also the least that I can do for all of them.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if come the night of the show, Ong would feel a tinge of regret and longing as he watched his friends take the stage.
“I would give up anything and everything, just to play music again.”
“I mean besides my family and friends,” he added.
"He's super brother"
When we arrived at the Esplanade Annexe Studio, several of Ong’s friends and members of the bands due to the play that evening were already waiting outside with amplifiers and instruments.
Once inside, everyone gathered for a final briefing, before splintering off to complete tasks like setting up the merchandise table and test the lighting.
Ong zipped around on this motorised wheelchair, steering it with a contraption that had been custom made to allow him to operate the chair with his mouth, while the bands began their sound checks.
He planted himself at various parts of the performance space, and stared at the very same stage he had fallen off, listening intently on how the mix of distorted guitar, gnarled vocals, and crashing cymbals sounded through the house speakers.
At the entrance of the venue, I spoke with Darren — a big, tall, heavily tattooed man with a genial disposition who had been a part of the group accompanying Ong from his house to the Esplanade.
He recalled arriving at the hospital the night of Ong’s accident; “As soon as I saw the faces of his family, I knew something was wrong,” Darren said.
Not knowing what to do, Darren went and got food for the Ongs. Like everyone else, he was devastated upon discovering the extent to his friend’s injury.
“I don’t want to treat Melvin differently,” Darren told me.
“We’ll still f**k him up if he does or says something stupid.”
Another friend, Noel, told me that he’d quit his job in China and returned to Singapore after hearing about Ong’s injury.
“He’s super brother,” said Ben — who’s known Ong since their days in polytechnic — offering an explanation for the affection many displayed for 31-year-old.
“He's the kind of guy that would back you up for anything. And he's the kind of guy who will open opportunities for you as well.
When I heard the news, I actually broke down at my office table. It hit me because there was a very real possibility that I was going to lose a very very good friend.”
All three were determined to make sure that “One for the Road” would be the perfect send-off for someone they cared so deeply about.
Ong’s accident was the start of a long stint in ICU — nearly a 100 days.
He’d fractured several bones in his neck, and would never be able to recover movement of his limbs again.
So many of the things he’d done almost as second nature — perform on stage, travel the world — were snatched away from him in an instant.
“It made me angry,” Ong said of his quadriplegic condition.
“My patience levels were bad, and I just felt like I wasn’t actually treating the people around me the way that I should be treating them because everyone was trying to help me.”
“He’s actually a f**king stubborn guy,” Ben said of Ong.
“The people that really know him, we all feel that way as well. But its not exactly a bad thing as well because I think his stubborn nature actually helped speed up his recovery process... he was warded in July, and by October or November he was out of the hospital, but he was meant to stay for much, much longer.”
As the evening rolled around on the night of the show, a large crowd of people gathered outside the Annexe Studio, queuing up in an orderly fashion that belied the scruffy, grunge appearance and fashion that many had adopted.
The queue led to a table where show organises handed out the wristbands with the phrase “Give Thanks” printed on them; these would give attendees entrance to the venue.
Inside, before the show began, a surprise announcement was made.
Unbeknownst to Ong, someone had printed a larger-than-life standee, which featured an image of him from a previous gig. The standee would be placed on stage, ensuring that at least spiritually, Ong would get to play one last show.
Once the music got underway, the crowd cast off restraint and descended into a riotous party of headbanging, moshpits, and stage diving.
As each of the five bands played through their setlists, Ong watched from the left wing nodding along to the music. He was attended to by friends and his domestic helper who ensured he took his medication on time.
For a while, his mother came to show her support. With half her face obscured by a surgical mask, it was hard to get a read on exactly what she thought of the show. But at the very least the glint in her eyes betrayed a sense of awe and pride at what her son had accomplished.
When the show came to a close, those in attendance slowly filtered out of the Annexe Studio, stopping by the merchandise booth to look through the Green Spell shirts on sale, or to say hi to Ong and wish him the best.
In a matter of hours, the place had completely emptied out. Security from Esplanade arrived to quickly inspect that everything was in order before switching off the clinical house lights, plunging the studio into complete darkness.
"It's very mundane"
Together with my colleagues who were filming a documentary on Ong, I caught up with him again at his house just over two weeks after “One for the Road”.
By every possible metric, the show had been a total success, though to Ong only one thing really mattered — “I’m happy that everyone had a good time,” he said.
However, the experience had a melancholic tinge to it.
“I’m sad that it’s over,” Ong said.
“I wish I could do something like that again, or — okay maybe I shouldn’t say I wish — I would love to do something like that again. But, at this point, since the concert is over, my life has kinda been back to normal.”
Ong's days usually start with medication and stretching, done with the aid of the family’s domestic helper Atika. Afterwards, he then starts work — completing administrative work for his brother’s business which he does with the help of a programme that tracks his eye movement.
If he’s feeling up for it, he’ll move from his hospital-style bed to his wheelchair and head outside to catch some fresh air.
In his spare time, Ong works on projects like his streetwear label Green Spell, or painting by holding a brush between his teeth.
“It’s very mundane. I don’t actually get to be out and about,” he told me of his day-to-day.
Nowadays, Ong’s routine has had to accommodate treatment for his cancer, which includes chemotherapy every few weeks.
He is unable to receive the full dosage of the anti-cancer drug as doctors fear that his body, already affected by paralysis, might not be able to handle it.
Nonetheless, the chemotherapy sessions leave Ong feeling extremely tired and weak for a few days.
All this occurs in between increasingly regular hospitalisation stints.
"To make the best of it"
As a writer, I often find it tempting to look for a so-called “nice” ending to a story, hoping in the course of my reporting to find some sort of resolution to the conflicts my subjects face.
One instance that doesn’t fit neatly is Ong’s admission that he hasn’t yet come to terms with his spinal cord injury, three years after the fact.
“I don’t think that I ever will, as long as I’m still around,” he said to me one day over text.
“The damage it has done to my life is indescribable. It has taken everything away from me, it has ruined my life. I could have done so much more.”
At times he’s felt more optimistic about the future — I remember once speaking to him just after a doctor's appointment and Ong seemed heartened by the news that the chemo seemed to be working — but there are other moments when he seems in a darker mood, having been confronted by the fragility of his life.
“I’m doing okay I guess, not great that’s for sure,” he once texted me.
The one silver lining (if you can call it that) to Ong’s cancer diagnosis is that it gave him a renewed sense to spend his remaining time purposefully.
“I think after my diagnosis I was just in a blank space. I would say it took me about two to three days to actually process everything. One thing for sure is that I don’t want to die, and that is something that I have actually wished for [in the past].
Every day I was just waking up, asking myself ‘why am I still here?’ I was just sick of this world. I hated everything. But with the diagnosis it really made me realise how life is very important and one shouldn’t take life lightly.”
“I really just want to make the best of it,” he said.
Yet to try and present Ong’s story in a neat, comforting package would be to do it a disservice.
The person that I got to interact with and observe over the course of several interviews, was instead a testament to the struggle that eventually we all must face.
It was confrontating and at times disquieting. And just like Ong, all we can do in the meantime is try to leave behind a positive impact on the people we love and the memory of someone who lived life well.
At his home, I watched while Ong’s father flipped wistfully through decades of old photos of the family. Every now and then he’d stop at a photo and linger on it for longer.
“That’s Melvin,” he said to me proudly, holding up an image of Ong smiling as a toddler.
Top image by Andrew Koay
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